Citizenship in the Global Age

A student looks at the camera

Governors James B. Hunt, Jr. and John Engler on citizenship in the 21st century and its implications on the education system.

Even before September 11 shattered any notion of American isolation, it ought to have been abundantly clear that American students know far too little about the rest of the world. In June 2001, the National Commission on Asia in the Schools, on which we both served, released a report that said that young Americans are “dangerously uninformed about international matters” and that “this knowledge deficit is particularly glaring in the case of Asia,” home to more than 60% of the world’s population. [1]

As the standards movement in American education made important strides in the last 15 years of the 20th century, we saw a refreshing and long-overdue focus on what our students should know and be able to do at various points in their education. Yet, as we confront the rapid changes of the early 21st century, our standards and our education system in general urgently need to be modernized to promote international knowledge and skills.

There are several reasons for this, all linked to globalization:

  • A global marketplace demands an internationally competent work force. Trade and returns on international business investment have risen from 13% of the U.S. economy to nearly 30% last year. Already, one in six of the nation’s jobs is tied to international trade. The majority of future growth for many industries— large, medium, and small— will be found in overseas markets. Access to good jobs will require new skills. Future careers in business, government, health care, law enforcement, and a wide variety of other areas will call for greater international knowledge and skills. And it is important to note that minorities continue to be underrepresented in international careers and need to be exposed to international content before they go to college.
  • In an age in which events on the other side of the world can have greater impact than local decisions, Americans who wish to exercise effective citizenship in a democratic society in the 21st century will have to be knowledgeable about global issues. Dealing with the biggest emerging threats to peace and stability— such as terrorism, poverty, HIV/AIDS, and environmental degradation — will require increased knowledge of world regions, cultures, and languages.
  • With increasing populations from many different parts of Asia, Latin America, and Africa, there is a need for greater understanding of the myriad cultures that students bring to school and will encounter in their workplaces and communities.
  • Finally, international education needs to include contact with students in other nations, both to address the tremendous misinformation about the U.S. among young people in many parts of the world and to promote mutual understanding and problem solving.

As governors, we spent a great deal of time trying to grow our states’ economies. For example, in Michigan, the Michigan Commission on Asia in the Schools, consisting of corporate, academic, and education leaders, conducted a comprehensive review of the state’s ties with Asia and what Michigan students know about the world outside the United States. [2] What the Michigan Commission found did not surprise the state’s corporate community. Michigan’s trade with Asia, like that of the United States overall, is more than double that with Europe. Most of our multinationals, such as Ford, GM, Dow, and Whirlpool, are already competing hard to expand their global market share by seeking to understand their Asian customers and competitors. Since Asia is likely to provide a disproportionate share of the world’s market growth in the 21st century, Michigan’s small businesses are trying to acquire similar understanding.

Yet Michigan schools teach little about Asia. A review of the Michigan Educational Assessment System found only one question that dealt with Asia, and in 2002 Michigan certified only one teacher of Japanese.

In North Carolina, as in other southern states, governors work to increase exports, especially of knowledge- intensive services and high-tech products; to rec ruit foreign investment; and to attract fore i g n tourists. The Southern Growth Policies Board, on which 14 governors serve, issued a report early in 2004 titled The Globally Competitive South (Under Construction). Based on extensive economic analysis and interviews with more than 1,000 southern residents, the report said that “global events used to be something that happened ‘over there,’ but today, globalization affects everyone’s lives.” Globalization is a contentious issue, with both negative and positive effects, but for the South to position itself for success, it needs a work force with global competence. The report issued a major recommendation to its member states, including North Carolina: “Internationalize P-16 and adult education to respond to evolving business and community challenges.” [3]

For the past 10 years, postsecondary institutions have been working to internationalize many of their programs and professional schools. Yet school curricula rarely reflect this new reality.To modernize our K- 12 schools, we will need leadership and assistance from many sectors:

  • Governors can play a leading role by connecting economic investments with those in education to create an internationally literate work force. Governors can include educators in state trade missions. They can conduct reviews of the adequacy of their states’ standards and policies and identify public and private resources in their states to further international education. And, certainly, governors should also promote greater tolerance and understanding of the cultures of their new immigrant communities.
  • Business leaders should ask policy makers to emphasize the importance of international knowledge and skills and help schools to develop innovative programs. Media companies can have a powerful influence in engaging young people in international affairs. Technology companies can link American schools to schools in other countries and help build international knowledge through online courses. In fact, business and civic leaders ought to help create school-to-school links between schools in the United States and schools in other parts of the world at such a pace that half the nation’s schools will have such links by 2010.
  • Universities should make their expertise in area studies and international affairs available more systematically to K-12 schools. Universities should also rethink their teacher training programs to ensure that all new teachers know the international dimensions of the subjects they will teach.
  • Parents ought to insist that international studies are treated not as an expendable frill, but as a vital part of education for every citizen of the 21st century.They ought to urge schools to offer up-to-date, challenging content that engages their children’s minds and prepares them to meet the demands of an interconnected world.

Globalization is a fact, not an ideology. Everything from averting the spread of nuclear and biological weapons to opening new markets and business opportunities and from solving global environmental and health concerns to managing international conflicts will require our citizens to have greater knowledge of other world regions.

Given the terrorist attacks on our nation and its people and the long twilight war on terrorism in which we are now engaged, it is vital that the generation of Americans now in school develop and cultivate a broad understanding of the economic, cultural, religious, political, military, health, and environmental dynamics around the globe. For all of them affect our interests.

Studying other countries and cultures will help empower our young people to succeed in the marketplace. It will also help them contribute to the marketplace of ideas at a time when absolutist ideologies seek to destroy the very notion of competing ideas.

In an interconnected world, understanding other nations and regions is a cornerstone of democratic citizenship. This aspect of education deserves our swift and lasting attention.

Authors: John Engler, who served as governor of Michigan from 1993 to 2001, was a member of the National Commission on Asia in the Schools, which was chaired by James B. Hunt, Jr., who served as governor of North Carolina from 1977 to 1985 and from 1993 to 2001. They are now co-chairs of the National Coalition on Asia and International Studies in the Schools.



1 National Commission on Asia in the Schools, Asia in the Schools: Preparing Young Americans for Today’s Interconnected World, (New York: Asia Society, 2001), 6 - 7.

2 Michigan Commission on Asia in the Schools, Report and Recommendations of the Michigan Commission on Asia in the Schools (Lansing: Michigan Department of History, Arts, and Libraries, 2002).

3 Jim Clinton, Carol Conway, and Linda Hoke, The Globally Competitive South (Under Construction) (Research Triangle Park, N.C.: Southern Growth Policies Board, June 2004).


This article was originally published in Phi Delta Kappan (November 2004). Reprinted with permission.

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