What's a shah?" I heard this question in one of my classes when my professor assigned us to research aspects of the Iranian Revolution as background for the autobiographical comic Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
My first instinct was annoyance. Even though I was foggy on the details surrounding the shah of Iran, I wasn't going to come out and say it.
It wasn't until I started doing research that I realized just how foggy I was. The Iranian Revolution was a complex and multifaceted event that I'd only learned about as something bad. I was shocked and appalled that I really knew nothing about the social and political history of the Middle East, especially since the United States has played a large and shady role there in the recent past.
It made me realize that a huge hole exists in our educational system. Despite living in an increasingly globalized world, we know nothing about it. More importantly, we aren't taught about it.
When the revolution in Egypt was going on I distinctly remember several of my peers voicing surprise that there was anything more in Egypt than pyramids. Imagine the shock when these same peers realized Egyptians had access to YouTube.
People in other countries can tell you who our president is, how our government works and where our capitol is located. But ask an American with a basic education who runs Canada, or India or anywhere outside the U.S. and they won't know. How are we supposed to deal with cultures and countries we know nothing about?
I'm not trying to harp on the "ugly American" stereotype. This ignorance isn't the fault of average Americans blocking out the world around them. Though Americans aren't entirely to blame, our educational system – at least at the high school level – doesn't provide us with a place to explore recent history and current events.
The closest thing we have here at Geneseo is our non-western traditions general education credit. Our history credit is specifically U.S. history. Personally I'd rather know how Saddam Hussein came to power and why we needed to stop him than learn about Paul Revere's ride for the billionth time.
History is important because it does repeat itself. Learning about distant history has its place but it comes at the cost of not learning about recent events that are practically on loop. We keep making the same mistakes because we don't even know we made them.
We need to have education on the high school or even elementary level that exposes us to other nations and cultures. Even something as simple as a beginning anthropology class or an introduction to world politics could work wonders.
It's astounding how much understanding can be gained from a little bit of knowledge and we need understanding more than anything else right now. Our country's rhetoric has never been more inflammatory or more ignorant, and it needs to change.
We can't afford to sit on our laurels as a dominant world power and expect everyone else to do the learning for us. Otherwise we'll keep abusing our power for some poorly thought out noble cause over and over again.
Until education catches up to globalization, we have to do our best to educate ourselves. Or the mistakes of the recent past will continue to become the mistakes of our present.