The decade since the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001 has been dominated by the continuing “war on terror” and, more recently, persistent, economic recession. There may be a relationship between these two conditions but the reasons for them are less important than the measures we can take to mitigate their negative consequences. Remarkably, educators and educational activists, especially those in the language and literacy field, should feel empowered by the realization that their work can help to counteract the damage of these seemingly unsolvable problems.
Our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives, yet there are proposals to cut the relatively cheap ($26 million) Foreign Language Assistance Program (see News, page 9). The program not only helps to produce linguists to fill the skill gaps in our intelligence services (see News, page 11), but will increase the global understanding of our next generation so that, hopefully, they will have the awareness necessary to prevent the recurrence of the tragic events a decade ago.
Now, that progressive movements are finding their own voice across much of the Arab world, we have an opportunity to develop equal relationships with the people of these fledgling democracies, to earn the trust and friendship that is indispensable to security in this interconnected age. But, we can’t expect to foster such relationships without knowledge of our new friends’ language, customs, and culture. We can see from history that our presumption that other cultures have exactly the same needs and goals as we do has led to disagreement and conflict, so we must take the time to learn how different peoples have been shaped by their history and culture. Through informed dialogue which respects different perspectives and takes into account a variety of objectives, we can hope to build an international culture of peace that will permeate through to the last bastions of intolerance and anger.
As for the recession, the wars may have delayed its onset by offering a short-term stimulus or contributed to its severity by inflating the price of oil. Whatever the short-term effect, the cost of both wars has contributed to the huge debt burden crippling the economy. There is some agreement amongst economists that the real reasons for the recession are structural, the most obvious of which is the move of most manufacturing to the growing economies of Asia and other developing continents. The direct consequence of this shift in production is a permanent loss of manufacturing jobs and income. Unemployment levels will remain high unless we react to this by training people in the communication skills which are invaluable in this digital age.
Congress is doing us all a disservice by cutting such relatively inexpensive programs. For our protection and our prosperity, we must create a highly-educated workforce that is adept at operating in the new international economy; that is literate enough to sift through information quickly; and has the tools to adapt to rapid changes in our world.