Wednesday, April 22, 2015

What We Can Learn from the Rest of the World

My 23 years of service in the Air Force gave me something that most Americans don't have: the opportunity to travel widely and experience life in countries other than my own. I think we'd be a lot better off in many ways if more Americans would travel and experience life in other countries, rather than trusting in the silly cliches and false comparisons that are the bread and butter of modern commentary.

I found this interesting article by Alex Henderson on Alternet a while ago, which pretty much summarizes a lot of my observations about my fellow countrymen: Nine Things Many Americans Just Don’t Grasp (Compared to the Rest of the World). I don't agree with all the points Mr Henderson makes, but for the most part I think he's right on point. Here are three of his nine things (with my comments, of course):

American Exceptionalism Is Absolute Nonsense in 2015. This is the one that will make heads explode on the far right, but it's truer than we probably want to admit. I don't think that "absolute nonsense" is a fair characterization, but the simple fact is that we're not living up to what we say are our ideals, and we're not nearly as exceptional as we like to think. By many social and economic measures (life expectancy, rates of incarceration as a percentage of the population, and availability of affordable health care to name a few), we're falling behind much of the rest of the world. We may still lead the world in some things, but in many of the ones that matter, we're backsliding.

Adequate Mass Transit Is a Huge Convenience. I learned to love buses and trains while living in Germany, and am lucky to live in a metro area that has relatively adequate mass transit (by which I mean, it's fairly convenient and gets me most places I need/want to go). As the article points out, mass transit has a lot of advantages, such as reducing air pollution, traffic congestion, and DUIs, and providing the aerobic exercise that goes with living in a pedestrian-friendly environment. Here in America, we've replaced trees and flowers with millions of acres of concrete to accommodate our car-obsessed culture ... and I never cease to be amazed by the people who will sit idling for minutes in their car to get just the right parking space, instead of parking a bit further away and walking.

Learning a Second or Third Language Is a Plus, Not a Character Flaw. Most Americans figure that everyone who matters speaks English, and so there's no reason to go to the trouble of learning another language. And consider this quote from the article:

"... xenophobia runs so deep among many neocons, Republicans and Tea Party wingnuts that any use of a language other than English terrifies them. Barack Obama, during his 2008 campaign, was bombarded with hateful responses from Republicans when he recommended that Americans study foreign languages from an early age. And in the 2012 GOP presidential primary, Newt Gingrich’s campaign ran an ad in South Carolina attacking Mitt Romney for being proficient in French."

In most countries (well, perhaps not in France), fluency in multiple languages is considered a social asset and a big advantage in business. I can tell you that speaking German been a big advantage in traveling and enjoying my time in Europe ... how did we as a major country go so far off the linguistic rails?

Yes, there are lessons we can learn from other countries, if we're willing to do it. Perhaps we should start now.

Ich wuensche Euch einen schoenen Tag. Andere Bemerkungen folgen nachher.



eViL pOp TaRt said...

I agree; having effective knowledge of a second language is a benefit in communication and even confidence. Unfortunately, we largely limit it to the latter years of high school; and have few opportunities to speak it. about people getting exposure to others besides the usual three (Spanish, German, or French)?

Margaret (Peggy or Peg too) said...

I concur with all of this. I, sadly am one of those Americans who only speaks English and poor Italian. Useless really, living in a country where Spanish/Mexican is so very much in the forefront.

I also think that travel exposes one to so much that makes one more empathetic and less judgemental or hateful.

Meredith said...

I have some Spanish, and it helps. I wish I was really fluent.

Yes! For better mass transportation. Nowadays even riding the Dog means going out of your way, and often winding up in a less safe part of town.

Linda Kay said...

I am slowly learning a bit more Spanish, but like Angel said it's hard to keep it up without using it all the time. My SIL is a doctor and uses the Spanish frequently with his patients. Our Needs Council has two Spanish speaking individuals in the office. I only remember snipits of German from my grandparents.

Linda Kay said...

And by the way, a nice day to you as well, and I'll look forward to more comments on the subject.

Grand Crapaud said...

Have a Guten Tag, Bilbo!

Mike said...

I barely made it through spanish in high school. What I did know faded quickly from non use.