Lost in America

Speak two languages and you're bilingual. Speak one? You must be American. So goes the old joke. But globalization means that students can no longer remain blissfully unaware. Can Americans open the classroom door, or will today's youth be unprepared to lead tomorrow's world?

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.


The United States was barely a toddler, in nation years, when public schoolhouses began to spread across the country. It was a radical notion: teaching every poor farm boy or miner's son to read, write, add, and learn about the great men who founded their democracy, at a time when European governments still considered primary education a privilege. But the movement was rooted in anxiety. America was suddenly a republic, but a republic of foreigners -- disparate, multilingual, barely connected to a distant government in Washington, and ill-equipped to weigh matters of state when they cast a vote.

Public education was designed to manufacture citizens. American textbooks appeared, scrubbed clean of continental influence. Georgia legislators actually banned study abroad before the age of 16. Even bitter political rivals of men such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson saw the utility in building up a few common heroes. If Americans had nothing in common but America, then public education would unite them.

A homogenizing civic education prevailed without much dissent for more than a century, mostly because new waves of immigrants -- Italians, Irish, Eastern Europeans -- kept arriving. That ethos did face challenges. When, in the 1840s, German Americans in Cincinnati, Ohio, lobbied for their children to learn German, school administrators feared losing this wealthy, educated community to private schools, so they squeezed German into the curriculum. Later, Italian immigrants put pressure on New York City schools, and in the 1930s, an Italian-American principal offered his kids the country's first Italian class. Still, traditional ideals endured.

It took two world wars, the rise of an ambitious Soviet Union, and the birth of technologies that exploded any notion of safe distance for the United States to rethink its isolationist bent. Public education would change, too. But if the world outside demanded American attention, American classrooms mostly resisted the call. After all, when the Germans rose in World War I, Americans did not rush to learn the enemy's language; they banned it from public schools. (By 1922, just 13,000 American public school students studied German, down from nearly 325,000 in 1915, when only Latin was more popular.) Why would the Cold War proceed any differently?

American education did react to the 20th century's growing internationalism, at least for a moment, after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik program in the late 1950s. Shaken by Moscow's achievement, American legislators passed the National Defense Education Act, funding everything from advanced scientific research to foreign-language study. For more than a decade after Sputnik's flight, language education boomed in a way it never has since. But most of the money went to French and Spanish. And the largesse was short-lived. When budgets tightened in the 1970s, international courses were the first to go, and the number of students in foreign-language classes dropped every year. By 1980, less than 1 in 10 universities required any foreign- language study for admission, down from one third in the 1960s. Nobody seemed concerned.

The globe-spanning perils and opportunities of the Cold War may have preoccupied Washington, D.C., but in education, the fight was at home, and over the past. Take California's world history curriculum (fairly thorough, by American standards). Children in the seventh and eighth grades study a culturally diverse history of the world, up through the Middle Ages. Due credit is paid to the contributions of great African, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Latin American civilizations. But by the time students hit the 10th grade, they reach the Industrial Revolution, and "world" history turns into the history of the United States and Western Europe. "The conservatives will say it's OK to include the traditions of ancient and medieval cultures," explains Ross Dunn, a history professor at San Diego State University and coauthor of an influential draft of national history standards in the 1990s, "but that once you get to 1500, the focus should be on the West, because that’s where the action is."

University campuses, too, became battlegrounds in the 1990s, as students and professors staked out new American identities that put race, gender, or foreign heritage on equal footing with American citizenship. Conservatives lashed out at this "political correctness." Ironically, though, these fights over what it means to be American rarely considered American identity in a wider world. For all the heartwarming talk about respecting diverse cultures, 92 percent of American undergraduates never take a foreign-language class.


Sputnik fell to Earth and faded from memory. But there would be other opportunities to shake schools out of their provincialism. None seems more striking, in hindsight, than a report commissioned by the White House in 1978. Pointing to unrest in the Middle East, and a line in the 1975 Helsinki Accords that compelled signatories to promote the study of foreign languages, Congressmen Paul Simon and Leon Panetta called on President Jimmy Carter to appoint a commission to assess the state of international studies. Their report, Strength Through Wisdom, was blistering. "Americans' incompetence in foreign languages is nothing short of scandalous," the authors wrote. "The United States requires far more reliable capacities to communicate with its allies, analyze the behavior of potential adversaries, and earn the trust and sympathies of the uncommitted." And yet, the report argues, "our schools graduate a large majority of students whose knowledge and vision stops at the American shoreline, whose approach to international affairs is provincial, and whose heads have been filled with astonishing misinformation."

The report's authors, 25 luminaries of American academia, politics, and the media, proposed more than 100 pages of possible reforms, from requiring international education courses for all teachers in training, to launching regional language centers across the country that would support foreign-language instruction. Congress shrugged. "People who either were children of immigrants, or had language ability, or members [of Congress] who traveled abroad got it," Panetta recalls. "But there wasn't broad support for what we were doing, either from the administration or from the congress." None of the reforms were adopted.

A generation of Americans grew up and left for college. The Cold War ended. The Internet came of age. Falling airfares turned foreign continents into weekend getaway spots. Average Americans developed strong opinions on everything from outsourcing, foreign pharmaceuticals, and global warming, to pandemic disease, terrorism, and the politics of oil. Globalization became a buzzword, and then a simple fact of life. Unsurprisingly, American college students began to seek out new foreign languages and study abroad in greater numbers. But they did so with little encouragement. In 1996, congress actually chopped 20 percent from the budget of the Fulbright Program, which sends American graduates around the world for advanced study. Education reformers devoted most of their energy to math, English literacy, and standardized testing, and many primary schools dropped social studies and foreign languages altogether.

Earlier this year, President George W. Bush finally revived some of the ideas in Strength Through Wisdom, with a new National Security Language Initiative. The modestly funded measure encourages foreign-language study as early as kindergarten, and requests new money to train and certify foreign-language teachers, particularly in so-called critical languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Hindi, and Russian. It also promises to subsidize foreign study for high school and college students, and bring native speakers from abroad to teach in U.S. classrooms.

The business community, too, has started to champion the cause. According to a Committee for Economic Development study, 30 percent of large U.S. firms surveyed in 2002 believed a provincial, monolingual workforce had cost them business opportunities overseas. Even the College Board, a nonprofit organization that administers U.S. exams for college admissions and credit, has started to come around. Only six years ago, it offered two Advanced Placement (AP) exams on the writings of the Roman poet Virgil, and none on the politics, economics, history, and literature of five of the world's continents. It finally introduced a world history exam in 2002, and next year it will offer its first exams in non-European languages -- Chinese and Japanese. The College Board's executive director for the AP program, Trevor Packer, also revealed that test planners are considering a shift that would put much more emphasis on the United States in a global context for a major update to their flagship U.S. History exam. "We have to reflect best practices at the university level," Packer says. "What we're finding are courses that do a better job than in the past of integrating U.S. history into global themes." Because the College Board defines educational rigor in American high schools, any shift in its outlook would have wide repercussions.

It could all begin to add up to another moment for international education in the United States. But the previous moments have been just that -- moments. And there are reasons to worry this one will be no different. As The New Republic pointed out in January, the president's language initiative may promise $24 million to promote foreign-language instruction in K-12 schools, but that seems pretty paltry compared to the $206 million he requested to fund abstinence-only sex education. And ultimately, what happens in American classrooms today is driven by standardized tests, administered by state governments. In California, teachers know that contemporary global themes such as disease, information technology, migration, and environmental policy make up about 10 percent of the "standards" they are supposed to teach in 10th grade world history, but they represent only one question on the 60-question state exam. With so much history to cover, and so much emphasis on test scores, teachers are under pressure to cut out extras. For now, foreign languages and global politics, economics, history, and culture are dispensable.


That is not to say there are no bright spots. Ask around, and you will hear stories of individual teachers who slip global context into the curriculum, often with a lot of imagination. "It's mostly individuals who, because of their personal experiences, value international education, and try to find ways to fit it in," says Peter Hammer, social studies content specialist for the San Francisco Unified School District. "It takes a great deal of determination on the individual teacher's part, and support from outside the schools."

Some adventurous school districts have let their foreign-language programs evolve with the times. When the Washington, D.C., suburb of Fairfax, Virginia, began to attract new immigrants in the 1980s, schools reflected the change. Today, students can study Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Latin, Russian, and Spanish. New York's Henry Street School takes Chinese-language students on field trips to Chinatown, where they speak Mandarin with curious shopkeepers and restaurant owners, and benefit from an easy and inexpensive study abroad-like experience. And then there is the spread of two-way bilingual immersion schools. At the public Alice Fong Yu elementary school in San Francisco, children learn everything from math to social studies in both Cantonese and English. By the time they reach high school, they are totally bilingual -- cognitively wired to learn more languages, and culturally wired to understand America's place in the world.

A few schools are experimenting even further. At the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, an influential public charter school in the sprawl north of Los Angeles, Eugene Astilla stands at the head of a classroom full of high school freshmen. His students, overwhelmingly Latino and overwhelmingly poor, are dressed in black and white (red and blue are gang colors, and banned in class). Astilla teaches world history at a new satellite school, the Vaughn International Studies Academy. It's one of eight pilot programs nationwide, funded by the nonprofit Asia Society and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to try to bring the contemporary world to every class in the school day, even science and math.

Today, Astilla asks his kids to compare Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Saddam Hussein. All used violence to stay in power, several suggest. "They used propaganda," one student points out. "Good one!" Astilla says approvingly. He quizzes the class on facts. "Can someone tell me the name of Saddam's party?" he asks. "Sunni?" one kid says, hesitantly. "No, but good guess," Astilla says. "I'll give you a clue. It's something you kids don't take often enough." A boy in the back raises his hand. "The Shower Party?" he asks, and half the room jumps in at once: "Baath!"

The readings on Hitler and Mussolini are in the standard textbook. The readings on Saddam are downloaded from the Web. And that is how it goes in every class -- teachers hit the stuff the state expects kids to know but lead detours out of the textbook to try and put things in a global context. Take a lesson going on next door, on plant biology, where the teacher, Noah DeLeon, mixes overhead slides on photosynthesis with world agriculture maps. He goes over the mechanics of plant reproduction, but also prompts kids to think about the wider meaning of plants, from the debate over corn-derived ethanol as a fuel source to food security around the world. "There's no curriculum out there," explains Principal Yvonne Chan. "There isn't any model."

All the students at Vaughn take Spanish and Chinese. Because many of them are fluent Spanish speakers, or native Spanish speakers who had to master English, they pick up Chinese quickly -- a second foreign language always comes more easily. Next year, the school will begin to offer Arabic as an elective. Neighborhood parents, many of whom speak only Spanish, are among the school's biggest supporters. "Our children need languages other than Spanish and English to compete globally," says Imelda Sierra, whose daughter attends the school.

Large American cities have always been international and multicultural, but the nation's 2000 Census was something of a landmark. For the first time, new immigrants were more likely to settle in a suburb than in a big city such as Los Angeles, Miami, or New York. States that were home to very few recent immigrants a generation ago, including Maine, Minnesota, and North Carolina, are finding new languages and new cultures in their midst.

Of course, cultural diversity does not automatically give a community a global outlook. Many American children of immigrants reluctantly speak two or three languages, but otherwise stay willfully ignorant of their parents' native countries. White suburbanites may hear Hindi in the neighborhood for the first time, notice a new sari shop at the corner strip mall, develop a regular craving for takeout tandoori, and still think Kashmir is for sweaters. But new immigrants make foreignness immediate for Americans, in a way that citizens of small countries on crowded continents take for granted.

That may be the best hope for a broader commitment to international education in U.S. schools. Whether the United States looks to its growing and dispersing immigrant communities as a resource, though, may depend on how well the nation overcomes some longstanding ideas -- namely, that Americans are easily drawn to foreign loyalties, and that public education should be a defense against cultural dissolution. Many critics, for instance, still rail against bilingual education as an un-American accommodation to foreigners. Just look at conservative pundit Tucker Carlson's reaction to the Bush administration's National Security Language Initiative. "People are really influenced by their study abroad," he argued. "Do we want, in other words, the federal government paying, possibly to create more converts to radical Islam? Because that is actually what's going to happen."

An inward-looking education system didn’t stop the United States from becoming rich and powerful in the 20th century. It would be a mistake, though, to assume that what worked for previous generations will still work in the future. Scientific research teams have become multilingual, multinational, and multidisciplinary. Businesses are staking out suppliers, partners, and storefronts overseas. Teachers and students must welcome and integrate a growing number of new immigrants into their communities. Soldiers, often teenagers with no education beyond high school, deploy alongside allies from dozens of different countries, and negotiate language and cultural barriers in situations where time and precision can make the difference between lives saved and lives lost. In the 21st century, everyone is a potential diplomat.

But it isn't just the world that's changing; it's the very nature of knowledge. Grammar, spelling, and multiplication tables may remain comfortingly constant, but theories in science, technology, politics, and economics can become dated by the time a textbook publisher goes to press. "What's different today," says Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, professor of globalization and education at New York University, "is the rapid rate in which knowledge becomes obsolete. That means that learning has to be focused on cognitive skills." Think about good computer education: It doesn't just teach kids to perform a task, it teaches them how to learn unfamiliar technology. The same holds true in global economics, politics, and society, which can shift -- and shift the world's competitive landscape -- as fast as a new operating system can turn a two-year-old laptop into an expensive typewriter.

We may live in a democratic age, but the international system is no democracy. The United States can solve crises that entire continents, working together, cannot. It can also sink most treaties, veto any global consensus, undermine the United Nations, and make far-reaching decisions that the rest of the world must live with. Savvy countries have realized that, and angled for influence with American youth. The Chinese government put up funding to encourage the College Board to develop its new AP Chinese exam, and Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal recently donated $40 million to introduce ambitious Georgetown and Harvard students to the Arab world. Americans should be grateful for their concern. In a few years, Christina's disoriented peers will land jobs in Washington, get their first set of business cards from multinational firms, and sit in judgment of U.S. foreign policy every four years. The United States can no longer afford an isolationist education system, any more than the world can afford an isolationist American public.


Revolution in a Box

It's not Twitter or Facebook that's reinventing the planet. Eighty years after the first commercial broadcast crackled to life, television still rules our world. And let's hear it for the growing legions of couch potatoes: All those soap operas might be the ticket to a better future after all.

"The television," science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury lamented in 1953, is "that insidious beast, that Medusa which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little." Bradbury wasn't alone in his angst: Television has been as reviled as it has been welcomed since the first broadcasts began in 1928. Critics of television, from disgusted defenders of the politically correct to outraged conservative culture warriors, blame it for poor health, ignorance, and moral decline, among other assorted ills. Some go further: According to a recent fatwa in India, television is "nearly impossible to use … without a sin." Last year, a top Saudi cleric declared it permissible to kill the executives of television stations for spreading sedition and immorality.

So will the rapid, planetwide proliferation of television sets and digital and satellite channels, to corners of the world where the Internet is yet unheard of, be the cause of global decay such critics fear? Hardly. A world of couch potatoes in front of digital sets will have its downsides -- fewer bowling clubs, more Wii bowling. It may or may not be a world of greater obesity, depending on whom you ask. But it could also be a world more equal for women, healthier, better governed, more united in response to global tragedy, and more likely to vote for local versions of American Idol than shoot at people.

Indeed, television, that 1920s technology so many of us take for granted, is still coming to tens of millions with a transformative power -- for the good -- that the world is only now coming to understand. The potential scope of this transformation is enormous: By 2007, there was more than one television set for every four people on the planet, and 1.1 billion households had one. Another 150 million-plus households will be tuned in by 2013.

In our collective enthusiasm for whiz-bang new social-networking tools like Twitter and Facebook, the implications of this next television age -- from lower birthrates among poor women to decreased corruption to higher school enrollment rates -- have largely gone overlooked despite their much more sweeping impact. And it's not earnest educational programming that's reshaping the world on all those TV sets. The programs that so many dismiss as junk -- from song-and-dance shows to Desperate Housewives -- are being eagerly consumed by poor people everywhere who are just now getting access to television for the first time. That's a powerful force for spreading glitz and drama -- but also social change.

Television, it turns out, is the kudzu of consumer durables. It spreads across communities with incredible speed. Just look at the story of expanding TV access in the rural areas of one poor country, Indonesia: Within two years of village electrification, average television ownership rates reached 30 percent. Within seven years, 60 percent of households had TVs -- this in areas where average surveyed incomes were about $2 a day. Fewer than 5 percent of these same households owned refrigerators. Television is so beloved that in the vast swaths of the world where there is still no electricity network, people hook up their TVs to batteries -- indeed, in a number of poor countries, such as Peru, more homes have televisions than electricity.

As a result, the television is fast approaching global ubiquity. About half of Indian households have a television, up from less than a third in 2001; the figure for Brazil is more than four-fifths. (In comparison, just 7 percent of Indians use the Internet, and about one-third of Brazilians do.) In places like Europe and North America, 90-plus percent of households have a TV. Even in countries as poor as Vietnam and Algeria, rates are above 80 percent. But the potential for real growth in access (and impact) is in the least-developed countries, like Nigeria and Bangladesh, where penetration rates are still well below 30 percent.

If an explosion of access is the first global television revolution, then an explosion of choice will be the second. By 2013, half of the world's televisions will be receiving digital signals, which means access to many more channels. Digital broadcast builds on considerably expanded viewing options delivered through cable or satellite. Indeed, nearly two-thirds of households in India with a TV already have a cable or satellite connection. And in the United States, a bellwether for global television trends, the spread of cable since 1970 has meant an increasing number of broadcast channels are sharing a declining proportion of the audience -- down from 80 percent to 40 percent over the last 35 years. The average American household now has access to 119 channels, and a similar phenomenon is spreading rapidly around the globe.

The explosion of choice is loosening the grip of bureaucrats the world over, who in many countries have either run or controlled programming directly, or heavily regulated the few stations available. A 97-country survey carried out a few years ago found that an average of 60 percent of the top five television stations in each country were owned by the state, with 32 percent in the hands of small family groupings. Programming in developing countries in particular has often been slanted toward decidedly practical topics -- rural TV in China, for example, frequently covers the latest advances in pig breeding. And coverage of politics has often strayed from the balanced. Think Hugo Chávez, who refused to renew the license of RCTV, Venezuela's most popular TV network, after it broadcast commentary critical of his government. He regularly appears on the state channel in his own TV show Aló Presidente -- episodes of which last anywhere from six to a record 96 hours.

But increasingly, the days when presidential speechmaking and pig breeding were must-see TV are behind us. As choices in what to watch expand, people will have access both to a wider range of voices and to a growing number of channels keen to give the audience what it really wants. And what it wants seems to be pretty much the same everywhere -- sports, reality shows, and, yes, soap operas. Some 715 million people worldwide watched the finals of the 2006 soccer World Cup, for example. More than a third of Afghanistan's population tunes into that country's version of American Idol -- Afghan Star. The biggest television series ever worldwide is Baywatch, an everyday tale of lifesaving folk based on and around the beaches of Santa Monica, Calif. The show has been broadcast in 142 countries, and at its peak it had an audience estimated north of 1 billion. (Today, the world's most popular TV show is the medical drama House, which according to media consulting firm Eurodata TV Worldwide was watched by 82 million people last year in 66 countries, edging out CSI and Desperate Housewives.)


Ghulam Nabi Azad, India's health and family welfare minister, has even taken to promoting TV as a form of birth control. "In olden days people had no other entertainment but sex, which is why they produced so many children," he mused publicly in July. "Today, TV is the biggest source of entertainment. Hence, it is important that there is electricity in every village so that people watch TV till late in the night. By the time the serials are over, they'll be too tired to have sex and will fall asleep." Azad is certainly right that television helps slow birthrates, though experience from his own country and elsewhere suggests that it is by example, not exhaustion, that TV programs manage such a dramatic effect.

Since the 1970s, Brazil's Rede Globo network has been providing a steady diet of locally produced soaps, some of which are watched by as many as 80 million people. The programs are no more tales of everyday life in Brazil than Desperate Housewives is an accurate representation of a typical U.S. suburb. In a country where divorce was only legalized in 1977, nearly a fifth of the main female characters were divorced (and about a quarter were unfaithful). What's more, 72 percent of the main female characters on the Globo soaps had no kids, and only 7 percent had more than one. In 1970, the average Brazilian woman, in contrast, had given birth nearly six times.

But the soaps clearly resonated with viewers. As the Globo network expanded to new areas in the 1970s and 1980s, according to researchers at the Inter-American Development Bank, parents began naming their kids after soap-opera characters. And women in those parts of the country -- especially poor women -- started having fewer babies. Being in an area covered by the Globo network had the same effect on a woman's fertility as two additional years of education. This wasn't the result of what was shown during commercial breaks -- for most of the time, contraceptive advertising was banned, and there was no government population-control policy at all. The portrayal of plausible female characters with few children, apparently, was an important social cue.

Cable and satellite television may be having an even bigger impact on fertility in rural India. As in Brazil, popular programming there includes soaps that focus on urban life. Many women on these serials work outside the home, run businesses, and control money. In addition, soap characters are typically well-educated and have few children. And they prove to be extraordinarily powerful role models: Simply giving a village access to cable TV, research by scholars Robert Jensen and Emily Oster has found, has the same effect on fertility rates as increasing by five years the length of time girls stay in school.

The soaps in Brazil and India provided images of women who were empowered to make decisions affecting not only childbirth, but a range of household activities. The introduction of cable or satellite services in a village, Jensen and Oster found, goes along with higher girls' school enrollment rates and increased female autonomy. Within two years of getting cable or satellite, between 45 and 70 percent of the difference between urban and rural areas on these measures disappears. In Brazil, it wasn't just birthrates that changed as Globo's signal spread -- divorce rates went up, too. There may be something to the boast of one of the directors of the company that owns Afghan Star. When a woman reached the final five this year, the director suggested it would "do more for women's rights than all the millions of dollars we have spent on public service announcements for women's rights on TV."

TV's salutary effects extend far beyond reproduction and gender equality. Kids who watch TV out of school, according to a World Bank survey of young people in the shantytowns of Fortaleza in Brazil, are considerably less likely to consume drugs (or, for that matter, get pregnant). TV's power to reduce youth drug use was two times larger than having a comparatively well-educated mother. And though they might not be as subtly persuasive as telenovelas or reality shows, well-designed broadcast campaigns can also make a difference. In Ghana, where as few as 4 percent of mothers were found to wash their hands with soap after defecating and less than 1 percent before feeding their children, reported hand-washing rates shot up in response to a broadcast campaign emphasizing that people eat "more than just rice" if preparers don't wash their hands properly before dinner.

Indeed, TV is its own kind of education -- and rather than clash with schooling, as years of parental nagging would suggest, it can even enhance it. U.S. kids with access to a TV signal in the 1950s, for instance -- think toddlers watching quality educational programming like I Love Lucy -- tended to have higher test scores in 1964, according to research by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro of the University of Chicago. Today, more than 700,000 secondary-school students in remote Mexican villages watch the Telesecundaria program of televised classes. Although students enter the program with below-average test scores in mathematics and language, by graduation they have caught up in math and halved the language-score deficit.

Similarly, evidence that television is responsible for the grim state of civic discourse is mixed, at best. Better television reception in Javanese villages in Indonesia, according to research by Ben Olken, comes with substantially lower levels of participation in social activities and with lower measures of trust in others. Villages with access to an extra TV channel see a decline of about 7 percent in the number of social groups. Similar outcomes have been found in the United States. But improved television reception did not appear to affect the level of discussion in village meetings or levels of corruption in a village road project undertaken during Olken's study. And an examination of the early history of television in the United States by Markus Prior suggests that regions that saw access to more channels in the 1950s and 1960s witnessed increases in political knowledge, interest, and turnout, especially among less-educated TV viewers.

What about television's broader impact on governance? Here, it's the level of competition that seems to matter -- a hopeful sign given that the future of global TV is likely to be considerably more competitive. If the only channel that viewers watch is biased in its coverage, then, unsurprisingly, they are likely to be swayed toward that viewpoint. Brazil's Globo channel, for all its positive impact on fertility rates, has played a less positive role in terms of bias-free reporting. It has long had a close relationship with government, as well as a dominant market share. In Brazil's 1989 election -- a race in which Globo was squarely behind right-leaning presidential candidate Fernando Collor de Mello -- the difference between people who never watched television and those who watched it frequently was a 13 percentage-point increase in the likelihood of voting for Collor, scholar Taylor Boas found. But with channels proliferating nearly everywhere, television controllers may have much less power to sway elections today. In the choice-rich United States, for example, there is no simple relation between hours watched and voting patterns, even if those who watch particular channels are more likely to vote Republican or Democrat.

Then there's corruption. Consider the bribes that Peruvian secret-police chief Vladimiro Montesinos had to pay to subvert competitive newsmaking during the 1990s. It cost only $300,000 per month for Montesinos to bribe most of the congressmen in Peru's government, and about $250,000 a month to bribe the judges -- a real bargain. But Montesinos had to spend about $3 million a month to subvert six of the seven available television channels to ensure friendly coverage for the government. The good news here is that competition in the electronic Fourth Estate can apparently make it more expensive to run a country corruptly.

Corruption is one thing, but could television help solve a problem we've had since before Sumer and Elam battled it out around Basra in 2700 B.C. -- keeping countries from fighting each other? Maybe.

U.S. researchers who study violence on TV battle viciously themselves over whether it translates into more aggressive behavior in real life. But at least from a broader perspective, television might play a role in stemming the global threat of war. It isn't that TV reporting of death and destruction necessarily reduces support for wars already begun -- that's an argument that has raged over conflicts from Vietnam to the Iraq war. It is more that, by fostering a growing global cosmopolitanism, television might make war less attractive to begin with. Indeed, the idea that communications are central to building cross-cultural goodwill is an old one. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels suggested in the 19th century that railways were vital in rapidly cementing the union of the working class: "that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarians, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years," they wrote in The Communist Manifesto. If the Amtraks of the world can have such an impact, surely the Hallmark Channel can do even better.

The fact that Kobe Bryant (born in Philadelphia, plays for the Los Angeles Lakers) sees his basketball shirt considerably outsell those of Yao Ming (born in Shanghai, plays for the Houston Rockets) in China suggests something of that growing global cosmopolitanism at work. The considerable response of global television viewers to images of famine in Ethiopia, or the tsunami in Asia, also shows how TV is a powerful force for shrinking the emotional distance between peoples within and between countries. In the United States, an additional minute of nightly news coverage of the Asian tsunami increased online donation levels to charities involved in relief efforts by 13 percent, according to research from the William Davidson Institute. And analysis of U.S. public opinion indicates that more coverage of a country on evening news shows is related to increased sympathy and support for that country.

Of course, the extent to which television helps foster cosmopolitanism depends on what people are watching. People in the Middle East who only watched Arab news channels were considerably less likely to agree that the September 11 attacks were carried out by Arab terrorists than those exposed to Western media coverage, researchers Gentzkow and Shapiro found, even after taking into account other characteristics likely to shape their views such as education, language, and age. Similarly, the tone and content of coverage of the ground invasion of Iraq was notably different on Al Jazeera than it was on U.S. and British network broadcasts in the spring of 2003 -- and surely this helped sustain notably different attitudes toward the war. But with the growing reach of BBC World News and CNN in the Middle East, and the growing reach of Al Jazeera in the West, there is at least a greater potential to understand how the other side thinks.

Just because soap operas and reality shows can help solve real-world problems doesn't mean the world's politicians should now embrace TV as the ultimate policy prescription. There are of course a few things governments could do to harness television's power for good, such as supporting well-designed public service announcements. But for the most part, politicians ought to be paying less attention to TV, not more. They shouldn't be limiting the number of channels or interfering in the news. A vibrant, competitive television market playing Days of Our Lives or Días de Nuestras Vidas on loop might have a bigger impact even than well-meaning educational programs. And competition is critical to ensuring that television helps inform voters, not just indoctrinate them.

In the not-too-distant future, it is quite possible that the world will be watching 24 billion hours of TV a day -- an average of close to four hours for each person in the world. Some of those hours could surely be better spent -- planting trees, helping old ladies cross the road, or playing cricket, perhaps. But watching TV exposes people to new ideas and different people. With that will come greater opportunity, growing equality, a better understanding of the world, and a new appreciation of the complexities of life for a wannabe Afghan woman pop star. Not bad for a siren Medusa supposedly giving so little.