Tuesday, August 12, 2008


The US public educational system has been criticized for many things. One is its ethnocentric view of languages. Ethnocentric refers to “the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one’s own culture.”

Sometime last year I came across a statistic that will put America at a disadvantage compared to its second largest trading partner, China. (Canada is America’s largest trading partner.) The statistic compared the number of Chinese students studying English (several million) with the number of American students studying Chinese (100,000). A second language is always an advantage. The next generation of Americans will be at a disadvantage unless America addresses this disparity soon.

Teaching Spanish is a good start but why stop at French? I am referring to the two languages that I think are being taught in most public schools: Spanish and French.


Spanish makes sense for three reasons. First is the growing Hispanic population in the US. Second is the fact that it is the third most widely-spoken language in the world. Its widespread use is the reason that Spanish is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. According to Spanish Language Programs:

Why is it important to learn Spanish? Spanish is spoken by about 400 million people worldwide, which is reason enough to learn the language. But it’s even more compelling when you realize that about half of the population in the Western Hemisphere speaks Spanish, making it the primary language for as many people as English in this region of the world. The entire continent of South America speaks primarily Spanish (aside from Brazil), as does just about all of Central America, Mexico and Latin America—over 15 countries in total. In addition, within the United States, Spanish is the second most widely spoken language after English—by a very wide margin. In the US, more and more, opportunities are increasing for those who are fluent in both Spanish and English due to the explosion in the Spanish-speaking population. This means that the ability to speak both Spanish and English will continue to become more and more valuable for people who live in the US with each passing year.

And the third reason has to do with trade. Mexico is the third top trading partner of the US. Venezuela is the tenth. The languages found among the top ten trading partners of the US are English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, German, Korean, French, and Portuguese.


I think that the public educational system’s ethnocentric attitude has two roots.

First, not enough Americans know, much less care to visit, other countries. And I don’t count sanitized tours such as can be experienced on cruises as visits. Passengers are firmly tourists who remain isolated from the native population. There’s nothing wrong with that but I want to emphasize my view that sensitivity or even awareness of foreign cultures can only be attained through direct contact in that culture’s environment. I’m referring to active interactions with other people. This probably partly explains the average American’s woeful ignorance of geography. Sorry but it’s true, isn’t it?


In the past three months, I was trading laughs with two gentlemen, both of whom spoke good accented English. One is a graduate student who, when I asked where he emigrated from, replied that he came from Zimbabwe. After some verbal sparring, it became obvious to him that I knew he wasn’t from Zimbabwe and that his name (that he gave me) was not “bin Laden.” We laughed about the regularity with which he is believed. Some, he says, think that Zimbabwe is in Europe because he looks European (even though there are a lot of Dutch descendants in South Africa). The second foreigner works and lives in West Virginia. He lives in “red neck” country, as he put it, and the locals have no idea where Ukraine is. They may not know that seven continents exist. Heck, they may even think that the Middle East is a country.


And second, I think many Americans have become too self-absorbed. Our culture stresses the importance of the individual and the individual’s self-interest. As a consequence, for many people, most of everything that they do is all about them. Now, it’s a pity because self-absorption blurs everyone and everything else. The irony about focusing excessively on your welfare is that challenges will always occur regardless of how carefully you manage your life. And if you are unable to see these challenges to a desired outcome then you inevitably feel disappointed and frustrated. This brings up the consequences of self-absorption. You may agree that the best way to improve your spirits is to help others. If so, then you realize that it’s true that you receive more when you give. By helping others you experience a connection that creates a level of satisfaction that ranks up there with your best accomplishments.


I am personally concerned about another deficiency in the public educational system. It is the abject lack of teaching financial literacy. I believe it’s a more serious gap. I would like to cover that in the next few months.

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