Global citizenship is good for business

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by Lark P. Palma, Ph.D.

Recently, I enjoyed speaking to the Oregon Forum, a group of local entrepreneurs interested in social change. They asked me to reflect on global citizenship.

I considered several questions: What is global citizenship? How do we teach it in schools? How could businesses that must have employees with global understanding partner with us to ensure that students graduate from secondary schools and colleges with these competencies?

In order to move forward we must redefine citizenship beyond our own borders; adopt positive dispositions toward cultural differences; speak, understand, and think in languages other than our native tongues; gain deep knowledge of world history and geography; grasp the global implications of health care, climate change, and economic policies; and understand the process of globalization itself.

How are we doing nationally? Things are changing slowly, but as a nation we fail to foster global citizens. A thorough study from the Committee for Economic Development on Global Leadership cites alarming gaps in children’s learning. The No Child Left Behind Act, adopted in 2002, holds states accountable for student achievement in reading, science, and math. Unfortunately, as schools devote more time to these subjects we see a reduction in foreign language classes and social studies classes where global issues are explored. Only one-third of 7th to 12th grade students, and fewer than one in ten college students, study a foreign language. Seventy percent of students in secondary schools who are enrolled in a language class study Spanish, and only a small percentage go beyond two years of study. Few students in high school or college gain proficiency in any second language, and very few students learn the lan-guages that the State Department believes crucial to national security—Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Farsi, Russian, and Turkish.

State high school graduation requirements call for minimal coursework, if any, in international studies, world history, geography, political science, or area studies. Only one percent of college undergraduates study abroad. Teacher educa-tion programs provide few classes in teaching global topics. The media’s coverage of international affairs, trends, and issues is minimal. During her trial, over fifty minutes daily was devoted to Martha Stewart on most networks, and less than three minutes to the conflict in Darfur. We ought to worry about where students gain information about their world.

From a business and economic perspective, the challenges to our economy are enormous. The international workforce needs language competencies beyond English because most United States growth potential lies in overseas markets. In 2004, 58 percent of our growth earnings were from overseas. For example, 70 percent of Coca Cola’s profits are generated outside the United States. Studying languages and acquiring cultural competency are clearly eco-nomic necessities if Americans hope to compete on the international stage. A European business executive speaks an average of 3.9 languages, and an American executive speaks an average of only 1.5. Business decisions are made quickly, and the number of people involved in making wise business decisions must include teams of people who are multinational and multilingual.

American businesses lose an average of $2 billion per year because their employees are provided with inadequate cross-cultural guidance. For example, Microsoft Windows 95 displayed Kashmir outside the boundaries of India. Mi-crosoft had to recall 200,000 copies of the product. In a software package marketed in Turkey, Kurdistan is listed as a Turkish state, although it is a crime to even talk about Kurdistan in Turkey. An American-made video game mar-keted to Saudis included violent scenes accompanied by chanting from the Koran. Business loss is a direct result of these cultural gaffes. Moreover, America’s reputation is damaged when we are perceived as negligent and indifferent to other cultures.

The Rand Corporation surveyed 16 global corporations, which rated job applicants from American universities as the graduates with the least developed international skills. An executive from a top global corporation told Rand that American graduates are, “Strong technically, but short-changed in cross-cultural experience and linguistically de-prived. If I wanted to recruit people who are both technically skilled and culturally aware, I would not waste time looking for them on U.S. college campuses.”

The statistics about our students’ and work force’s global citizenship are discouraging, but there are many things schools and businesses can do to improve the situation by working together. Here are several suggestions:

  • Harness the expertise of bilingual and non-English speaking employees currently in our work force. Non-English speakers and multinational people hold 48 percent of both management and professional service jobs in the United States. Let’s learn from their experience about how to become competent in other cultures.
  • Business leaders need to pressure school boards to include international content at all levels of curriculum. The No Child Left Behind requirements can be addressed by incorporating cultural topics into reading pro-grams.
  • Press colleges and universities to form partnerships with elementary and secondary schools to provide teacher professional development in global education. Colleges and universities could tap their international students and professors to work in elementary and secondary schools.
  • Business leaders should insist that teacher education programs, as well as college programs, have strong inter-national components.
  • Corporations should play an active role in supporting educational initiatives that will produce graduates with cross-cultural competencies.
  • Expand the training pipeline at every level to increase the number of Americans fluent in foreign languages, especially Arabic and Chinese.

Catlin Gabel is working to foster global citizenship, and we are excited to be part of the local, national, and interna-tional dialogue on creating global citizens.