THE day was January 21, 2014. I entered my ‘International Media Systems’ class and introduced myself to about twenty American university students who were eager to learn how the media work around the globe. “I’m originally from Nigeria; who knows where Nigeria is located?” I asked. Silence. I repeated the question.
Then, one of the students was courageous enough to respond. “Nigeria is in Central Africa!” I thanked him for attempting an answer, and for mentioning “Africa” for he could have said “Asia.” Or, that Nigeria was a city in Bulgaria.
He was much better than his colleagues who had no idea where Nigeria could be located on the world map. I did not laugh. It was a serious issue. And it was part of my job to pull them out of their comfort zones to learn a few things about the outside world.
Remember, this happened on January 21, 2014, not 1914 when Lord Lugard performed his imperial magic and the amalgamation of northern and southern Nigeria came to be. That was not the first time I encountered such incident which I call American Wonder or Wonderfulment as the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti used to sing. In fact, ask most foreigners in America and each one would have a tale to tell about such unabashed ignorance encountered in daily conversations in America. And if you think it is just about the world outside the USA, you might be mistaken.
A Pew Research poll in July 2012 showed that 30 percent of Americans who belong to the Republican Party believed that President Barack Obama is a Muslim. In 2008, the figure was 16 percent. Even among Democrats, 9 percent of them identified their president as a Muslim. By 2012, the figure only went down to 8 percent.
Here is what makes this scenario an American wonder. The U.S. is a world leader in communication technology and the availability of communication channels of every dimension. When it comes to obtaining news and information, there is probably no better place to be than the U.S.The first amendment to the U.S. constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press.
Enter any typical U.S. town or village and you cannot but feel the impact of modern communication, from media outlets some of which run twenty-hour news cycles, to communication devices with which you can access news and information from anywhere. In terms of international affairs, there is little doubt that it tends to revolve around what the U.S. does or does not do.
Yet, when it comes to knowing what goes on around the world, U.S. citizens cannot even pretend to be among the third best in the whole world. I have no idea why this is the case. Nonetheless, here are two suggestions. One of them is that just as there is truth in the political saying in the U.S. that all politics is local, it is equally correct to say that to a great extent, all news is local.
Unless you watch network television and cable news outlets and read the few newspapers and online media that attempt to carry national and international news, most news channels here are heavily preoccupied with local news and events. And by local, I mean restricted to a tightly defined area. Thus, if you live in St. Louis in Missouri, you are mostly unlikely to be fed with news from Chicago in Illinois, some five hours’ drive away. So, for someone who has lived all of his or her life in New York State, I’ll not be surprised if that person does not have substantial information about California State which is hundreds of miles away and located in a different time zone.
Here is another way to look at the issue. The individualistic nature of the American culture, which is undoubtedly good in many respects, provides little incentive for people to worry about things that do not directly affect them. So, if I live in San Francisco and love my city, why should events in Colorado really be of any concern to me unless they have some bearing on my life? Perhaps, the structure of development is also a culprit on this issue. Go to every hamlet in the U.S. and you will find almost everything you need, though on a smaller scale. Over there, they will have a radio station, newspaper, perhaps a television station within reach. And they all carry news about their locality. So, if all you need is actually around you, why bother looking outside?
But, that is begging the question. The wonder still remains that people with almost unlimited access to multiple sources of information know very little about outside their immediate environment. At times I wonder what kids are taught in U.S. geography and civics classes. We used to take pride in knowing places we might not visit until death. Thus, in my primary school days atUmuahia, we used to compete over who was more cosmopolitan in knowledge than his peers.
And we took a lot of delight in knowing that, for instance, the capital city of Indonesia was and remains Jakarta. Ask an American university student the same question and you’ll be astonished at what the response will be