Let's Get Smart Before Jay Leno Flies Into Town 

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

Rochester, MN -- In one of his trademark random interviews with young Americans, Jay Leno chatted recently on a Los Angeles street with a cheerful young man decked out in blue jeans and a head of frizzy blond hair.

"Who was the leader of Germany in World War II?" Leno asked.

"Hitler?" the young man ventured.

"What was his first name?"

"Just Hitler, wasn't it?"

"Hitler Hitler? He didn't have a first name? Was it Robert?"

"He was just known as Hitler. Like Cher."

American ignorance of world history, geography and politics is an all-too-accurate cliché of our times. Not only Jay Leno but the National Geographic Society confirmed it last year with a study showing that among Americans aged 18 to 24, almost 30 percent could not identify the Pacific Ocean on a map. More than half could not locate India, and 85 percent could not find Iraq. The young people of America, the richest and most powerful country in the world, ranked next to last in the nine countries surveyed.

What are the causes of this appalling ignorance and what are its possible consequences in economic, cultural and homeland security terms here in southeastern Minnesota?

Randy Nelson, the Rochester public school official in charge of curriculum, says that 9/11, the war on terrorism, the homeland security initiative and the war in Iraq have all made school officials more acutely aware of the need to better educate Rochester's young people about the world.

Graduation Requirements

"Sometimes I'll say 'globalization' or 'competitive economy' to parents, and they say they think that's bogus," Nelson said. "They think we shouldn't teach that stuff. That must change. We need to be able to explain to kids and to parents that we are going to study this or that foreign culture, not only because it's in the textbook but because it has a very specific impact on us locally. Sometimes that component is missing."

Lack of such knowledge will translate into greater security risks, cultural wasting and lost economic opportunities in our community, Nelson said.

For example, Irish entrepreneurism has already resulted in that country taking up to 60 percent of the business in the processing of U.S. health insurance claims.

Despite the heightened sense of urgency brought by 9/11 and more recent global developments, however, the local public school curriculum hasn't yet changed. There is still no graduation requirement to take either geography or foreign language classes at the Rochester public schools.

There are many other roots of America's ignorance of the world, of course, than the failings of our public schools.

Our history as a nation of immigrants, surprisingly, is one. Historically, many immigrants to the United States consciously tried to erase their memories of their home countries, their native languages and their troubled pasts. That has tended to increase our national amnesia about America's international history and connections.

Local Opportunities

Yet by sharing their deep knowledge of foreign lands and trends, immigrants have often played a powerful role in the opposite direction, too.

As a community where one in 10 local residents was not born in the United States, Rochester is an ideal place to ask which of these trends dominates here. Are new immigrants in this community trying to forget their pasts? Or are they taking on the responsibility of teaching us what they know? That is, are they sharing with us their treasure? Have we even asked them to?

"It's a question that is under-considered," said Ron Buzard, director of the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association, which offers legal and other services to immigrants in southeast Minnesota. "Too many times we look at immigrants only in terms of what help they need from us. In fact, they have much they can teach us, such as foreign languages, human survival skills and important human values we may lack here in the U.S."

The national news media, which over the past decade has cut back on international news, is often criticized for failing to meet its public obligations to educate a democratic citizenry. It's fair to ask whether our local TV anchors, radio announcers and print journalists are meeting the same set of challenges at the community level. Are they making a point to seek, to reveal and to analyze the local effects of global causes? The local opportunities of global trends? The local dangers of global threats?

The man and woman on the street play a big role here, too. Sure, we need our local public schools and our local media to do a better job educating us. But don't we as individuals also have a responsibility to educate ourselves? Lest one day we embarrass ourselves before an international audience, if nothing else.

After all, with the Mayo Clinic and IBM here, we are truly a global small town. It might pay to get smart about American history and world geography before Jay Leno flies in and starts asking questions.

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report