Teen movies and TV shows have led us all to believe we will see political debates raging in every forum as we walk across a college campus. Perhaps the Republicans and Democrats are facing off during lunch at one of the dining halls, maybe the Christians and atheists are dubiously explaining their respective points on one of the quads. At the very least, there should be a liberal and conservative arguing about abortion or gay rights in the hallway of a residence hall. These issues take precedence in our minds as a student body, but what do we know beyond our little bubble of Oxford, Ohio? What do we know about the world?
In fit of caffeine-induced energy, I spent my Friday afternoon doing a quick poll of our student body. Large amounts of coffee and the fact that I have no shame led me from table to table around Shriver’s Food Court, asking five questions about the international system to our fellow students. The questions went as follows: 1) Who is the prime minister of Great Britain? 2) Who is the president of France? 3) Who is the president of Iran? 4) Who is the leader of North Korea? 5) Which countries are the permanent members of the UN National Security Council?
I was met with a variety of responses, from clear disinterest, to genuine enthusiasm, to sheepish embarrassment and to outright unwillingness. To all of you participated, thank you for indulging me. Of the 100 people I surveyed, 19 knew that Gordon Brown is the current prime minister of Great Britain, though most still thought is was Tony Blair, and one or two mentioned Winston Churchill. Seventeen people knew that Nicolas Sarkozy is the president of France. Twenty-five people knew Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the recently reelected president of Iran, though I didn’t take points off for butchering pronunciation, it’s a long name. Thirty-nine knew that Kim Jong-il is the current leader of North Korea. Finally, 33 knew the five permanent seats of the Security Council are held by Great Britain, France, the United States, Russia and China, although some answers were Africa, South Africa, South America, Finland and Switzerland. Working with basic math skills, it becomes evident that our fellow students failed this pop quiz, badly.
Now I will be the first to concede that this survey is not the truest data to be found on our student body’s awareness of the world at large, but I don’t feel its numbers ought to be entirely discredited. A survey of perhaps 4,000 or 5,000 students would be more conclusive (obviously), but I think this selection of students is random enough to prove a point. A frighteningly small minority knew the leader of one our closest allies; the question with the highest percentage answered correctly (Kim Jong-il) was often accompanied by “Yeah that dude in the jumpsuit” or “Isn’t he dead or something?” or even “I heard he thinks Elvis is still alive.” The UN Security Council was answered with many wrong guesses in between correct ones, and some gentle prompting from the surveyor (me). What does this say about us, the future American decision-making public? These questions are basic facts for us political science majors, but only four of the 100 participants answered all five correctly, two of whom I had a political science class with in the past. These important facts about our world, these leaders that are greatly influencing foreign policy both in our country and abroad, should be known to us, and yet most hold these people and international issues in general with complete disregard. How can we expect to be informed voters in our future, if we don’t start paying attention now?
I realize that many find political science boring (actually I find it boring on occasion), but that shouldn’t stand in the way of keeping up-to-date on our world and America’s place in the international system. It is a proven fact that the less interest a society takes in government policy, particularly foreign policy, the less influence that society has in effecting change. As a democratic state, it isn’t just our right, it is our duty to take an active role in policy-making, to know who the major players are in the world, and to make our opinions known when the government isn’t acting according with our wishes. I know reading this won’t suddenly mean people are going to set aside an hour every night for CNN updates, but I hope that those of you who read this will at least pick up The New York Times on occasion and peruse the international section. It’s amazing what you learn about our country, and other countries, by taking just a small interest.