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Hail to the Queen

The English and Global Awareness

By Matt Zedler

There is a global perception that the majority of Americans are overweight, self-absorbed, and woefully uninformed of what happens in the rest of the world. While I would strongly deny the universality of this statement, I believe that the reporting (or lack thereof) done by media in the US does confirm with the uninformed and self-absorbed image. With the exception of a few stations (C-SPAN, NPR, PBS), the media is privately owned, meaning that its content is often biased. Liberal friends complain about the right-wing coverage of FOX news, and my conservative father calls CNN the “Communist News Network.”

In addition, all media tends to focus on local and national issues rather than international news because people tend to be more interested in (and therefore more likely to watch) stories which have a stronger connection to their lives. As a result, you are much more likely to see a feature on why Americans are overweight or the East Coast summer heat wave than one on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka or even an important issue like the election recount in Mexico.

Living in the UK for almost a year gave me a chance to experience American media from an outsider’s position. In addition, studying abroad gave me more of a reason to take advantage of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as well as the privately-owned English press. The broadsheets (newspapers) are as likely to be skewed in the UK as our privately owned papers in the US, with the articles in the left-wing Guardian being regarded as heresy to the right-wing readers of the Daily Mail. It seemed that English students were as likely to read a paper on a regular basis as their American counterparts, but the difference came when one considered usage of the BBC, primarily the Internet site.

The publicly-owned BBC covers UK local and national affairs, but the international world service is what has made it famous. Perhaps more useful during the age of imperialism (back when the UK dominated nearly one-third of the planet), the international section of the BBC covers events from every corner of the planet. While coverage is not perhaps as complete as it could be, it is much better than one could find in any newspaper. The ease of availability of global information through the BBC is one reason I think the English are more globally aware than other cultures.

The English also seem to be more inquisitive about what is happening in the rest of the world as a nation. I believe the size of their small island and the imperialistic past plays a small role in that penchant. When the national and local news gets rather dull, the English can always turn to the BBC and find out about the latest crisis in the Sudan or the newest economic growth indicator from China.

Having had colonies throughout the world in nearly every continent, the English maintain strong ties with several far-flung nations. Indeed, many English families have members living in the former colonies of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, or the US. While Americans may have family members living abroad, the likelihood of having the majority of the family residing in the same country is much higher, making the international news less relevant.

Of course, my perception may have been slightly skewed by observing from a vantage point where people tended to have a great interest in what was happening internationally. With a large international student population, several courses offered in more humanistic and political topics, and a tendency to attract the middle to upper classes, the University of Cambridge perhaps was not representative of the UK. Even so, it should be comparable to the student body of MIT, and I feel that international awareness is less pronounced here because of the nature of the majority of the courses. Engineering does not typically require strong global understanding, even though several areas which absorb engineers can instill global awareness.

In the end, the resources are there to become more aware of events happening in the rest of the world. While these resources may not have been accessible in past decades, the prevalence of the Internet has brought them to almost every corner of the globe. We have a choice to tune in or turn off, and it appeared to me that the English at Cambridge had more visibly made the choice to stay tuned.