What College-Aged Students Know (and Don't Know) About the World

What College-Aged Students Know (and Don't Know) About the World

Mike Hutchings/Reuters

More on:

Global

Polls and Public Opinion

A survey, commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the National Geographic Society, highlights significant gaps in what college-aged students understand about the world and what they need to know in order to contend with a world that is more interconnected than ever. Susan Goldberg, Richard N. Haass, and Gary E. Knell discuss the survey findings (conducted by ARC Research), the importance of global and geographic literacy, and what both organizations are doing to help prepare young Americans for an increasingly interconnected world.

DOZIER: Welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic Society meeting on what college-aged students know and don’t know about the world.

Now, the headlines of this poll that we’re about to discuss are disturbing. College-aged Americans have surprising gaps in their knowledge of geography, the environment, demographics, U.S. foreign policy, recent international events, and economics. So how can they be active citizens and informed voters? And how can we help them fill in these gaps?

So here to answer some of those questions are Susan Goldberg, editorial director of the National Geographic Partners and editor in chief of National Geographic Magazine; Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations; and Gary Knell, president and chief executive officer of the National Geographic Society.

Now, the survey they’ve jointly sponsored was conducted by Applied Research and Consulting among 1,203 people aged 18 to 26 who currently attend or have recently attended a college or university in the U.S., whether a two-year or a four-year institution.

On the knowledge questions asked, the average score was only 55 percent correct. Just 29 percent of the respondents earned a minimal pass of 66 percent correct or better. And just over 1 percent—that’s only 17 out of the 1,203 students—earned an A, which was 91 percent or higher.

So with that grim overview, let’s dig deeper. Of all the questions that they failed to ask, where were the biggest gaps? Who wants to jump in with that?

HAASS: Well, I’ll jump in. It’s good to see you here this morning. It’s great to be partnering with Gary and Susan and National Geographic. And this issue, I think, is one of the most important issues before us, not simply as organizations but as a society.

The gaps are worrisome across the board—the knowledge deficits; the fact that people didn’t know some of the basics about immigration, the fact that over the last five years more people have gone from the United States to Mexico than vice versa.

Some of the basic obligations of American foreign policy; barely one in four of the respondents knew something about, say, the U.S. requirement, obligation, to come to Japan’s defense if it were to be attacked.

The basics of civics; that in order to go to war, it’s Congress that has the constitutional right or obligation to declare war. That piece of civics is missing.

Some basics of foreign policy; that one in 10 were close to being accurate, one in 10, about the percentage of the budget that goes to foreign aid.

So what we’re seeing here is a pattern across the board, whether your issues—and I’ll let Gary and Susan speak more to the geographic issues—but basic questions of foreign policy, of international relations, of geography in the largest sense of the word, we’re just seeing a consistent pattern of knowledge deficits. And we’ll talk later about why this might be the consequences and what might be done to address it.

But I don’t think one can challenge the basic conclusion about what young people, students and former students, essentially what it is they know.

DOZIER: Susan, how do they do in filling in a map, for instance, a blank map?

GOLDBERG: Not all that well. I was pretty surprised that only something like 63 percent realized the Alps were in Europe, and I thought of all the obvious questions. And only 31 percent could identify where Israel was on a map. So that really shocked me, because this same group of students, more than 80 percent of them say knowledge of current foreign affairs is really, really important.

Yet they’re not really acting on that, because there are such huge gaps, you know, in identifying what are the big issues going on in the world. Most of them really couldn’t say that Brexit and the United Kingdom were linked in current affairs. They couldn’t say that Syrians coming to Germany was a big problem in current affairs. So they realize it’s important, but yet somehow they’re not taking the steps to inform themselves.

DOZIER: And yet some of the questions that they got mostly right were, like, guessing the number of U.S. troops—well, I say guessing; you can see where I’m coming from with this question—identifying the number of U.S. troops in South Korea. Did they really know, or was it one of these things where everyone’s taught in the SAT you never leave an answer blank?

KNELL: Well, it could be that, you know, part of it—I was thinking about this, and I don’t know why I thought about this. There was a movie in 1979 called “Breaking Away.” Some of you might remember that; big bicycling movie. And there’s a line in that movie that stuck with me where they say how you doing, guys? They were in the locker room. He says, well, we’re deeply disturbed about developments in the Middle East. And it was like a laugh line—(laughter)—everyone in the audience.

Now, I know that’s not a joke at the Council on Foreign Relations. (Laughter.) But for the average American—in that case it was in Indiana; they were Hoosiers—it was, you know, something to kind of make fun of.

And now we are 40-some years later. There are nearly twice as many people on this earth—twice as many people. There were 4 billion people when I graduated high school. Today there’s almost 8 billion. The implications of that are just massive, and the stakes are higher than ever. So whether it’s military, whether it’s economic, whether it is environmental, these are issues now which are critical.

And I think it’s no longer sort of a laughing matter that we can make jokes at, and the fact that less than half of the students—and these are college students, by the way, college students who failed—less than 50 percent could identify Iraq or Israel or Afghanistan on a map. And we’re asking them to go and fight our wars. And this is deeply disturbing.

DOZIER: What does that mean, the larger implications, for instance, when they go into the voting booth?

KNELL: Well, our—well, I can leave that to my colleagues here. But, you know, obviously the complexity of issues that we are all facing, that the Council does a terrific job putting out there in its primers and everything else, and that Geographic hopes to cover through our media, is—these are complex issues. And all of those things—military, economic, environmental issues—walking in as an informed citizen is critical.

We happen to believe, which we’ll talk about a little bit later, you actually have to start with pre-K. We actually believe that you go from cradle to cane learning about geography. And that’s part of what we need to address as a nation.

HAASS: You know, why do I think it matters? Gary, I think, hit the big issue, which is citizenship. We’ve got to keep our elected representatives—we’ve got to hold them to account. We have a representative democracy. But in order for our representatives to act in ways that we believe are consistent with our national and individual self-interest, we’ve got to be in a position to ask the right questions and to judge the quality of the answers. That’s one thing.

But secondly, we’re 4 percent of the world’s people, roughly a fifth of the world’s economy in terms of output. OK, but that means economically we’re competing with the rest of the world. And if we’re going to be competitive, we’ve got to have knowledge about markets. We’ve got to have knowledge about what else is going on out there.

Thirdly, we as a country, we have enormous needs. Look at our government in terms of the military, foreign service, intelligence. We have real human needs. Where are we going to get the people to fill these critical jobs who have the requisite kinds of backgrounds? Essentially we’re a permanent recruiter, and it’s in our national self-interest to recruit real talent.

Well, if our schools aren’t churning out sufficient numbers of people who have the knowledge and the interests in order for the United States to continue to play a significant role in the world, you’d have to be a real optimist to think that the world is somehow on auto-pilot and is going to do just fine without us. And I believe there’s all too much history to suggest that when the world is on—the world isn’t on auto-pilot.

There’s no alternative to a successful orderly world where the United States plays a large role. But then we have to have the young men and women prepared to play those significant roles. And this study suggests that we are not producing them in significant numbers or sufficient proportions to fulfill those needs.

DOZIER: So that leads into the question of where are they getting their information? And one of the things that surprised me about the poll was social media led the way.

GOLDBERG: Well, it did. And Facebook was the number one platform where they’re getting news and information. I was a little bit surprised that CNN was number two and ABC was number three. And then there’s a big drop-off, and down in that 20 percent range you get all the other, you know, major news services. But then you also get John Oliver and other, you know, kind of comedy news shows.

But I think we shouldn’t just dump on young people here. We need to do a much better job of giving them the information on the platforms in which they want to get it. And, you know, I think a place like National Geographic, we’ve been around 128 years. We’re this huge legacy brand. But we’re completely reinventing the way we’re putting out news and information for people.

You know, we have the largest social-media presence of any brand in the United States. We’re the biggest media brand on Instagram. We have 19 million followers on Snapchat, of all kind of surprising platforms for us. So we’re trying to figure out how do we get younger people where they are? Because, you know, they say they want to know. Well, let’s tell them. But let’s—we can’t just expect them all to pick up a newspaper or read a hard-copy magazine. I wish that were the case, but it isn’t. And so we’ve got to embrace the ways they want to learn things and tell them.

HAASS: Could I just slightly disagree, so we don’t have complete consensus up here, up to a point, up to a point? What we did here and what we asked—we surveyed young people from 18 to early 20s who either were in two- or four-year schools or recently had been.

Virtually every one of these schools—and we’ve done another study at the Council that’s associated with this one—we’ve looked at—virtually every one of these schools—indeed, every one of them—offers courses that, if students were to take them and focus on, they would be able to answer a really high percentage of the questions in the survey. And to use our favorite phrase, they would be, to one degree or another, globally literate.

The problem is not that the opportunities aren’t there in systematic ways on our campuses. The problem is schools do not require that students take these courses in order to graduate. There’s a fundamental difference between offering a course and requiring it. And what we see instead on universities is the reality of what you might call loose or relatively diffuse distribution requirements. And if you so choose, you can navigate these distribution requirements in such a way that you can fulfill them but not be able to answer the questions in a survey like this one.

So what this suggests to me is not that the resources aren’t out there, but we’ve got to make sure that students, I think, as a fulfillment of citizenship, to get them ready for a competitive economy, they actually avail themselves of these resources. So this is something for schools, for universities, conceivably high schools and younger, not simply to say we’ve got it there if you want to take it. But we have to make something of a statement as a society, as a country, that this is part of what every young person needs under his or her belt in order to meet their obligations as citizens, in order to be able to hold their own in a competitive world, because social media, for all of its strengths, is not systematic. Too many people, you know, they go onto social media and you essentially self-select what you’re comfortable with. And that to me is the danger.

DOZIER: I was just going to ask, Facebook—if they’re saying that—Facebook is not a content producer. It provides content from other places. So the other question I have is are they educated enough to know what they should check out on Snopes versus what is real versus—because various different articles get shared on Facebook with various degrees of accuracy.

I’ve found that people don’t seem to understand that the news provider matters. I’m glad, as someone on CNN, to hear that CNN is one of the things they look at. But if they’re primarily looking at what their friends share on Facebook or what’s in their Facebook stream, who’s deciding what goes in that stream?

KNELL: Yeah, I think, you know, we’re living in a pass-along kind of society now. And I think those of us as executives in running organizations—and Richard, you’ve probably had this experience too—you know, what’s changed for me—I’ve been in the media, around media, for nearly four decades—is you make a statement and it almost now doesn’t—the difference is a small newsletter can have the same impact as The New York Times. And this is what now the, I think, digital universe and the digital revolution, which we are in, in an on-demand diet now versus an—you know, an a-la-carte diet as opposed to a prefixed diet, as it was before. That is what has changed, I think. And now we see that in our politics for sure. We see politicians being able to get their message directly to consuming public, so to speak, bypassing the media in many ways, and this is changing everything. So I think it’s some combination of what Richard is promoting in terms of having a basic knowledge that I think our educators need to embrace.

Maybe we—I know I’ll get in trouble for saying this, but maybe we’ve gotten too far on the STEM bandwagon and—

DOZIER: STEM, please explain that for people who don’t—

KNELL: Science, technology, engineering, and math, which everyone was shocked 10 years ago because we were behind, you know, certain countries, and number 23 in the world, so we’ve got to push everyone into engineering now, which is critically important. But so are the humanities. So are social studies. So is understanding democracy and its roots in ancient Greece. These are really important things to understand because, you know, we’re living in a world now and history is critically important. So it’s a combination of education, and it’s a combination of what Susan is talking about in terms of figuring out ways that we can utilize these new platforms to promote big concepts.

DOZIER: And that brings us to the question of, as you mentioned, the prefixed—we used to have more of a prefixed education, and you’ve also said it needs to start in K-2. What is pre-college doing wrong? Is it—what else, other than just the emphasis on STEM?

KNELL: Well, I’m sorry, Susan, if I could jump in one second here, there’s—you know, we have swung as a country now. You know, the Bush administration and Secretary Spellings pushed No Child Left Behind. That was a Republican idea. Now, today, it’s a terrible idea, OK, that both the left and the right rejected. So now we’re back to 50 states trying to figure out how to—how to engage kids in K-12, which is the roots, yes, of our democracy in many ways. But as a country, there are certain standards I think that—you’re a kid growing up in Mississippi or a kid growing up in Massachusetts, there are certain things, I think, that you need to know about our country, and about the world and history. So we have to kind of get a balance, and I don’t think we’ve gotten it quite right.

GOLDBERG: You know, and I think one of the other issues—I’m certain not an education expert, but I think one of the issues is that people don’t know what to believe anymore. So right now, when you’re—when you go online, you never have to encounter anything that is different from your own worldview because it’s coming into your newsfeed. So you’re not—like in the old says with looking through a newspaper, you would encounter headlines that would make you go, huh, I didn’t know that; or, isn’t that interesting; or, I don’t agree with that. But now you don’t have to ever encounter anything that you don’t agree with to start with.

And the other—and one of the other issues is you don’t know it’s true. We have done a really rotten job as a media industry of helping people understand that’s real information and how to identify whether sources are credible. I worry that young people see stuff on a screen and they think it’s all the same, you know, and it’s coming from—it’s equally credible or equally not credible. We must educate people on how to figure out whether a source is credible or not, because otherwise—there was—there was just an interesting story in the Post yesterday by Margaret Sullivan talking about how some students can’t—don’t know that Osama bin Laden is dead. Now, that would be—have been a hard story to miss. (Laughter.) But—

DOZIER: And we had a presidential candidate last week who didn’t know what Aleppo was. Is it—is that all—does that all stem back from this self-selecting, I’m just going to follow stuff about Hollywood so that’s what’s going to pop up in my stream, and I’m not going to learn anything about the world?

HAASS: Well, I can’t speak to, you know, what Gary Johnson—you know, what his daily news diet is and how he got to that point. What I think the relevant question for our purposes is, that we as a society need to then challenge a candidate who doesn’t know what Aleppo is or doesn’t know some other issue, whether it’s a basic issue about immigration or trade or American obligations around the world or the impact of globalization, about why the world matters. So, whatever the issues are, we as voters are going to be asked in two months to make choices, and these choices are going to be, shall we say, consequential and then some.

You know, the other night there was the forum on Commander in Chief, and quite honestly it didn’t quite succeed, to be gentle, in getting to where it needed to. But, again, it gets back to what we were saying before. If American citizens are going to ask the right questions and be able to assess the quality of the answers for people who they—who are going to—they’re going to put into positions of authority and responsibility, who are going to make decisions that will affect all of us, we have got to know enough. We’ve got to know enough to ask the right questions. We’ve got to know enough to judge the quality of the answers. So when a candidate doesn’t know what Aleppo is or doesn’t know some other issue, we have then got to draw whatever conclusions we are going to draw about the adequacy of that person’s background to hold higher office.

And what this suggests, this survey, is that as a society we are not at that point. And among other things, I believe schools—high schools and particularly colleges, which is what we looked at the most—are not doing their part. And that—what we’re hoping comes out of this, in part, is a national conversation about just that: what we do expect.

And Gary’s point, to have conversations about things like STEM, is there a crowding-out feature of STEM? Are we sure that we have got the right answer to what it is we want our average graduate to have? And what’s the right mix of skills and backgrounds and exposure to knowledge.

DOZIER: Isn’t this what the Common Core was supposed to address, to make sure that students universally were graduating with a set amount of knowledge on certain subjects?

HAASS: Well, again, you know, for higher education, there is no universal or Common Core.

DOZIER: But I mean to prep them before they get to the college stage.

HAASS: Yeah, but again, there’s a lack of consensus about what ought to be the content of the Common Core even before that. And that’s a healthy debate, and there’s no—there no, quote/unquote, “right answer,” because whatever it is you do has opportunity cost. But I do think it’s—and I think Gary put his finger on it—that it is worthy of a national conversation because it’s not obvious that this is something that we ought to have high differentiation among states.

And then universities, because we have a more free-market system, it’s fine, I think, to differentiate yourself. But then what I’m hoping is there’s a race to the top, and certain universities say if you get a degree from this university, here’s what we can promise you, a parent who’s shelling out 50,000 bucks; here’s what we can promise you as a student; here’s what—here’s what a would-be employer can assume that anyone with this degree possesses. That would be a pretty—that would be a pretty good market situation to create.

DOZIER: Now, the other question is, how do you inspire curiosity and also let these students know that they’re not as good as they think they are? (Laughter.)

GOLDBERG: Well, I think this is—this is one of the issues. And I do think we, the media, are somewhat to blame. We just can’t scold people into getting smarter, right? That—

KNELL: It’s much more fun. (Laughter.)

GOLDBERG: But that’s just not going to work. You can’t—and ever since I was a kid, I can remember people always thinking, you know, the—you know, what’s happened to kids these days; they don’t know as much as we did, blah, blah, blah. But we’ve got to—we just have got to figure out ways to almost entice them into wanting to learn. Yes, I know, we can set more rigorous standards and do those, but it shouldn’t be so burdensome. And so today, if you go to NationalGeographic.com—better be by now—we should have not only a story about, you know, this study, but there is a quiz that you can take. There is an easy quiz and there is a hard quiz. And the easy quiz uses the answers that everybody got right, and so you can test yourself. And the hard—the hard quiz takes the questions that very few people got, and so you can—you can see how you do. So that’s a way to interest people and I think entice people, and we should start doing that at a very young age.

DOZIER: And before I turn to asking you all about a couple of the programs you’ve designed to help do that, how well did these students think they were going to do on this test?

GOLDBERG: Well, they thought they were going to do better than they did. (Laughs.)

DOZIER: There was one particular answer where they asked all the students, you know, how knowledgeable do you consider yourself in foreign affairs, or in overall—world affairs. And they seemed—the majority thought they were pretty good at it.

HAASS: Well, it’s the Lake Wobegon response—(laughter)—and you know, everybody’s above average. (Laughter.) But, look, the good news is—I don’t mind the confidence, particularly when it’s coupled with a recognition that these are important issues. That, to me, is the opportunity here: people recognize the importance of these issues. So the challenge—and I think Susan was getting at this—we’ve got to find ways, given their own proclivities, to satisfy the understanding that this matters.

I think there is—there’s probably an exaggeration of how tooled-up they are. But the fact that there is a recognition that this actually matters and will affect the trajectory of their lives, that I think gives us—gives institutions, potentially media something to work with. We’re not fighting a closed door here.

DOZIER: And both National Geographic and CFR have designed something to do that. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

KNELL: Yes. You know, National Geographic, as Susan mentioned, has been around for 128 years, so—and it was really originated over at the Cosmos Club down the street here to diffuse geographic knowledge. You know, the first issue of the magazine had the lead story on the geologic strata of the Potomac River, a real page-turner if there ever—(laughter). So, and then, of course, through photography, and eventually film and television, the Geographic has become world-renowned and now reaches 700 million people around the world. So how do we, as an organization, use our yellow border to penetrate classrooms with a great trust factor, I think, that’s been built up over time? And our education group, some of whom are here today, has done a terrific job creating a learning framework for K-12, focusing primarily on middle school, maybe to ninth grade. That seems to be a very critical grade for kids to become geographically competent or not.

And we believe that, through these 50 state alliances we’ve created—we fought in the ESEA, the Elementary School Education Act, which just passed the Congress, which the president signed, bipartisan support—Senator Alexander was a big leader in this, Senator Mikulski—to pitch geography as an important core competency, that we may be able to do this. But we’ve got to credential teachers who want to get engaged. We need to have teachers involved in more global activities and, frankly, subsidize them to growth with us. We need to have more applications in the classrooms. GIS—geographic information systems—many of you may not know about that, but that is one of THE leading fields for employable skills now that businesses need out in the world and governments. And just being with the folks at Esri, which is one of the big organizations that does this, and tens of thousands of government people and corporate people who are—who gather every year to engage around GIS activities, this is something actually through visual media and through digital media kids, as visual learners, can embrace.

And telling stories about the human migration in Europe that’s going on right now and understanding the Syrian conflict through getting kids to map those digitally, it’s tools. We’ve got to get creative about this. And I think that’s what the Geographic can really promote, and we are going to work hard to create a geographically competent high school graduate.

GOLDBERG: Well, and on the kids’ media side, I mean, we publish a hundred books a year. We’ve got the most-read children’s magazine in the world. You know, you lay out the facts, but you make it fun. So I feel like we’ve got an opportunity. We have the trust of parents as an educational brand, as a credible source of knowledge, but the kids don’t even know they’re learning. They just think it’s fun because, you know, there’s pictures of animals and they’re learning about different countries, or learning about going to space. And that’s the way we’ve just got to draw them in.

DOZIER: So, if you’re a teacher or a high school principal listening to this, whether you’re at a private school or at a public school, how do you reach out? Where do you find this?

KNELL: NationalGeographic.org. So—(laughter)—

DOZIER: OK.

KNELL: Thank you.

But, no, we are—we are providing tools for classrooms. We have alliances and alliance coordinators in all 50 states who are working, and we’d be happy to provide that information.

HAASS: We’ve also got ours. The Council on Foreign Relations, we’re not as old as National Geographic. We’re merely 95 years old. (Laughter.) Some of our members are that age. (Laughter.) And we were founded after World War I, and the whole idea of this organization was to have a conversation in this country about its role in the world. And implicit in that was a fear that after World War I, isolationism would take hold. And over the last 95 years, the Council has worked hard, whether its meetings, its membership, by being a resource for government, for journalists, for American corporate—for corporations, through Foreign Affairs magazine, and so forth. We have been a source of information, analysis, recommendations about U.S. foreign policy around the world.

A few years ago, we made the institutional decision that this was all necessary, but not sufficient—that, in a country of 320 million people, it simply left out too many people, and that we had to make it also a priority to reach them, if you will, to marry up a non-elite dimension with our more traditional approach. We’ve done just that. The goal is to reduce—or, to make it more positive—it’s to enhance or promote global literacy, understanding about the world, understanding about the connections between how the world affects us and how what it is we do or don’t do affects the world, to make it—to something Susan said, to make it really—to package and produce it in a way that’s accessible and interesting for high school and college students.

We call it CFR Campus. And we’ve produced all sorts of materials which we’re disseminating around the country and the world to do just that. We’ve produced a simulation called Model Diplomacy, an online digital product, to teach young people in classrooms about how foreign policy is made, what the issues are, what the processes are, what the organizations are. So they learn about the specifics as well as some general factors. It reinforces the basics of a liberal art curriculum. We will be producing next essentially a curriculum, The World 101, to teach young people—again, high school, college, life learners, doesn’t have to only be young people—about the basics of international relations and American foreign policy.

And increasingly, what we’re trying to do is make—put the raising of global literacy a priority for this organization. And we’re hoping to kick off a national conversation. That, to me, would be the success of this event today. So we have a broad conversation in this country about what is it we need to make sure that our citizens know, and how do we make sure they get to know, and what’s, above all, the obligations of high schools and colleges, and how do we increase the odds that we’re preparing generations of Americans who are ready for this world, like it or not, they are entering? And like it or not, that will affect them for better or for worse. So that is—that, for us, has become a major institutional priority.

GOLDBERG: You know, I hope, to that end, that this poll gets repeated in a couple of years, and a couple of years after that, so you can see progress is being made. One of the things I really wish is there were some backward way to look at this. You know, I graduated high school in 1977. Would people in my high school class know that—know all these questions? I’m not so sure. Some of them are really hard. Some of them are really hard. I didn’t know that more people died from AIDS in the last five years than malaria. I mean, I just didn’t know that. I thought it was malaria. So some of them are tough for people who are—consider themselves to be pretty darn well-informed. And I just wonder, you know, everybody’s always throwing up their hands, and there’s a lot wrong here, and there are a lot of gaps identified. I just wonder if 20, 30, 40 years ago people would have been all that much smarter on this test.

HAASS: I don’t know the answer to that. But what I do know is that in an age of globalization, the world will affect Americans as never before.

GOLDBERG: I agree.

HAASS: And more positively, our ability to influence the world is as great as it’s ever been, given the position of American primacy. So I don’t know the answer to your question, whether it will work, though I do think we—maybe, just anecdotally, I think mainstream media covers the world not as well as it used to. It’s less of a priority. And so if you look at, like, the patterns of bureaus overseas, you look at the unsystematic ways in which social media treats things, a lot of universities have moved towards a more—to use Gary’s phrase—al la carte kind of—the emphasis on individual choice. Which is fine but it’s not—at the risk of seeming slightly heavy-handed, I think a legitimate question is should—what’ the degree of choice that every student should be able to exercise? And to what extent organizations or institutions like universities have an obligation to limit the choice and say, if you’re going to get your degree we want to insist that you know this, this, and that. That there’s a degree of choice that ought to be, if you will, circumscribed.

And again, I think that is a valuable national conversation. Not every university should or will come out in the same place, which to me is fine. You can say, well, I want to go to university X because I know that’s what I’m going to have to do there. And some parents may say you’ve got to go there or, OK, I don’t want to go there. That’s fair. But I believe that more and more institutions might want to define themselves in ways in which arguably global literacy would take a slightly larger percentage of a student’s time while on campus.

DOZIER: Before opening up to questions, just to be fair, I have to mention, for teachers and principals listening, I assume they can find CFR Campus at CFR.org?

HAASS: Did I neglect to—(laughter)—I can see several of the people I work with are shooting darts at me. Yeah, at CFR.org is our website. CFR Campus is the channel on the website. And Model Diplomacy can be found there. And an increasing array of online digital materials. So thank you, Kim.

DOZIER: Perfect. Now, with that, I’d like to open the Q&A session. At this time, I’d like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. Reminders that this meeting is on the record.

HAASS: Most definitely.

DOZIER: Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. And please stand and state your name and affiliation. And also, please limit yourself to one question, so we can get more members’ questions in. With that, ma’am, third row back.

Q: Good morning. Thank you so much for this conversation. My name is Esther Brimmer, both at George Washington University, the Council on Foreign Relations, and I serve on the National Security Education Board.

My question was, how did students do on climate change and environment-related issues, and how did you approach the teaching of foreign language? Thank you.

GOLDBERG: Actually, in this poll, they did pretty well on climate change. They were able to identify, you know, that fossil fuels were nonrenewable. They were able to say that, you know, climate change is caused by these greenhouse gases created from these fossil fuels. The one question, though, that I thought they did incredibly well on—almost better than any other question—was—it said, which area of the world has the largest number of plants and animals. And the answer—the options were something like the Amazon basin, Antarctica, New York, or the Kalahari Desert. (Laughter.) And 89 percent said, ah, the Amazon. But I think that was—that was a matter of knowing how to take a test, perhaps, than actual knowledge, because that’s such a duh kind of—kind of answer. But they did—but there were certain, you know, very strong areas. And that was one of them. Climate change was one of them.

HAASS: Esther, we didn’t go down the path of languages, in part because it is such a controversial area. And I may or may not be an outlier in that, but I would simply say I understand full well the importance of fluency or adequacy in foreign languages, but there’s two issues. One is, it’s not the same as global literacy. One can be perfectly fluent in a language and still not have basic knowledge about the world. Secondly, and it’s a more controversial area, is to what extent should time on campus be spent learning foreign languages? There’s opportunity cost there.

So you’d have to ask yourself, if you spend a quarter of your time on campus learning a foreign language, is that the best use of your time on campus? Are there potentially better ways or more efficient ways to learn foreign languages, if that opportunity is there, and other things that you can only learn on campuses or best learn on campuses? And because of the controversy surrounding that debate—and I’m one of those who is not a great fan of spending much of your time on campus learning languages. And I realize that puts me in a certain space. It’s highly subjective. So we didn’t—if you will use this.

But I think that’s something that ought to—and again, different institutions might define themselves differently. Some schools might say, this is a great way to spend your time and it contributes to global literacy. Others may say we’ll encourage you to do that at summer institutes or years abroad or gap years or other ways. But on campus, we really want you to learn some of the basics of how the world works or how foreign policy is made. But I think that’s a legitimate debate.

DOZIER: Sir. Back row.

Q: Hi. Sanford Ungar from Georgetown University and the Lumina Foundation.

There’s one term that I’m disappointed you haven’t used yet, and that’s study abroad. Two statistics that I don’t think are included in your poll are that at any given time the percentage of American college or university students studying abroad is 1.5 percent. Another meaningful statistic is that there are at any moment as many Chinese students studying in the United States as there Americans studying anywhere in the world. And the implications down the road are very severe. I would like to see a broader discussion, which I introduced in Foreign Affairs a few months ago, of getting the country behind a very serious initiative to increase and make more meaningful and more democratic the whole study abroad process.

DOZIER: Would that have fixed some of these survey results?

HAASS: Again, at the risk of being controversial, I’m in favor of studying abroad. I don’t think it’s ever going to be an option for 90 percent, or 80 percent, or 50 percent of American students, for all sorts of reasons. And again, when one looks at the distribution of where Americans study abroad, it’s heavily skewed towards, in particular, certainly places in Europe. And it’s not clear to me that necessarily study abroad, per se, simply because you’re at a different longitude and latitude doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to end up more globally literate as a result.

So I’m more concerned about the content and what is taught than necessarily where students—where students go. And again, I don’t believe study abroad programs are necessarily an opportunity for most. But again, that could be part of the conversation, which is what is it we encourage? But I’d be much more interested in study abroad if I were persuaded that those who underwent the experience ended up much better able, for example, to answer the sorts of questions on this, or on related surveys, rather than the experience in and of itself because we all know there’s a range of study abroad programs, as you would be the first to acknowledge.

KNELL: Yeah, it used to be a distinguishing factor for colleges. And having had four kids go through this admissions process—which is enough to drive you insane—it’s been—every college and university now has a panoply of options. But I think to Richard’s point, I’m not overwhelmingly impressed by the curriculum. I mean, there’s not—many of them are really generic and you’re in a different latitude and longitude, as he said.

One of the things that Geographic is doing is we’ve teamed up with the State Department to create Fulbright program on digital storytelling, where students are going to different parts of the world—usually in developing countries—to engage around storytelling. And we’ve gotten some of our best work coming back from these students. And I think that’s an example of how we could use study abroad in some creative ways. And we need to connect it with Susan’s point about harnessing these new technologies to figure out ways to engage students in different countries to really capture those, and not simply have a fun semester somewhere else.

GOLDBERG: You know, one of the surprising things in this poll, it didn’t ask about study abroad but it did ask how many times these students had been out of the country in the last several years. And I think it went from, you know, zero to three or more. The results of the—were basically the same. It didn’t really make that much of a difference, because you would think that people going outside of the country, that means you’re curious about the world or because you have knowledge of the outside world. You would think that would have mattered in these results. But at least in this particular poll it really didn’t make any difference.

DOZIER: Sir. Haven’t hit this side.

Q: John Yochelson, a Council member who works with kids. My nonprofit works with kids on STEM on behalf of the Department of Defense.

So I applaud this commitment to lift all boats. But I wonder if we could learn a little bit more about these kids. Can you help us understand a little more about the 1,200 and whether or not we can learn lessons—whether we can afford to generalize, or whether we can learn some lessons about who these kids are, how different their level of knowledge may be, according to say family income. And in fact, whether it would be worth thinking about setting some priorities in this effort because the best can’t be the enemy of the good.

HAASS: Look, and the survey is—it’s large enough that it’s fairly representative. It’s not skewed, as I remember, in terms of gender, other sorts of socioeconomic backgrounds, various profiles. It’s pretty representative of the society, as a whole. So I don’t think you’re—slight variations in terms of correct answers, but I didn’t see, correct me if I’m wrong, statistics that jumped out at me that would allow us to say therefore here’s the prescription for this slice of society. And it seemed to me it was fairly horizontal in terms of the gaps or the deficits in what young people knew. So it reinforced my sense that this was a national challenge. And just that, in a sense it was fairly broad and it was fairly deep, John.

So I don’t think—I don’t think there’s a narrow—I’m not against tailored responses, but I think we need a fairly broad, systemic response. And again, for me it would start, more than anything else, which is on campuses, again, with an emphasis less on what is offered and more what is required, and to narrow the choice that students would have and to make sure that what is required would be sufficiently thorough and comprehensive so that a student went through it and got a passing grade, we would think, would be essentially prepped for what he or she would need to—would need, whether as a citizen or for most areas of general employment.

KNELL: And to me, John, this study actually underestimates the problem, because if you look at high schools you’re going to get far worse results, I would imagine. We live in a country where up to 50 percent of students are not graduating high school in some inner cities, so—which is a national embarrassment. And those of us who have traveled to places like China, where you feel on the streets, as you visit schools, a hunger for learning and a desire, a driven desire, to get ahead is something that lacks too much.

And I’m not blaming our kids. It’s our fault. And, you know, so I think this underestimates the problem. We have tallied up college freshmen. And the fact that they are at this level tells you one thing. If you took that to ninth and 10th and 11th graders in the country, the studies would probably be far worse.

HAASS: Assumptions are dangerous, but let me just build on something Gary said. This looks at people from 18 to their early 20s, and it only counts those who attended—not just—(inaudible)—but attended two- or four-year colleges. It excludes those above 18 who never went to a college two- or four-year. And the assumption there is they’d be unlikely to have higher levels of global literacy, more likely to have lower levels of global literacy.

So again, I think this probably—if one were to take a step back and look at the society writ large, this probably is—I think, as discouraging or worrisome as some of the data that comes out of this is, odds are, if one had a broader scan of the entire society, it would be more troubling.

DOZIER: In the back row.

Q: Hi. Jay Kansara from the Hindu American Foundation.

What can we predict or extrapolate from these results as to how the average American or average American students will—what their perceptions are of racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity within their own communities here in America? And does it contribute—the lack of global literacy contribute to xenophobia and even the potential for hate crimes? As someone who works on issues of hate crimes against our religious community, it’s very serious.

And I will violate the rule and ask one more question. How can we make the geographic bee just as important as the spelling bee? (Laughter.)

DOZIER: Spoken like someone who’s driven crazy by spelling mistakes.

KNELL: Well, I’ll cover the latter first. (Laughter.) So every year we do a geography bee that reaches some millions of kids in all 50 states. And they come to Washington for the finals, which are hosted by the brilliant geographic scholar Mo Rocca, you know. (Laughter.) So but—and then we crown a winner every year.

But, you know, we’re trying to move that test, interestingly enough, away from rote learning and much more into systemic analyses of issues and how environmental issues, like Flint, Michigan, is a geography lesson, and understanding that water doesn’t just come from turning a tap. It actually comes from, you know, groundwater or some freshwater source. And some people made decisions, wrong decisions. They were geography decisions, actually, and economic decisions. So getting kids to understand those kinds of things make that sort of relevant.

So the geography bee we’re trying to promote out there. We televise it every year on the National Geographic Channel. And we want to take it to bigger stages, and we have plans to do that.

GOLDBERG: You know, I think the first part of your question is really important. I do think this lack of knowledge means that people are susceptible to all kinds of demagoguery and, you know, hate speech and believing that things are going on that aren’t going on; you know, believing that, you know, China is somehow absolutely taking over the United States, believing that India is a Muslim country, not—I mean, this poll is full of examples of misinformation that people have that can be twisted and used in ways that I fear are very ugly.

And I think that is actually the most disheartening part about it, that people can’t be informed citizens, that they aren’t going to make smart decisions. And they can’t really even think for themselves or push back against that misinformation. That’s what I find the very most disturbing about this.

DOZIER: Let’s see—back row.

Q: I’m Steve Sestanovich. I’m a fellow at the Council, and I also teach at Columbia.

At an event like this, there’s got to be some moment where somebody gets up and speaks on behalf of young people and says let’s stop ragging on them. So that’s going to be me, but only to this extent. I think the points that have been raised about citizenship and preparation to make decisions as citizens are absolutely right. But I think actually, in terms of preparation to be specialists, we’re doing great.

There are more international-relations majors than ever before. More colleges offer them. It’s a booming field. There are more master’s programs—and I teach in one—in international relations than ever before. It’s—being in global business is more glamorous than ever before. And people understand what the requirements are.

So there’s a real segmentation going on. We are preparing experts and specialists and doing professional training in a good way, in the way that we do a lot of things well; that is, we focus on a narrow branch, a narrow segment of young people. But that reflects something which is promising, and that is that colleges actually are prepared, just as Richard says, to do this kind of education. They’re just not requiring it. There’s much more that is available to students. And for a small number who want it, they take advantage of it and are better prepared, I believe, than ever.

But it’s a focused group. It’s just like the STEM cell—I mean, the STEM students. Incidentally, they’re the ones who do the study abroad. It’s relief from the high-pressure STEM courses. (Laughter.)

So what we need to do is draw on the capabilities that our colleges have and go beyond just making this specialization, because we’re really, really good at that. We’re just not good at going beyond it.

HAASS: Stephen, I think you’re right. And that’s the challenge. The less—at most it’s 1 percent. It’s actually much less than 1 percent of students in America who self-select as international-relations type, with a focus. I’m not worried about them. They are by definition going to be globally literate. But that leaves about 99 percent who aren’t.

So I’m really interested—and one of the ways this began in the anecdotal was I was—I don’t fish a lot, but for some reason I was fishing one day. The golf course must have been closed. And I was—I met this young man who went to one of America’s elite universities, and he was a computer-science major. And so he told me what he studied. And I said I’m just curious. How many economics courses have you had? None. And how many foreign-policy and international-relations courses have you had? None. We started going down the list. And that’s what got me interested.

And I said, wow, if you could graduate from one of America’s elite four-year schools, world-class, and be able to leave the campus where all these things were offered but not avail yourselves of them, and I said there is—how do we make sure the English major or the computer-science major or the premed student has everything they need? Because we don’t simply—we don’t limit the right to vote to people who are specialists.

And so that’s what got us going on this. And what we found—again, this is not just—I don’t want—I’m glad you—I don’t want people to think I’m sitting here either attacking students, because I’m not, or attacking universities and colleges. I’m not. There’s tremendous—the quality and quantity of the offerings are unbelievable, and arguably better than ever before.

But the real question is that there has been an aversion for schools, an unwillingness to define themselves in certain ways and say this is what we are going to require of any young person who gets a degree from here, because we believe this is what you need. And that’s the conversation, I think, hopefully boards of trustees and faculty and students and the parents who are paying the bills and others will have.

And I think—and what I’d love to see is the market way. I would love for employers to start to say we are much more likely to employ a student who comes from this school, because whether you’re an international-relations major or not, we know you have been exposed to certain things and we value those things. And that’s where I talk about a race to the top. That is what I want. So again, it’s not a question of what’s available. It would have to be scaled up. It’s really much more a question of what is—what is required.

KNELL: You know, I used to—as Richard knows, I used to run “Sesame Street” in a prior life. And Joan Ganz Cooney, who started that show, always talked about television is the most powerful teacher ever invented. And whether that’s a good thing or not, it’s a thing. It’s an “is” thing. And you couldn’t keep kids away from television, so you’d better put letters and numbers up there to get them to learn something, get them prepared for school.

So today this toy that Steve Jobs left us is the greatest teacher ever invented. And this is the world now. So this fire hose of information that is coming at all of us nonstop—we all know the news all day long. It has limited, in many ways, the ability of newspapers to be relevant today, as we’ve learned the hard way.

We hope that the Council coming together and National Geographic coming together is a wakeup call of two concerned organizations who believe that we have to come up with original ideas to harness this fire hose of information. Just the way Joan Cooney harnessed television to teach preschoolers, let’s figure out a creative way. Let’s get a focus on this. Let’s not blame students. We’re living in a digital revolution. And whether we like it or not, it’s an “is” thing. And it’s not good or bad. It’s an “is” thing.

So let’s figure out how do we harness things in K-12? How do we harness things in higher education to create informed citizens who will be able to get jobs and make the world a better place in a world that’s going to have 9 billion people by the year 2050, 1 billion more people in Africa in the next 35 years? How are we going to feed people? How are we going to house people? How are we going to educate people? And all of these issues are relevant for the generation that is now at this college age. It is going to be their problems to solve. But it seems to me that the elders, those of us in this room—some of us, at least—have to, you know—

HAASS: Most of us. (Laughter.)

KNELL: We’re organizations that, you know, have been around a long time, a hundred years, and we can do something by saying this is a wakeup call. And it makes our work, we believe, more relevant than ever.

DOZIER: And yet you have a generation now that you’re aware of, thanks to the survey, that doesn’t have this knowledge. And how many generations—like, does it apply to 30-year-olds? Does it apply to 40-year-olds? So how do you fill in those gaps?

HAASS: Yeah. And the recent Pew poll about American attitudes about the world would suggest that a lot of what we found here with young people is, shall we say, not generationally limited. I think a lot of what we’re seeing here would work not just horizontally, but vertically, through age cohorts. And this is probably societal-wide.

DOZIER: So we have time for one last question. Ma’am.

Q: Hi. Alyssa Ayres, Council on Foreign Relations.

Do you think the survey results have suggested any lessons for the Higher Education Act reform or thinking about ways to reallocate the kinds of budgets that we put towards incentives in higher ed? You know, the decline of area studies, looking at this in another direction. Should we have some areas prioritized over others? And what do you think the survey tells us?

HAASS: Well, I would say two things. One is I do worry about the decline of area studies. And as great as it is that a lot of young people are learning things about China, for example, that leaves a lot of other countries out. And I want to make sure that we have the coverage of critical countries and regions that we need in the future. But something which is, for the most part, not in any of the legislation is to think about general stuff. And it’s to fund capacities on campuses for core, basic requirements.

So again, it gets a little bit to Steve’s question. It’s not just the special stuff. But I would like to see more resources out there so you could have courses for every student on a campus. And a lot of these things can be scaled up, as Gary was saying, through digital means, but that you need the teachers, because you need the small-group thing as well.

So you need resources on campus to make sure that, however you define global literacy and what goes into it, that that can be offered on campuses, just like we’ve made resources available for STEM when we as a society have said STEM offerings have to be made, particularly at the K-through-12 level. What I would hope is that resources would be made available at K through 12 as well, but higher education to teach the fundamentals of global literacy, reinforce civics education. That would help.

DOZIER: (Inaudible)—before I—I just want to remind everybody this has been on the record as we take questions.

GOLDBERG: No, I was just going to say, and from a—from a media perspective, I do think that there are growing gaps because of the—you know, the financial upheaval in the media world and the withdrawing, literally, of the eyes and ears from foreign bureaus, from even state-government bureaus, from here in Washington, D.C. So there’s been this pull-back. And, you know, it’s an opportunity for organizations like National Geographic and others, that still have people out there, to really double down on that kind of coverage and to put it out there in ways that people want to read it and to make it interesting and imperative that people feel like they need to get that information.

So, you know, it’s a difficult situation. But at the same time, I’m pretty optimistic that we can work hard to fill some of those gaps.

KNELL: Well, and finally, let’s use this as a call to action to create a geographically competent America. And I think this is something that is a bipartisan or even nonpartisan issue. This is about having an ability to educate our kids. And all I can say is there’s so many teachers who come to the Geographic who want to engage with us. We need to invest in them, the teachers and students. This is a—Silicon Valley. This is a way when we can get our arms around harnessing the use of technology to make a big difference, to educate kids so that they can become informed citizens for the voting booth.

DOZIER: That’s a great place to end it. Thank you for attending this session of National Geographic and Council on Foreign Relations.

KNELL: Thank you. (Applause.)

(END)

Up

Explore More on CFR

Japan

CFR's Sheila A. Smith joins James M. Lindsay to discuss the recent meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Trump. 

Syria

Syria is likely to remain a broken country for years to come. The latest strikes did not change that reality.

Cuba

Miguel Diaz-Canel, set to replace Raul Castro as president of Cuba after sixty years of Castro rule, will be faced with the challenges of implementing economic reform and sidestepping regional isolation.