Why do Americans know so little about Latin America?

Historian Walter Russell Mead, surveying what U.S. state educational systems teach their students about Latin America, has given 33 of them a D or F. Only 12 got an A or B. http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/news/state/14749045.htm

In this thread, “Why do Americans know so little about Canada?” – http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=373082 – the consensus is that there just aren’t very many reasons for Yanks to pay attention to Canada. A stable, prosperous, democratic country with few social problems and no major points of conflict with the U.S. does not generate much news here. Well enough. But why are we so ignorant about Latin America? We have a lot of reasons to pay attention to LA! That’s where most of our immigrants come from, and a lot of our imported oil and gas, and practically all of our cocaine, and we’ve been involved, directly or indirectly, in more than a few Latin American wars, and may be again. Shouldn’t Latin American history and current events be covered very thoroughly in American history and social studies classes?

All these “Why do Americans know so little about…” threads are making an unfair comparison, IMO. Compared to the SDMB hive mind, Americans may be uninformed, but compared to people from other countries, I imagine the average joe on the streets of Tehran or Beijing won’t be able to name any USSC judges either. I think all in all the US probably comes out ahead of most countries in terms of world knowledge.

You don’t think college educated Latin Americans know more about the U.S. than their U.S. counterparts know about LA?

You don’t think college-educated Omaha residents know far more about New York City than their NYC counterparts know about Omaha?

Well, I’ve never been there, and I haven’t seen any scientific surveys indicating one way or the other, but I’m going to venture that the US has had a somewhat greater impact on the world stage than, say, Paraguay, or Bolivia, so you’ll have to consider that more people are going to feel that the US directly impacts them than vice versa. I highly doubt that college educated folks who do not specialied in US history or foreign relations will know or care a great deal about US history and politics. Compared to the average European, perhaps the European will have an edge, but i’m not sure if it is significant enough to warrant saying that Americans are way behind the curve or anything.

There are two parts to this OP that relate to two different issues. The first deals with the information that Americans obtain in their primary schooling.

The inability of our average citizen to retain information pertaining to American history has been the subject of studies both serious and novel. We have all seen the comedic sketches where people who were born and raised in the US fail to correctly asnwer the most basic questions concerning United States history. These often end in an amusing contrast with an immigrant who correctly answers all of the questions asked. While the questions asked in these pieces are usually the most elementary, they do serve to make the point of how inadequate our history education tends to be. Politicians often use this as the focus of their local concerns.

I am not trying to say that American history is more important than Latin American history. To me, they are one in the same so an emphasis on American history should lead to an emphasis on Latin American history.

Another point for consideration, is that Latin American current events are not bombarding our airwaves (in English anyway) in the same way that our news is distributed in other neighboring countries. With the exception of the occasional coup d’etat, LA does not receive significant news coverage from our local stations. Granted, you can receive a wealth of knowledge from the BBC, but most of the focus of US based world media coverage is primarily on the Middle East.

“Don’t cry for me Argentia!”

What all is there to know, really? Outside of Mexico, we don’t have much to do with the rest of the area besides coffee and drugs. Which fact already points out that it is relevant to us largely only as agricultural area. So long as the farms produce, there isn’t much else to think about.

At least in California, Latin America is only tangentally addressed in the Social Studies curriculum. You can skip it entirely if you focus on the Middle East and China.

*10.10 Students analyze instances of nation-building in the contemporary world in at least two of the following regions or countries: the Middle East, Africa, Mexico and other parts of Latin America, and China. *

You also have to deal with limited time/unlimited coverage. The MidEast has a direct impact on wolrd events, and has for quite some time. What impact has Paraguay had?

Um, because we don’t, as a rule, speak Latin?

I’d be a bit more sympathetic to the various views about why Americans don’t need to know about Latin America, or Canada, if it weren’t for the way that US history has interacted with both areas.

I know my American History mentioned the US-Mexico war of 1840-1(Do I have those dates right?) with little more than a passing sentence. Granted, part of that was simply because at the same time that was going on, the whole pro-slavery/free state issue was heating up with the new states being admitted to the union.

Then there’s the whole Monroe Doctorine. It gets mentioned, but very little of substance with respect to what it did, or did not do, was part of my history class in school.

On a more recent level - one of the actions that lead to the situation culminating in the Falkland Islands War was the act of the USS Essex when it, by any reasonable judgement, pirated the islands from their current owners. (IIRC that was Argentinian land holders, but I may be wrong.)

For every nation in Latin America I can think of some kind of interference from the US that affected its development.

But, compared to the domestic issues of the times, I do admit that they’re minor when studying American history. The question is, just how much emphasis should world history have for students who can’t care less about it?

As a rule we Americans are very insulated about global events. You can imply that the US is one of the few (if not the only) free country on earth and not be laughed at here. Most people don’t know that Freedom House lists about 92 countries on earth as liberal democracies, with the US only being one. I don’t know why it is though. Perhaps it is our geography, it is harder to be international than it would be for a small country that borders numerous other important nations like Germany. I guess we in the US aren’t taught to think of the contributions of other nations to the global community and global events, except for WW2. I don’t remember being taught anything on Canada when I was in school. Nor Latin America really. I think I had to learn the capitals once, but that is it. Nor Asia or Africa, or Eastern Europe.

On a more recent level - one of the actions that lead to the situation culminating in the Falkland Islands War was the act of the USS Essex when it, by any reasonable judgement, pirated the islands from their current owners. (IIRC that was Argentinian land holders, but I may be wrong.) ???

I am not too sure what that paragraph relates too…maybe as a Canadian I missed something but the Falklands have been controlled by Great Britain and Maggie beat the crap out of Argentina for thinking otherwise…and revolutionized warfare once again with the British designed Harrier jet (vertical take off…hovering and so forth).

As for American education…we moved from northern BC to Santa Barbara, California when I was 13. I remember learning a lot about USA and virtually nothing about the world…America loves America…the educational system promotes nationalism…not that that is a bad thing, but when it precludes knowing about other people I think it leads to tunnel vision and the impression that America Knows Best. If GWB knew anything about Arabs and Muslims, maybe he wouldn’t have thought twice about getting rid of Mr. S.H. I hate having you guys as a neighbour, mostly because you know so flipping little about anybody else and you run rough shod over anybody and everybody. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that if we didn’t give you everything you wanted, this country would be invaded. In a way it already has by American companies to the point many of our towns look like any other place in the US with factory outlets and the unimaginative mall architecture.

Do you know why both Argentina and Britain feel they have legitimate claims to those islands?

The short answer is that when Argentina declared independence they also made a claim to the islands. Then in 1831 the US frigate, USS Essex, acted to destroy the colony there, leaving it to become a haven for pirates and criminals. That act is what set up the latter control and colonization of the islands by the British. And is how both Great Britain and Argentina came to believe that they have legitimate reasons to claim the islands.

It’s far from the only cause of the Falkland Islands war, but it sure set things in motion.

As I said in the thread about Canada, I think it’s because both our history texts and the news media don’t tell us a lot about Latin America countries. It’s not because the American People aren’t interested, it’s because their sources of information don’t tell them. They do tell them about Britney Spears, and Tom Cruise, and things happenng in the States. And a lot of the time things going on in Great Britain. But things elsewhere in the world rarely make the news unless they’re particularly significant, or colorful and interesting. It gives a distorted view of the world. But I think iot’s institutionalized.

I’m not implying a Vast Isolationalist Conspiracy. I don’t know the causes, but it certainly seems to be this way. Editors say that they’re only giving the people what they want, and that people don’t want news about the outside world. But these things are two way – people don’t get the world news, so how would they know? The news media itself can create an appetite for foreign news by supplying it on a regular basis and getting people interested, but they don’t. You could find out more for yourself, especially in this internet age, when you can just go to the site of Macleans or the Toronto Globe and Mail or BBC or Jazeera english, but it’s extra effort, and you have to have thought of it, and most people won’t, unless prodded. The news organizations ought to do that prodding, but they don’t.

I’ll blame the media, if you’ll allow me. I find American news to be rather provincial, it seems that only world events that directly affect Americans get news time (unless it is something catastrophically bad).

CNN headlines at the moment: