Outward Bound

America may be turning inward, but thank goodness the rest of the world isn't too.


As the U.S. Republican presidential primary has staggered on over the past few weeks, one candidate was forced to sing "America the Beautiful" to shore up his patriotic bona fides after having been accused of speaking French. But there is good news for those who believe that talking in the language of l’amour is the first step to a socialized medical system that will force priests to distribute condoms with communion wafers: Fewer and fewer schools are actually teaching French.

In fact, a decreasing number of primary and secondary schools are teaching any foreign language at all. That’s one sign of a continued disengagement between Americans and a planet they have such a big impact on — and could gain so much from engaging more closely with. Perhaps it helps to shore up Fortress America by ensuring fewer and fewer people inside the walls know anything about what is beyond them. But it does seem like a lost opportunity.

There are some helpful signs when it comes to Americans’ interactions with the rest of the world. Some 260,000 U.S. students studied abroad in the 2008-2009 academic year, up from around 75,000 20 years ago. More than 1 million Americans reported volunteering abroad in 2008. And of course, a lot of people come to the United States to visit or stay. Just shy of 60 million tourists came to the United States in 2010, according to the World Bank. Add to that the 723,000 foreign students studying in the country and all those who come to the United States to work. A little over 6.3 percent of the U.S. population is non-citizen, and another 5 percent are naturalized, according to the Census Bureau. But the other 89 percent really need to get out more. Most Americans are still incredibly insular, and that costs the country dear.

What do Americans know about the rest of world? A 2006 survey prepared for the National Geographic Society of 18-to-24-year-olds found that fewer than four in 10 could find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, and only one in 10 could find Afghanistan on a map of Asia. Better news was that nearly seven out of ten could find China on the Asia map, which is more than could find Louisiana, Mississippi, or New York state on a map of the United States. Still, the gaps are considerable — and they also show up when it comes to language. Four in 10 18-to-24-year-olds in the United States claim to speak a foreign language fluently, but only 14 percent of Americans as a whole know conversational Spanish. Any other language is way behind that.

Unfortunately, chances are that those numbers will go down rather than up in the future. The percentage of U.S. elementary and middle schools offering foreign-language instruction fell between 1997 and 2008 — from 75 percent to 58 percent in the case of middle schools, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics. On top of that, the number of languages offered also declined. For example, French used to be offered at nearly half of U.S. middle schools in 1997, but was offered at less than a quarter 11 years later. Chinese, as you might imagine, saw big gains (well, relatively): A little more than 2 percent of middle schools offer the language, up from below 1 percent in 1997.

Don’t worry, though. Not many Americans will get lost on their way overseas or be confused when they get there, because they aren’t going overseas in the first place. In 2008, the United States actually saw fewer of its citizens travel abroad as tourists than Britain or Germany, despite having a considerably larger population. Only one in five 18-to-24-year-olds in the United States even has a passport.

It is easy enough to blame the media or schools for American disengagement with the world. A number of commentators noted recently that Time and Newsweek vary their domestic and international cover stories, picking fluffy stories for U.S. readers over breaking news abroad. Clearly they have decided that articles about Glenn Beck, Thomas Edison, and anxiety are of more interest to magazine-rack browsers in the United States than the throes of the Arab Spring, the rise of China, or international asylum-seekers. In editors’ defense, they’re surely right, and it only reflects a broader disengagement of the media from international affairs. The Tyndall Report notes that for 2011, three international stories were among the top five in terms of network news coverage — Libya, Egypt, and the Japanese quake. But total coverage of international news was still below the level of the early 1990s, and those top three stories (plus the British royal wedding and the Syrian uprising) accounted for half of all foreign coverage on the ABC, NBC, and CBS television networks. That doesn’t leave much space for covering a banner year for African growth or progress toward global elimination of polio.

In fact, as a rule, the foreign news that is reported is about death, violence, and despair. "If it bleeds, it leads" holds for international news as much as local coverage — it just takes a lot more pints of blood to get on the television if it isn’t from American veins. An analysis by Boston University’s Denis Wu looked at foreign news coverage in two weeks of 2003 on CNN and the New York Times print edition. It found 560 stories covering foreign affairs. Iraq alone accounted for one-quarter of all stories. Add in the rest of the Middle East and Afghanistan, and that climbs to 38 percent. China got 3 percent; Brazil got 1.6 percent. And if the news is focused on war and tragedy, perhaps it’s unsurprising that few Americans realize the rest of the world is increasingly healthy, wealthy, peaceful, and educated. That’s a shame, because all this health and wealth provide incredible opportunities for Americans — not least to trade, invest, or travel abroad for education and health care.

And there’s a lot of work for America to do out there. While U.S. exports have been climbing, 140 economies (out of 146 with export data from the World Bank in 2010) exported more than the United States when measured as a share of their GDPs. Only Nepal, Brazil, Haiti, Ethiopia, and Tonga did worse than the U.S. export share (13 percent of GDP), according to the World Bank. Afghanistan outdid the United States by 2 percentage points of GDP. And China’s export share was more than twice as big, at 30 percent.

Or look at investment trends. According to World Bank data, in 2010 U.S. net outflows of foreign direct investment — where American investors were taking a 10 percent or larger share of a foreign company — amounted to 2.4 percent of U.S. GDP. Twenty economies were above it in that share — compare Germany on 3.3 percent of GDP, Chile at 4.1 percent, or Singapore on 9.5 percent. Meanwhile, U.S. undergraduates overseas accounted for only 0.4 percent of the global total of people studying abroad for their tertiary education — and nearly half of those brave enough to venture outside America’s borders got only as far as Britain. That hardly counts as exotic in an era where Brits win half the Oscars and present the Golden Globes every year.

If there is a silver lining to this cloud of Americans’ disengagement, it is that other countries aren’t doing so badly. We have seen there are 20 economies with a higher share of GDP going to foreign direct investment that the United States, and 140 that are exporting more. These countries are reaping the gains of closer global engagement — in terms of stronger economic performance and greater technology transfer. There’s at least the hope that the closer economic ties will make them less likely to go to war, too. Americans benefit from being in that richer and more pacific world — even if they could do even better by venturing out into it a little more often.

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