The Importance of Learning from Others

November 27, 2018

Americans have been reluctant to accept the importance of studying other countries. We tend to divide them into good and evil and assume that’s all we need to know.

As a teenager I was interested in science and in classical music. For both, I thought it wise to learn some German. But few schools taught it in the wake of World War II. Germans were the enemy.  But two World Wars provided reason enough to study German. President Roosevelt understood how vile and dangerous Hitler was long before Pearl Harbor and took steps to prepare the American military because he could and did read Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the original German.

Americans, however, seem more concerned about being subverted by knowledge of foreign places than by the costs of ignorance. It’s as if many of us have an inferiority complex about our own culture. White racists bask in western European skin color even while screaming America first. America has enormous worldwide influence, but many Americans continue to fear comparison to worldwide knowledge.

From the Napoleonic wars through the Franco-Prussian and two world wars, old World European nations repeatedly attempted world dominance and took a hundred million people to their graves. This country created or supported numerous international institutions to keep Europe at peace, the Soviet Union at bay and level out the boom and bust cycle of international economics, but too many Americans fear those same international institutions as if they were the work of foreign hands designed to subvert us.

The costs of ignorance are serious. Too many American Administrations have treated Saudi Arabia as an ally though it is run as a savage and medieval country, and too many, except for Obama, couldn’t accept talking or negotiating with Iran despite repeated overtures to the U.S. and the fact that they are one of the most westernized, even Americanized, countries in the Middle East. We’ve made similar mistakes trying to control who governs in Central and South America, Vietnam, and other countries. America seemed incapable of appreciating the strategic sense and the long game behind Obama’s attempt to strengthen America’s position in the Far East. It may be too late to recover the ground lost to China.

It’s time to get over our terror of learning about and respecting other peoples. It’s an odd terror for a country made up of so many different peoples. It’s an odd terror for a country in which we can walk out of a bus or train station in cities like New York and enjoy the kindness of strangers who themselves come from all over the world. It’s an odd terror in a country where we talk with taxi drivers about their immigration to and joy at being here. It’s a terror that undermines the benefits of our universally admired university system.

Does one really have to be from somewhere else to appreciate the strengths of our own country? Must appreciating our own country rest on ignorance of others? Or can we trust ourselves to learn about others, to appreciate their strengths as well as faults, to build on and incorporate their accomplishments into our own as we have done in art, literature, music, theatre, dance and so many other arts and sciences, to learn from others as well as from each other as we build our own strengths? Or are we really afraid that recognizing the strengths of others will sap our own?

The internet attributes to many people, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Sam Levenson, a family friend of ours, that we must learn from the mistakes of others because we don’t have time to make them all ourselves. First, however, we need to encourage each other to explore and learn.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 27, 2018.

 

 

 

 

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Is it Still the Pledge in Arabic?

March 24, 2015

You’ve heard that high school administrators in the Hudson Valley apologized for having the Pledge of Allegiance recited in Arabic for one morning during National Foreign Language Week.

Americans are funny about language. The Founders of this country took pride in knowing foreign languages and visiting other countries. From the beginning until the twentieth century we had robust foreign language speaking communities in the U.S. The Army, until World War I, had regiments recruited by area, language, ethnic group, and race. As a whole, the Army was a tower of Babel and as late as the Civil War and Spanish-American War, people of all backgrounds, speaking many of the world’s languages, served in units with their own languages. Only in the twentieth century did the military break that segregation down, putting people into units without regard to their geographic, linguistic or racial background, expecting soldiers to learn the English they needed to know.[1]

Then there was the movement to prevent children from growing up with any knowledge of German. A pair of very famous U.S. Supreme Court decisions defended the rights of parents to have their children learn German. [2] Thank heavens that President Roosevelt knew German and read Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the unexpurgated German, knew how vicious Hitler was and did everything he could to prepare America to defend against him.

And of course schools didn’t teach Russian after the War. God forbid you could read what they were doing. And more recently Persian. Somehow, while we proclaim the superiority of our way of life and its attractiveness for decent people everywhere, we are afraid that if Americans become familiar with the language of dictators, it is us that need to be afraid, not the dictators. Yet to protect national security we might need to encourage familiarity with foreign languages, even languages of those with whom we have a beef.

In the case of Arabic, it is a language spoken by many more of the victims of the jahadis than the jahadis themselves. Arabic speakers come here for the same reasons that refugees come here from all parts of the globe – for safety, for a chance to survive, and because they know that some Americans are warm and welcoming.

Their knowledge and their skills are valuable here, both their technical skills and their cultural and linguistic knowledge. Like all peoples, including other Americans, most are decent, kind, and industrious and a much smaller proportion aren’t. That’s humanity.

So it’s not such a bad idea that we learn that the Pledge can be and has been recited in all languages, that people can signify their devotion to American ideals of freedom, equality, inclusiveness and welcome, in all languages. For a country that claims to be founded on principles of freedom and equality, we are amazingly unwilling to deal with people who say things a little bit differently than we ourselves. Our culture is surprisingly conformist. Ultimately that demand for if conformity, and the fear it reflects, threatens our future much more than Arabic.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 24, 2015.

[1] John Whiteclay Chambers, II, Conscripting for Colossus: The Progressive Era and the Origin of the Modern Military Draft in the United States in World War I, in The Military in American From the Colonial Era to the Present 297-311 (New York: Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986): Bruce White, The American Military and the Melting Pot in World War I, in id. 317-28.

[2] Meyer v. Neb., 262 U.S. 390 (1923); Bartels v. Iowa, 262 U.S. 404 (1923).


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