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The Philippines’ Super Typhoon and Americans’ Super Ignorance: Is Higher Ed to Blame?

Emil Photo Again Edited 61b7dabb61239

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to since all the news of the super typhoon (Yolanda in the Philippines, Haiyan, internationally).

And here’s what astounds me. Most people just didn’t know much at all about the Philippines and its historical connection to the U.S.

I’m not even making the “global warming makes this our crisis too” argument.

I’m just saying that the storm in the Philippines exposes a staggering ignorance of American history among Americans.

Philippines a former colony? (The very first after the Spanish American War).

Philippines an ally? (Gulf War)

General Douglas MacArthur was in Leyte?  And he didn’t stay away—he actually returned. (Oct. 20, 1944).

It’s time those in education return to some much needed basics in the humanities.

We can STEM the curriculum to death, but wouldn’t it be nice to require a minimal number of “other” courses so that our students know a little something about their own country and the world?

I talked to an educated 50-year-old woman, a successful physician, who was absolutely clueless when it came to even World War II.

She could tell me all about her field, but who had time to study history? Even the history of medicine like Jonas Salk.

Would it have hurt to require she take even the most rudimentary American history survey course that would give the Philippines in at least a half page (and half of that with a picture)?

The woman is a product of American education past where such a course would have been derided even in our best colleges as a “Mick” for “Mickey Mouse.” Or a “gut.”

But it’s no different in the current environment where students are burdened by requirements of their major, not to mention the push to all things STEM.

I doubt many young people ages 18 to 34 would be able to explain exactly where the Philippines fit in, say with Teddy Roosevelt or William Howard Taft.

But then those guys weren’t even smart enough to have smart phones. Why bother studying them, right?

It seems to me that, while we talk about the STEM classes and all, we need to pay attention to some basic ideas in higher ed.

Sure, America can stay competitive globally by learning math and science, but what happens if our curriculum fosters a global ignorance?

Wouldn’t it be helpful to make sure Americans have a basic knowledge of what makes us American? And where we fit in on global matters? (And while we’re at it, a little geography would be helpful. A GPS can’t tell you everything.)

The Philippines is not some odd Third World outpost. It has a unique role in the shaping of American history from everything from policy to immigration.

When the typhoon hit I couldn’t help think of the irony of the city hardest hit, Tacloban, in Leyte. It was the very city where General Douglas MacArthur launched the battle that was a turning point in WWII.

The Leyte landing began the liberation of the Philippines from two and a half years of being occupied by the Japanese. During the occupation and the wars, tens of thousands died on both the American and Japanese side in the country side.

History reassures us that Tacloban has seen death and devastation before.

And it has survived.

Perhaps that’s little solace for the people ravaged by the typhoon,  most of whom are waiting desperately for food, water and medicine.

But in order to get to that massive level of humanitarian response needed worldwide, it will take Americans to pitch in to help.

They would do so without question, and at a much deeper level, if only they were taught and understood their own history at the places where these things should matter the most—in our nation’s colleges and universities.

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (  Like him at ; or follow him on Twitter @emilamok


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