Cultural Illiteracy of U.S. Students Poses Serious Economic Threat, Say Researchers

Release Date: June 26, 1996 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Warning that 21st-century cultural diplomacy and U.S. economic and political interests are at risk, a team of top international educators is recommending major changes in the policy that defines the educational relationship between the U.S. and Japan.

The three-year project, "Re-thinking the U.S.-Japan Educational Exchange," began in 1994 and is funded by the U.S.-Japan Foundation.

In preparation for its final policy recommendations, which will be announced next year, the project team will meet in New York City this week to discuss the results of its fact-finding phase, much of which flies in the face of conventional wisdom.

The meeting will take place from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, June 28, in the offices of the Institute for International Education, 12th floor, 809 United Nations Plaza (212-984-5331).

The project team has spent two years analyzing the exchange policy that has been in place between the U.S. and Japan for nearly 50 years, drawing on the perspectives of both U.S. and Japanese participants.

Their principal findings include the observation that ignorance of Asian language and culture among U.S. students is so widespread that it portends serious negative consequences for America's economic, political and cultural interests in the Pacific-Rim region.

The team also recommends that both nations make significant specific and dramatic changes in their policies affecting international educational exchange.

Project Director William K. Cummings, Ph.D., professor and director of the Center for Comparative and Global Studies in Education at the University at Buffalo, says the importance of the project lies in the fact that U.S.-Japan relations comprise the main axis of Pacific-Rim economic, cultural and political interaction.

Twenty-five percent of America's overseas trade is with Japan -- a percentage equal to its trade relationship with all of Western Europe. This relationship is challenged by persisting disputes over trade and defense, Cummings said.

"The Pacific Rim is a region of medium to high economic growth, with a projected annual growth rate of 6 percent," Cummings points out. "Existing and emerging businesses and industries in this massive market require large numbers of employees with what we've come to call 'transnational competence.'

"That's a subnational and supranational competence defined not only by specific technical, scientific and intellectual skills, but by a refined sense of the culture in which one is operating. In the case of Japan and other countries, it requires special language ability, as well."

Cummings adds: "Without this competence -- and most American students don't have it -- the United States will not have the skilled workforce required to function well in the realms of international business, banking, law, manufacturing, science or education" as we enter the next century.

"We are neither preparing our students to take the place of those now in the field nor readying them to attract and hold jobs that are already available through international development efforts in this country and overseas," Cummings said.

He points out that one important reason for this is that despite the two nations' increasing economic interdependence, the current structure for educational exchange between the two countries has not functioned effectively for many years.

The most obvious indication of this, Cummings said, is the modest number of young Americans who achieve facility in Japanese language and culture relative to the large number of Japanese who achieve proficiency in English and an understanding of American culture and society.

Every year, for instance, only 1,300 young Americans study abroad in Japan, a number that has decreased for the past two years. In comparison, 40,000 Japanese youth study in the U.S. every year -- a number that has quintupled over the past decade.

This fact alone, says Cummings, gives the Japanese an enormous advantage in international trade. Their business people, industrialists, entrepreneurs and technocrats know what Americans like and want because they've lived here and learned about the American market. American businesses, on the other hand, he said, do not know how best to sell to the Japanese because they do not understand Japanese culture.

Cummings said that American states and communities that have initiated and supported transnational learning on the high-school and college levels have attracted international business in a big way. In terms of Japanese investors, he cited the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin.

"There is ample evidence," he said, "to support the idea that investing in transnational education pays off handsomely for American communities. It also benefits the students in those communities who are conversant with a culture that has widespread business interests around the world."

Besides reviewing the policies and practices that have discouraged balanced international educational exchange between the two nations, the June 28 meeting will address the five areas that should be covered by a new American policy. A similar meeting will be held in Tokyo in November to address changes in the Japanese system.

Among the U.S. recommendations are new roles for the corporate sector, local communities and schools in providing intensive transnational learning experiences for every American high-school student.

This would include instruction in critical languages -- these are languages of world regions in which business is conducted principally in the language of the region. Although English is the international language of commerce, Cummings cites some exceptions, including Japan, parts of the Middle East, much of China, and, to some extent, Russia.

A widely held assumption among U.S. educators and government officials is that Japan has effectively closed its doors to American students by restricting access to most of Japan's premiere educational institutions.

This erroneous belief and the practices that result from it, said Cummings, have existed for decades. They explain why the impressive energy and imagination devoted to strengthening U.S.-Japanes educational exchange over the past several decades have produced modest results at best.

"It has led American policymakers to promote practices that discourage international educational and cultural competence among American students and scholars," he said. "This incompetence is particularly notable in their poor knowledge of Asian languages and cultures."

The acceptance of low enrollments in American high school foreign language and world history courses, which results in a weak base of preparation and motivation for transnational learning experiences.

  • In spite of this weakness on the high-school level, the tendency of the U.S. to concentrate funding for international education on the college level.
  • The demand by U.S. colleges and universities for exceptionally high standards of language preparation among students before they can enroll in Asian studies programs, which discourages pursuit of such studies among many American students.
  • The failure of U.S. community and educational institutions to implement the hundreds of exchange agreements they have with Japanese and other Asian institutions. At the collegiate level alone, more than 500 such agreements have been established but students do not participate in many of these.
  • The fact that American corporate leaders, who speak of a global marketplace and assert the need for a labor force that can operate within that marketplace, usually place no priority on language skills and international experience when hiring new recruits for managerial or technical tracks.

Problem practices, some of them surprising, apply in Japan as well and subvert the benefits of international exchange. Among them is a narrow focus in Japan on the English language and European studies to the virtual exclusion of Asia.

Japan also rarely sends its most elite students in its top universities abroad, but instead, locks up their college days in a highly domesticated educational experiences. Furthermore, most of Japan's universities have a minimal infrastructure for helping students learn about overseas study possibilities and to receive foreign students, even if they manage to get around the many obstacles the Japanese government once placed in the way of foreign youth who seek to study in Japan.

The project team includes international scholars from many major American and Japanese universities, the President's Commission on Arts and Humanities, the Japan Society and the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

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