The National Security Threat We Are Ignoring: The Failure of American Education to Prepare Students for the Future

America is in peril, and there is reason to fear for our future. The peril stems from our fundamental and profound ignorance about the rest of the world. Let me illustrate.

From 2010 to 2017, I served as president of the American University of Nigeria, a private university founded in 2003 based on the US model of university education. Since returning from Africa, I get asked over and over again questions like, “When you were in Nigeria, did you meet my cousin who is in the Peace Corps? He’s in Tanzania.”

Africa is a huge continent. In terms of land size, you could fit all of China, India, the United States, and Europe into it. Getting asked questions that demonstrate a lack of the most basic understanding of Africa is a reminder that when it comes to geographic literacy, we in the United States generally flunk. And it matters.

Around the world, governing is getting harder and the nature of conflict is changing. The global economy is shifting, and in wealthy countries the working-age population is shrinking. In 2013, the most populous countries were China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia, and Japan. But by about 2050, just thirty years from now, the world will not look the same. India will have the most people, followed by China. The United States will no longer be third. Instead, Nigeria will be. And three of the ten top countries in the world, in terms of population, will be African.

Economic growth and wealth will also change dramatically. Right now, the United States is number one in terms of gross domestic product. Reliable estimates predict that by 2050 China will be first, India will be second, and the United States will have dropped to third place. Indonesia and Brazil will be next.1 How much are we teaching about Indonesia and Brazil? For that matter, who could pass a quiz about China or India?

The continuing acceleration of technological change will cause more discontinuities. It’s predicted, for example, that in the next twenty or so years automation may eliminate or replace, on average, 57 percent of jobs worldwide. Fifty-seven percent. It is estimated that in China, 77 percent of jobs will be automated.2 In Ethiopia—which will have reached the dubious status of tenth-most-populous country —85 percent of current jobs will be automated. The disruption, the challenge, is going to be enormous both for those countries and for the international order. Even as jobs are lost, we don’t know what jobs might be created, and whether there will be enough of them. And if there aren’t?

As our students know, climate change poses some of the biggest threats to our planet’s biosphere and to humanity. Many parts of the world, including the United States, are already seeing the effects of climate change. In the past twenty years, climate-related and geophysical disasters led to the deaths of 1.3 million people. The varied impacts of climate change are legion. Limited natural resources, such as drinking water, are likely to become even scarcer in many parts of the world. Crops and livestock will struggle to survive in climate change “hotspots” where conditions will become either too hot and dry, or too cold and wet. This will threaten livelihoods and food security. People have been forced, and will continue to be forced, to abandon their homes.3 New displacement patterns and competition over depleted natural resources can spark, as they have sparked, conflict between communities, and they can compound pre-existing problems. While most people affected are currently remaining within their national borders, displacement across borders already occurs, leading to conflict and to violence. That they will continue to move seems likely. In short, the magnitude of the effects of rapid global climate change will be unprecedented, and we know that they are only going to intensify.

That is the challenging world that our students will face, a challenging world that they will eventually lead. And most of those challenges will be global. It is our responsibility as educators, whether as faculty, staff, or administrators, to make sure that our graduates are prepared for this new world—including filling United Nations positions and other international positions in government, as well as in the private sphere, that are so critical for our country. How well are we preparing them?

Global literacy

A May 2016 global literacy survey of college students conducted by National Geographic and the Council on Foreign Relations showed significant gaps between what young people understand about today’s world and what they’re going to need to understand to successfully navigate it. In a random sample of around 1,200 respondents aged 18 to 26, the average score on the survey’s knowledge questions was a failing 55 percent. Mind you, these are college students. Just 29 percent of respondents earned a minimal passing grade of 66 percent correct answers or better. Just over 1 percent of respondents scored 91 percent or higher. The questions weren’t particularly hard. One question, for example, was whether over the past five years, more Mexicans had left the United States than had entered it. Only 34 percent correctly responded that more had left. In another question, only 30 percent of respondents knew which branch of the US government (the legislative) has the power to declare war.4

The survey also asked participants how much of their knowledge on global topics came from their college studies. Brace yourselves. Only 11 percent responded, “a great deal.” Seventeen percent said, “a lot,” and 34 percent, “a moderate amount.” Twenty-six percent said, “a little,” and 12 percent, “none at all.” None at all. Students were most likely to say that current world events were “extremely important,” followed by US government and politics, then economics and finance. Only 25 percent said world history was “extremely important,” while 22 percent said international relations, 20 percent said non-US cultures, and 19 percent said geography.5

As Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Gary E. Knell, president and CEO of the National Geographic Society, state in their foreword to the report on the survey,

These survey results come in an era of globalization, when the world is characterized by enormous cross-border flows of everything from people and ideas to weapons and pollutants. American citizens are affected in fundamental ways—in legislative bodies, boardrooms, and the environment—by what happens in the world. All of this makes an educated public essential for American economic competitiveness, national security, and democracy. To contend for jobs, assume leadership positions in government and other sectors, and hold elected officials accountable, young people must understand the global context in which they operate as citizens and professionals. Yet our survey shows that many individuals educated in this country do not.6 This constitutes a major national challenge.

So how do we increase interest in world study? We know that study abroad makes a difference, but only about 10.9 percent of all undergraduate students, and about 16 percent of those earning a bachelor’s degree, study abroad at some point in their undergraduate career. This is according to the Institute of International Education. The biggest boost in study abroad is through short-term programs, increasing to 64.6 percent in 2017–18. And while study abroad programs have made some progress in racially and ethnically diversifying participation, they are still a long way from reflecting the diversity of enrollment in US higher education as a whole, which is now about 42 percent nonwhite.7

Another challenge with study abroad is that most students are not studying in the countries that will soon be in the top ten in terms of population and GDP. In general, students (54.9 percent of them) are still going to Europe. Only 14.9 percent are going to Latin America and the Caribbean, 11.2 percent to Asia, 4.2 percent to sub-Saharan Africa, and 2.1 percent to the Middle East.8 It’s really crucial that we get students out to the parts of the world that are going to be so important in their lifetimes and to their futures.

Internationalization on campus

At Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, we have something pretty extraordinary going on: 67 percent of our 2018–19 graduating class studied abroad. Faculty members are key to this high participation. Given our curricular focus on global education—we offer instruction in twelve foreign languages and roughly half of our courses have international content—it’s virtually automatic that most faculty hires have international training and interests.

Once at Dickinson, faculty members have multiple opportunities to enhance their own internationalization. One major opportunity is the chance to lead a study abroad program. Some of these programs, such as globally integrated courses that include several weeks abroad, are short-term. Others, such as serving as resident director at a Dickinson abroad site, last two years or more. For our abroad programming, we make a special effort to include faculty from disciplines that are often underrepresented in internationalization, such as the sciences. Approximately 40 percent of our faculty have led study programs abroad. And, of course, faculty contributions to the college’s global efforts are valued for tenure and promotion and for merit salary increases.

Dickinson is also privileged to be located next to the US Army War College. We have drawn not only on the War College’s faculty but also on its international fellows, senior military officers who hail from seventy-five different countries. In Carlisle, we’ve had incredible faculty and student exchanges, which have enriched and broadened our views and helped internationalize our campus and our whole community. As part of their study at the War College, international fellows are required to write research papers. Dickinson’s Writing Center is one of the only such programs in the world that can offer them writing instruction and assistance in eleven languages. Our student tutors critique and help the fellows, and while students are sometimes initially nervous about advising these military leaders, they learn to collaborate and build strong relationships that benefit all parties.

Students coming from abroad also contribute to internationalizing campuses. But while the number of students worldwide studying outside of their home country has more than doubled since 2001 (from 2.1 million to 5 million), the percentage of those students coming to the United States dropped from 28 percent in 2001 to 22 percent in 2018, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. This is a troubling statistic. NAFSA estimates that between 2017 and 2018, the combined 10 percent decline of international student enrollment not only hurt our campuses, and our efforts to globalize, but cost the US economy $5.5 billion and more than 40,000 jobs.9

Why are fewer students coming to the US? The top reason in 2018—for 83 percent of those surveyed—was worry about visa delays and denials. The number two reason for declining international student enrollment in 2018 was the social and political environment. Another reason is that international students no longer feel safe in coming to the United States, and they are concerned that if they do come, they won’t be welcome.10

We need to really reflect on these data and on their implications for our efforts to internationalize our curricula and campuses.

Along with knowledge of the world, intercultural competency is an essential skill. Our community, nation, and world are full of people different from ourselves, people whom we misunderstand, of whom we disapprove, with whom we disagree. People from different “cultures.” America’s domestic polarization is one alarming example of this. Yet our lives in common—and our very survival—require that we be able to cooperate to solve problems and to live together. Live together in our communities, in our nation, and in the world. Working with other humans who differ from us in fundamental ways requires an intercultural skill set that is rarely taught. But it can be, and it should be. Intercultural competency fosters a greater openness to other ideas and behaviors and establishes a foundation for greater civility and tolerance. It starts with critical self-perception and self-knowledge—the basis of a college education. One of the most useful tools in our curriculum is the AAC&U Global Learning VALUE Rubric, which is used to assess global learning over time on a programmatic level.11

Silver linings

Despite all our challenges, there are reasons for optimism.

Let’s step back and look at some good news from the global literacy survey of college students. While the lack of global knowledge demonstrated in the survey results is both alarming and discouraging, still, 72 percent of respondents said that geography and world history, cultures, and events are becoming more important to them. Moreover, respondents did demonstrate knowledge about certain key issues, including about the environment. Seventy-eight percent knew that fossil fuels are a nonrenewable resource, and 84 percent knew that climate scientists consider the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases due to the use of fossil fuels to be one of the biggest causes of climate change.12

As we look at these data and the challenges ahead for the next generation and at everything happening in our country, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, to become cynical and disengaged. But as leaders, we don’t have that luxury. Obsessed with our problems, we usually focus less on how life is improving for millions of people around the world, and more on what is going wrong—on the murderer rather than on the scholarship winner.

Yes, we live in a world confronting great challenges. But we also live in a world of astonishing global progress. This view is not naive; it’s backed by real data. In 1800, for example, 85 percent of the globe lived in extreme poverty; now that figure is down to 9 percent.13 In 1800, 44 percent of children died before their fifth birthday; in 2016, only 4 percent did.14 In 1800, the average life expectancy was thirty-one years. In 2017, it was seventy-two years.15 In 1800, only 10 percent of adults had basic skills for reading and writing. In 2016, 86 percent did.16

If we could surmount challenges like high rates of infant mortality, illiteracy, and low life expectancy, we can certainly deal with climate change and other mounting global problems. But only if our students—our future leaders—are properly prepared. Successfully confronting our future is going to require a level of international cooperation and coordination unparalleled in human experience. It will require that the leadership of every sector of our society have the experience and skills to communicate and work with their fellow humans from around the globe—understand their problems and constraints, their resources and values, and their prejudices, dreams, and worldviews.

We are the educators of that leadership.

We must evaluate the programs, policies, and courses at our campuses—our extraordinarily important campuses—and ask ourselves: are we truly preparing our leadership for our future world? If not, what do we plan to do about it?

Let me tell you a story. As president of the American University of Nigeria, I spent seven years dealing with enormous tragedies created by the militant Islamic group Boko Haram, the atrocities of which include abducting Nigerian schoolgirls.17 Some of the students at AUN were those young women who had been kidnapped from Chibok and later escaped. I was privileged to have them at my university in Nigeria, and I’m even more privileged to have some of them at Dickinson with me now. Recently, I asked one of these women, young women who have faced challenges that few of us can even imagine, what her American education meant to her.

“Education,” she said, “gives me the wings to fly, the power to fight and the voice to speak.”

True in Nigeria. True in America. And absolutely crucial in the coming decades. 

Notes

1. John Hawksworth, Hannah Audino, and Rob Clarry, The Long View: How Will the Global Economic Order Change by 2050? (London: PricewaterhouseCoopers, February 2017), https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/world-2050/assets/pwc-the-world-in-2050-full-r....

2. World Bank, World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends, 2016, https://doi.org/10.1596/978-1-4648-0671-1.

3. Pascaline Wallemacq and Rowena House, Economic Losses, Poverty and Disasters: 1998–2017 (Geneva: United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2018), https://www.unisdr.org/files/61119_credeconomiclosses.pdf.

4. Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic, What College-Aged Students Know about the World: A Survey on Global Literacy, September 2016.

5. Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic, What College-Aged Students Know.

6. Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic, What College-Aged Students Know.

7. International Educational Exchange, Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, 2019, https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Open-Doors/Fact-Sheets-and-Inf....

8. International Educational Exchange, Open Doors Report.

9. NAFSA: Association of International Educators, Losing Talent: An Economic and Foreign Policy Risk America Can’t Ignore, May 2019, https://www.nafsa.org/policy-and-advocacy/policy-resources/losing-talent....

10. NAFSA, Losing Talent.

11. “Global Learning VALUE Rubric,” Association of American Colleges and Universitites, accessed December 6, 2019, https://www.aacu.org/value/rubrics/global-learning.

12. Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic, What College-Aged Students Know.

13. “Extreme Poverty Trend,” Gapminder, accessed December 6, 2019, https://www.gapminder.org/topics/extreme-poverty-trend/.

14. “32 Improvements,” Gapminder, accessed December 6, 2019, https://www.gapminder.org/factfulness-book/32-improvements/.

15. “Life expectancy,” Gapminder, accessed December 6, 2019, https://www.gapminder.org/topics/life-expectancy/.

16. “32 Improvements.”

17. Joshua Hammer, “Escape from Boko Haram,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 2015, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/escape-from-boko-haram-180956333/.


Margee Ensign is president of Dickinson College. Prior to leading Dickinson, she served seven years as president of the American University of Nigeria. The following essay is based on her keynote address at the 2019 AAC&U Conference on Global Citizenship for Campus, Community, and Careers: Crossing Borders and Boundaries.

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