What Your Formal Education Failed to Teach You

Here’s a disturbing thought: we live in a democracy in which it is not only possible, but highly likely, that one can complete their formal education without taking a single course in world history, politics, government, or economics. That’s true for the 70 percent of Americans whose formal education ends with high school as well as for the 30 percent who earn a college degree but focus almost exclusively on the technical courses associated with their major.   

As American diplomat and author Richard Haass writes in his latest book, The World: A Brief Introduction:

“A recent survey of over eleven hundred American colleges and universities found that only 17 percent require students to take courses in U.S. government or history, while only 3 percent require them to take coursework in economics.”

Unless people are taking it upon themselves to learn these subjects, much of our voting public has zero experience or formal education in the subjects directly related to the issues they are voting on. You simply couldn’t ask for a population more primed for manipulation and propaganda than this.

This is the background and impetus for Richard Haass’s latest book, which seeks to correct this deficiency in knowledge by providing a crash course on the modern history of the world and the major global issues that dominate the news. While Haass can’t make you an expert in international relations in a single 300-page book, he can at least make you more conversant regarding world issues and events, less susceptible to propaganda, and better positioned to pursue further study. 

The book is divided into four parts, which results in some repetition but also drives home some key points. The first part is a brief chronological history of the world from the Thirty Years’ War and Treaty of Westphalia through World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and up to the present day. 

The second section covers each region of the world, including the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia and the Pacific. The third section covers global issues such as climate change, trade, immigration, and nuclear proliferation, and the fourth section describes the elements of global order and disorder and the balance of power.

As Haass notes, each chapter of the book deserves its own book—of which several have been written—but what Haass is attempting to provide is exactly what is missing: a higher-level overview of world history and international relations that can serve as a foundation for a deeper investigation of specific issues. This is beneficial, particularly for someone entirely new to the subject, as they may have difficulty knowing where to start without the benefit of seeing the bigger picture. And if one’s education in international relations were to consist solely from the reading of this book, that person would still be head-and-shoulders above most US citizens in their knowledge of the world. 

The coverage, as far as I can tell, strives for objectivity without hiding the fact that the current US administration—by any reasonable understanding of history and politics—is placing the current world order at significant risk. The very things (in addition to nuclear deterrence) that have resulted in the long-term peace between nations since World War II, such as strong alliances, an increasing number of democracies, the delegitimization of war, and the creation of international organizations and law—all overseen by the US taking a leading role in the world—are slowly being replaced by nationalism, isolationism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism that makes global war and instability far more likely. 

This is not to say that the US has not made significant mistakes in terms of foreign relations; it only suggests that the US, in isolating itself from the world order it helped to create, is only going to increase the level of instability and conflict in the world. World order does not happen on its own, and, without direction, there is a natural tendency to disorder—or to the emergence of another superpower willing to adopt the role vacated by the US (China).

While Haass’s coverage is extensive, I was surprised that inequality, while mentioned several times throughout the book, did not receive its own dedicated chapter, considering the significance of the issue. Growing levels of economic inequality have led to growing levels of political inequality, which has essentially led to the oligarchic capture of the US government. This is a major storyline worthy of further coverage, but the interested reader will have to look elsewhere. Personally, I would recommend checking out Robert Reich’s The System, Who Rigged It, How We Fix It

Also absent from the book is any meaningful coverage of the intellectual movements underlying major political changes, such as the impact of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment on political thinking, particularly its influence on the US founders. The foundational political philosophy of the left and right—in large part established in the aftermath of the French Revolution by Thomas Paine (advocate of Enlightenment-era liberal ideas) and Edmund Burke (the philosophical founder of modern conservatism)—is not addressed. 

But this is probably asking too much; The World admirably fulfills its basic purpose as a general introduction or refresher course on the state of the world, and represents a timely and much needed antidote to ignorance and the overconfidence that ignorance breeds. As Charles Darwin said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” 

And what better description is there of the US voting population at large? Not only are we highly polarized; we’re also more sure of ourselves than ever—despite the fact that the data tells us almost everyone has no experience or education regarding the topics they are so overconfident about. We could all do ourselves a favor by reading this book and rethinking our positions from a more informed perspective.