Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Illusion of Knowledge?

"The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge."
-- Stephen Hawking

On Thursday, Dr. Craig Hayden gave a talk on "The Uncertain Future of Public Diplomacy 2.0" at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at AU. After providing a brief history of PD, he focused on the need to reconceptualize the field, as well as traditional diplomacy, in order to be able to meet the new challenges in the age of new information technologies. He specifically emphasized the need for a cognitive shift: away from the want to "posses" the message toward a more "facilitating" role that would, certainly, involve a much greater engagement on behalf of the wider public. In short, "the medium is the message" and by promoting and coordinating "a platform for cooperation, perception, and mediation" - be it the Internet, cell-phones, TV, or radio - the US will be best equipped in addressing the inconceivable plurality of foreign publics that it needs to reach. Here, again, the emphasis and the hope is on people-to-people communication, which seems to be the only viable channel of effective PD, especially in the current "paradox of plenty". (Read Dr. Hayden's recent blog post on the need for a "theoretical innovation" in PD here.)

An interesting theme that emerged in the Q&A session afterwards, however, was something that I have been struggling with since my first visit to the US in 2008, and an issue that we have been touching upon in all my classes over the past couple of weeks: Americans' lack of information and education about the world. This is, certainly, a grave generalization that does not apply to everyone; and yet, unfortunately, this seems to be an increasingly serious problem, which threatens not only the public diplomacy efforts, but the very success of the American nation in the increasingly globalized world.

(Image courtesy of Wild Style at City-Data Forum.)

To start in the beginning: how did the US manage to become the most advanced and dynamic economy in the world (many could question this statement at the moment, but at least a few years ago that would certainly stand true)? The answer is, clearly, it's persistent investment in education and strong human resources. After all, education is an investment with very high returns (not necessarily in monetary terms, only), and it is something that cannot be taken away, unlike any other possession. And yes, the "American educational system" has been praised and highly valued for decades.

But recently, especially with the financial crisis and the need for the states to cut back their budgets, schools seem to be among the worst hit, for some weird reason. And it's not just schools, but also colleges, where students are in dire need for further support - especially at those tough times - to still get a decent education, with marketable skills and, hence, the ability to contribute to the much-needed economic growth. (Yet, it seems that even before the downturn, there were grave concerns about the deteriorating situation with the American education.)

That is the domestic side of the story. Turning to international affairs, America's position in the world, and PD, specifically, there is even more trouble. And here, I will focus on two issues: general education (the foundations of which are put at the primary school level), and the Americans' knowledge and interest in the world in general (or, rather, lack thereof).

- As already said, having a poorly educated nation will not only harm America economically, by decreasing the competitiveness of its citizens in the globalized world market,  but it will also undermine the Americans' opportunity to engage in and maintain a decent conversation with the world. This issue becomes even more prominent, as greater emphasis is put on direct, people-to-people, contacts. As it turns out, sometimes foreigners might know more about American geography and the English language - as John Brown recently noted - than Americans themselves.

- And yet, it's inevitably intertwined and strongly connected with the Americans' lack of knowledge and understanding of the world. Being a large, isolated "island" cannot be a good excuse anymore. And yet, it seems like the thinking hasn't made the necessary leap to keep up with the changing times and the introduction of technology that cuts across time and space.

Interest and understanding, however, don't materialize out of thin air: they need to be inculcated through education, even if it's through the simple learning of the political map of the world, or the history of other nations. To be able to talk to "others", the Americans, first and foremost, need to know who they are talking to. Then, there should also be the understanding that there are other worldviews and attitudes out there (distinct from a simple Republican/Democrat divide). Oh, and don't get me started on the languages...

I don't want to count all the times I have been asked about where Armenia is, or heard way too uneducated guesses about its language, religion, or history. Armenia is a tiny, insignificant country, in a sea of chaos. But can it be acceptable that the majority of Americans don't know where Iraq or Afghanistan are, after the military involvement and all the media coverage? Or that they are ignorant of the fact that English is not the most widely spoken language in the world?

(Although this satirical video made by the Brits is a little too harsh, it still shows how they see the Americans. Doesn't this matter?)

I feel compelled to point out another problem here: the media. Commercialization and the obsession with entertainment have certainly limited the coverage of international news. In the best case, one might get some, "embedded" reports from the war zones, or some talk of a major disaster in some far-away country. Yet again, even those come with a very American-centric perspective, which is OK, as long as there is an accepted diversity to provide the balance. However as soon as a different (really different) perspective comes to the fore, it quickly gets dismissed as "propaganda", or the current hit-phrase: "terrorism incitement".

In many parts of the "not free" world, people get used to approaching everything they are told - especially, by the media - with skepticism, since there is an awareness about the hidden "motives" behind the information that is given out. In the past, people in the Eastern bloc, for instance, would turn to Voice of America, or Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, even if they had to spend hours trying to fight the jamming efforts of the government. Today, after getting the "official line" of the story from their respective domestic perspectives, some might still be turning to VOA or RFE/RE, but they can as well go to Russia's Channel 1, EuroNews, CNN International, BBC, Al Jazeera, or China's CCTV-9 (to name but a few prominent TV channels/networks), and after getting the really different sides of the story, they might try and make out the golden mean: the best reasonable version of the actual event. (An American Philosophy and Ethics professor - PROFESSOR!!! - responded to me once that he is just "too busy" to care. He was serious.)

The Internet makes this all way much easier, and despite all these opportunities, all this technology and "information capabilities" available to the Americans, they seem to be oblivious to the world, entirely immersed in the latest episode of the Lost or, what is worse, preferring the Colbert Report as a credible news source.

Again, interest and understanding should come from an early age, and should be fostered through education as well as through the media. Being the strongest country in the world is not a simple given, and is something that needs to be constantly maintained and worked on. America is not, and cannot, be isolated anymore; but, in order to be able to take a constructive part in international affairs, and especially in PD, its people need to have global skills and a good understanding of others.

This might be difficult and dangerous to "teach", since these are decisions that should be based on personal preference and choice. However, learning of other cultures and viewpoints can be encouraged and promoted, and people can be taught to become more "savvy" and informed media consumers. Funds should not be taken away from the educational sector, but on the contrary, they should be re-diverted into it, with a better planning and strategic use. What is more, international exchanges and scholarships should be made even more prominent - taking Americans abroad, but also bringing foreigners in - since it is through personal experience that one can learn best.

To wrap-up, the Americans have to know the world they live in, and the world which they want to communicate with. At the same time, it is very important to know their place in the world and be able to identify and capture changing dynamics, to be able to respond to these shifts adequately. A people-to-people PD approach would necessitate well educated, well informed, culturally-sensitive (note: cultural sensitivity not in terms of political correctness or specific information about a certain country, but rather in terms of awareness of the existence of the "other" and their treatment as equals) and engaged citizens. Otherwise, the others will keep seeing the American people as uncredible international communicators, especially given all the opportunities that are available to them, but are not made use of. Americans simply can't afford amusing themselves to death, anymore.

And, of course, there is an inexplicable paranoia about the government's attempts to "propagandize" its own people, or the "waste" of the taxpayer's money when supporting education (yes, I'm still in the dark about this. I refuse to accept the "politicization" argument). But what better use for it can there be, if not an investment in the nation's well-being...?


1 comment:

  1. The video has the comment 'made by the Brits'. Judging by the accent of the first person on the clip this sounds like an Australian or New Zealand made clip. They have done some fantastic skits such as 'the front fell off'