Christina is a modern, multitasking, American 15-year-old -- fiddling with her new iPod, sassing the tall boy slouched beside her, and getting an impromptu lesson in Filipino culture at an after-school program in Oakland, California. "I speak Tagalog and Filipino," says the group's counselor, Michelle Ferrer, "two languages from the island where my family comes from." Christina is puzzled. "The Philippines is an island?" she asks skeptically. Ferrer nods and Christina frowns. "I thought it was in China," she says. Ferrer tries not to laugh. "Girl, you thought I was Chinese?" she teases gently. "No," Christina clarifies, "I thought the Philippines was a country in China."
In California, where Christina lives, more than 1 in 4 of the state's residents were born outside the United States. Schoolchildren speak more than 60 languages at home. Globalization is everywhere you look. Here in Oakland, an 11-year-old African-American boy has impressed international audiences with his uncanny Chinese arias. In nearby Fruitvale, nearly 100,000 locals turned out last fall for a Mexican Día de los Muertos celebration. To the south, in Silicon Valley, a Bollywood cineplex effortlessly sells out its Hindi screenings. A few blocks from my San Francisco apartment, a shop that specializes in goods from Brazil (the area around Goiania, specifically) shares its block with a Vietnamese restaurant and a yoga studio, where yuppies chant in Sanskrit as they bend and sweat; outside, Caribbean reggaeton blares from the windows of Japanese tuner coupes.
But for all the changes globalization has brought to the average American kid's cultural and commercial ecosystem, the average classroom has lagged far behind, even in cosmopolitan California. Take foreign languages. In the late 1940s, more than 90 percent of kids who studied a foreign language learned French, Spanish, or Latin. At the end of the century, a radically different era, that figure remained the same. At least two decades after political scientists decided China would be the world's next major power, only a little more than 1,300 public high school students studied Chinese -- just 8 percent of the number studying American Sign Language. More than 25 years since the oil crisis showed the Middle East to be the world's most vital and volatile region, only about 500 American public high schoolers were enrolled in Arabic classes, while some 175,000 studied Latin instead. Two thirds of American students never studied a second language at all in the year 2000.
That's just the most obvious anachronism. Many U.S. states have introduced world history classes, but few find time for modern Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the Middle East. Islam, for instance, makes a single scheduled appearance in California's history and social studies curriculum, in a survey of ancient societies for 11- and 12-year-olds. That provincial tendency lingers into college. Although half of all college-bound Americans say they hope to study abroad, only 1 percent actually follow through on those plans. And nearly half of those students travel to just four countries in Western Europe: Britain, France, Italy, and Spain. In 2004, Italy attracted more American students than all of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East combined.
As a result, young Americans like Christina represent something of a paradox: surrounded by foreign languages, cultures, and goods, they remain hopelessly uninformed, and misinformed, about the world beyond U.S. borders. In 2002, with their troops occupying Kabul, Afghanistan, and both Washington and the rest of the world debating a possible invasion of Iraq, 85 percent of 18- to 24-year-old Americans surveyed by the National Geographic Society could not find either country on a map. And it gets worse: Sixty-nine percent failed to find Britain, 29 percent could not find the Pacific Ocean, and nearly a third believed the U.S. population to be somewhere between 1 and 2 billion.
For most of U.S. history, a clique of exclusive universities and military academies trained an elite group of bright young men to handle the nation's minimal foreign concerns. But America has a different role in the world today, and the world has a different role in America. The U.S. military maintains more than half a million soldiers, intelligence officers, staff, and contractors abroad, and employs some 50,000 foreigners. Together, they operate more than 700 bases in roughly 130 countries -- the shadow of America's interests in the world. At the same time, foreign influence in the United States grows every year. In West Virginia, a state mocked by smug urbanites as a backwater, local businesses did more than $3.1 billion in foreign trade in 2005, and investment from some 75 global firms created more than 30,000 new jobs.
Of course, fretting about public education is something of a national pastime. Every few years a new survey comes out, showing that American schoolchildren lag behind their global counterparts in science and math. That inevitably sends lawmakers and the public into a panic. Soon, we hear, the United States will become a nation of baristas and retail clerks, while Asians leave their kids with the Nannybot, commute to work on cold fusion-powered monorails, and fine-tune the software that will put Microsoft and Google out of business.
And yet, for all the anxiety that science and math education inspires, the state of global languages, politics, history, and culture in U.S. schools may actually be scarier. Whether it is translating and analyzing intelligence intercepts in Arabic and Farsi, guiding American industry through new markets in Asia, collaborating with research partners across the globe, or shaping the foreign policy of the world's only superpower at the ballot box, young Americans will struggle to bear their responsibilities.