Justin Peligri:With our ‘most politically active’ title comes great responsibility

You can learn a lot from living abroad.

While taking a course in London this summer, I learned that “chips” means french fries, “loo” means bathroom, and “cheers” is just a friendly way of saying goodbye, thank you and basically anything else.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Justin Peligri

But taking a class abroad also taught me a lot about where the American education system is lagging: We focus so much on becoming experts in our subject areas, but we’re missing the basics.

During the course, my professor asked an American University student to share her opinion on Ronald Reagan’s presidency. “I don’t know much about him,” the student admitted. “I know what party he was from, so I know that I probably disagree with a lot of his ideology.”

The British professor, using the manners of his countrymen, told the student that her answer was an “acceptable” one.

But if we’re being honest here, it wasn’t acceptable at all. Americans put up commemorative statues to honor Reagan’s legacy and name airports after him. We should at least know a small amount about his supply-side economic philosophy or his creation of a Cold War arms race.

Here’s what really got me thinking: If that student had gone to GW, recently rated the nation’s most politically active university by The Princeton Review, would her answer had been any different?

Probably not. As GW sets its academic and research ambitions toward technical fields like engineering, public health and computer science, it shouldn’t leave the fundamentals behind. In this day and age, where our education system and job market demand that we become experts in nuanced academic fields, it can be easy to miss out on the big ideas and basic facts.

That’s why all GW undergraduates should be required to take a basic American political history course. With our “politically active” title comes a responsibility to enter the world as better global citizens. And knowing a little bit about our political roots shouldn’t be too tall a task.

Adding a mandatory course would help us achieve GW’s goal of instituting a “rigorous common core of undergraduate general education requirements” over the course of the next 10 years, as outlined in May’s University-wide strategic plan. Administrators and faculty leaders will develop plans for an undergraduate core curriculum over the next year or so, and this should be at the top of the list of courses to consider.

About 30 percent of colleges nationwide offer some sort of core courses or texts, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities. We’re part of this list, but the only class all undergraduates are currently required to take is University Writing.

Some students who aren’t interested in politics – and yes, they do exist at GW – might claim a class like this is a waste of time. They’d rather hone in on their pre-med courses or their studies in theater.

And generally, I’m a supporter of less rigid curricula employed at elite universities like Brown University and Amherst College. There, students are permitted the freedom to pick courses that suit their interests and professional goals, as opposed to needing to adhere to a strict and arbitrary university plan.

But this system is outdated for millenials, who use Wikipedia as textbooks and Facebook news feeds as newspapers, causing us to miss out on the basics, like rudimentary politics, history and global affairs.

We’ve all been told that we’re living in an increasingly global world. About 53 percent of GW students study abroad, according to the most recent data from the 2010-2011 academic year. And many of us will make careers for ourselves overseas.

But forget about the professional arena. What about your social life? When you’re out sipping wine in Venice or downing a pitcher of margaritas in Mexico City and international politics comes up, wouldn’t it be awkward if you didn’t have anything substantive to contribute to the conversation?

American students should also work to increase their fluency in international affairs and global cultures, but at the very least, we have a responsibility to know our own history. A course in the subject would help.

If we’re really going to deserve our top political title, we have to earn it.

The writer, a junior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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