“Americans have a lot to learn about the world” | TNWAC Board Chair Op-Ed

The Tennessee World Affairs Council is pleased to share for your consideration an op-ed by Board Chairman Jim Shepherd who calls for more attention to global awareness programs consistent with the TNWAC vision: A well-informed community that thinks critically about the world and the impact of global events.

You can join the work of the World Affairs Council through membership, financial support, volunteering and attending global affairs programs. Get more information about the Council’s mission and how you can get involved at TNWAC.org.

[Mr. Shepherd’s op-ed was published in “The Tennessean”]


Americans have a lot to learn about the world

by Jim Shepherd

It was called “What College-Aged Students Know About the World,” and the presidents of the two venerable institutions – Gary Knell of the National Geographic Society and Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations – that asked the question last September said the answer was: not much.

The survey of over 1200 eighteen to twenty-six year olds – the cohort most recently exposed to learning and thinking about the world – “revealed significant gaps between what young people understand about today’s world and what they need to know to successfully navigate and compete in it.” The average score was 55. Just 29 percent earned a minimal pass, a score of 66. Only 1 percent achieved an “A”, a score of 91 or better.

That’s not to say that ignorance of global affairs is limited to any one age group. Last year’s presidential campaign showed a disturbing lack of knowledge among candidates and voters of all ages when it came to understanding the global challenges to America and the host of crises in the world.

Trade and jobs were among the hot button topics for debates, talking points and attack ads; especially popular was disparagement of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the TPP. But how many Americans truly knew what was in the complicated agreement as well as what it meant for geo-strategic relations with allies and adversaries? As global trade relations and patterns are being realigned is America being left behind? No matter how you come down on these issues it’s important to have the conversation and understand the implications.

Then there was candidate Gary Johnson who fumbled a talk-show question, “What would you do if you were elected about Aleppo?” Rather than an insightful discussion of the beleaguered city at the center of the Syrian refugee catastrophe the much-ridiculed response was, “What is Aleppo?”

The knowledge deficit extends beyond electoral issues. Every day we’re confronted with a dizzying collection of crises and challenges. What does it mean that North Korea successfully tested an ICBM that can reach the United States? Does it matter that the generations old Atlantic Alliance is ruptured? What are America’s interests in the complex environment of war-torn Syria and the broader Middle East and how do we address them? What’s the future for US engagement in Afghanistan where we could soon see Americans in harm’s way who were not yet born when the conflict began? Is China a competitor or an adversary? These are questions of war and peace, of prosperity or hardship.

Solving a problem starts with recognizing there is one. If we’re to believe global affairs ignorance is a concern, then we need to understand not that it’s true but why it matters.

Global literacy – understanding how the world is organized and how the United States fits into the complicated challenges to peace and prosperity – is too important to be ignored in a country, our country, that is the top economic, political and military power on the planet.

It is as important in Tennessee as it is anywhere in America. Our state hosts 936 foreign-based businesses representing about $35 billion in capital and employing about 135,000 Tennesseans. Foreign exports in 2016 reached over $31 billion and a quarter of all new jobs in the state flow from foreign direct investment. Global literacy is an element of prosperity in Tennessee.

Knell and Haass argued that Americans are “affected in fundamental ways – in legislative bodies, boardrooms and the environment – by what happens in the world.” They noted, “The future of U.S. competitiveness and influence in the world depends on a population with adequate knowledge of how this world works.”

I agree and that’s why I recently began service as Chairman of the Board for the Tennessee World Affairs Council, an educational association that holds as its mission the basic principle that Americans should be smart(er) about their world. It aims to provide programs and resources to the public, to the business community and to schools on a nonpartisan basis – it has no political agenda – and it is open to all.

So what is “global literacy” in our context? It is a face-to-face meeting with the Russian Ambassador at a town hall hosted at Belmont University to ask if Moscow and Washington are in a new “Cold War.” It is students following daily world news and building teams to compete in global awareness tournaments. It is business people meeting with international trade policymakers and specialists to guide their decision-making. It is college students talking with diplomats, business leaders, NGO officials and others about international careers and jobs. It is citizens who can give informed points of view to their elected representatives and who go to the voting booth armed with facts to guide their choices.

How will we know when we’ve reached our community’s goals of improving “global literacy?” Perhaps it will come through another NatGeo/CFR survey or simply the anecdotal answers to these questions: What should Americans be asking of their leaders about the country’s place in the world? Can Americans recognize incoherent global policies and dangerous behaviors? How do we navigate among so-called “fake news” sources and credible media when it comes to global affairs?

And what if we don’t take up the challenge of improving the “global literacy” for ourselves, our children, our colleagues and our fellow citizens? The consequences for the United States have been long understood, as far back as Thomas Jefferson, who offered, “No nation can live in ignorance with impunity.”

Mr. Jim Shepherd was named Chairman of the Board of the Tennessee World Affairs Council this month. He recently retired as President of Carlex Glass, a leading supplier to the global automotive market. He was previously chairman of the International Business Council of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at Chairman@TNWAC.org.


MISSION: The mission of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Tennessee World Affairs Council is to promote international awareness, understanding and connections to enhance the region’s global stature and to prepare Tennesseans to thrive in our increasingly complex and connected world.

The Tennessee World Affairs Council is a nonprofit (501c3), nonpartisan educational charity based in Nashville that works to build understanding of global issues in our communities. Financial gifts are tax-deductible consistent with IRS regulations.

Learn more about the Council and find how you can join, donate and volunteer at: www.TNWAC.org  — 

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