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Educating Globally Competent Citizens

Dennis Falk writes in this guest web-log on the need for United States citizens to be globally competent and on the limitations of many young members of our society in this regard. He proposes that higher education must take the lead in addressing this gap between our society’s needs for global competence and the current state of global awareness of young citizens.

Never in our history as a nation has the United States had greater need for citizens to be globally competent. A globally competent citizen may be defined as a person who possesses the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be an engaged, responsible, and effective member of a globally interdependent society.

Unfortunately, many young people in our country lack the necessary knowledge, skills, and attitudes related to global competence. In an era when the United States is making unprecedented incursions into foreign countries, a National Geographic/Roper study conducted in 2006 found that 63% percent of 18-24 year-olds could not identify Iraq or Saudi Arabia on a map of the Middle East and 88% percentage could not identify Afghanistan on a map of Asia. The United States increasingly needs to interact with people around the world to strengthen its economy, yet few young people possess intercultural communication skills. Chauvinistic attitudes among many United States citizens prevent our country from interacting effectively with people elsewhere to address major problems, such as climate change, deforestation or world poverty, that affect us all.

Fortunately, many colleges and universities are taking steps to enhance the global competence of their students. UMD’s Alworth Institute for International Studies, for example, provides events throughout the year that promote international knowledge. Macalester College, my alma mater in St. Paul Minnesota, is developing an Institute for Global Citizenship to build on its long-standing commitment to international issues and to integrate service learning as an integral part of its efforts to promote citizenship.

University and college campuses are working increasingly to integrate international content into courses across the curriculum. Many college and university campuses require students to take at least one course with international content. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities is partnering with the New York Times and the Center for Strategic and International Studies to develop curricula that will help educate globally competent citizens at its 430 member institutions. How much is required and for how long, to help bring a critical edge to public discussion on world issues remains an open question.

It is now recognized that we can educate globally competent citizens only if we internationalize our campus in a comprehensive manner. The Handbook on Comprehensive Internationalization, published by the American Council on Education, emphasizes that a commitment to internationalization must be clearly articulated in the institution’s mission, goals, and objectives, and that a strategy, structure, policies, and process to achieve these goals and objectives must be in place. Both the curriculum and co-curriculum must promote international learning, and study and internships abroad need to be available and encouraged. Such a mission must include the internationalization of the experience of academics as well as students. Internationalization can be an integral part of the campus culture only if the elements above are integrated into a comprehensive internationalization plan for the campus.

The United States clearly needs globally competent citizens if it is going to sustain high-quality public discussion of international issues and of the role of the United States in the world. To remain strong as a democratic nation and to have a positive impact in the world requires greater critical understanding of policy issues and contexts world wide. Colleges can tackle one aspect but society more widely also needs to have access to better information and great levels of discussion of international topics broadly defined.