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Global Competence: The Heart of the Matter

by Heather Singmaster

The U.S. Department of Education's good efforts to put an international education strategy in place to ensure U.S. competiveness and future economic health are commendable. And yet, federal funding for international education and training has been cut by 41 percent in the past four years.

So it was nice to see Capitol Hill focus on this issue recently, and notably, in a bipartisan way. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Mark Warner (D-VA) and Representatives Tom Petri (R-WI) and David Price (D-NC) together accepted a report from The Commission on the Humanities & Social Sciences entitled The Heart of the Matter. While the report focuses on the importance of the humanities in general, it also provides important statements about equipping the nation for leadership in an interconnected world, and what it means for the education sector.

"The American character is defined not by ethnicity—Americans come from many countries, races, religions, and cultures—but by a common set of ideals and principles that unite us as a country," said Senator Alexander.

"Those ideals and principles have always been shared and learned through the study of history, philosophy, and literature," Alexander continued, "but today their study is at risk. This report is a first step to highlighting the importance of, and ensuring a future for, our nation's humanities' education—and our unique American character as well."

The report prioritizes three goals:

1. Educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding needed to thrive in a 21st century democracy.
2. Foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong.
3. Equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.

The third goal includes recommendations on how to educate a globally competent citizenry:

- Promote language learning.
- Expand education in international affairs and transnational studies.
- Support study abroad and international exchange programs.
- Develop a "Culture Corps."

"Today's leaders in business, government, the military and diplomacy must be able to analyze, interpret, communicate, and understand other cultures," said Duke University President Richard Brodhead, co-chair of the Commission. "This report will remind Americans that a broad-based and balanced education, integrating the sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences, is the best way to equip our citizens to approach the complex problems of our rapidly changing world."

An impressive list of celebrities, university presidents, businesspeople, and policymakers contributed to the report, some of whom can be seen in the accompanying video, including George Lucas, Sandra Day O'Connor, David Brooks, Yo-Yo Ma, and Ken Burns.

Congress has an opportunity to act on these issues through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization. The humanities are included in draft versions of the legislation as part of a "well-rounded education," which means reading, math, science, arts, history, civics, finance, foreign languages, geography, health education, and physical education would compete against each other for one pot of funding.

Is that enough? The report points out, "At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate the U.S. model of broad education...we must ensure that the humanities and social sciences continue to be an integral part of American education and that their value to our nation, and to America's place in the world, is recognized and fully supported."

In order to give our students a well-rounded education for the global innovation age, there must be political and public will behind it. The future demands a new set of skills and competencies from our students; we must figure out ways to supply it. And that is the heart of the matter.

This piece was contributed by Heather Singmaster, Senior Program Associate, Asia Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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