Source: Getty Images.
Although the United States is embroiled in an ongoing political fight over what content students should and should not be taught in school, the debate often ignores other important elements of what should be incorporated—not only to create a better-educated populace but to improve U.S. standing worldwide. In particular, discussions around history tend to ignore the need to teach students about Latin America and the Caribbean and how interconnected the world has become. This hole in the U.S. education system is reflected in a lack of attention to the region in U.S. foreign policy. To bolster engagement with the rest of the Americas, the United States should expand its education system’s coverage of Inter-American history and Latin American studies.
The U.S. public has traditionally shown more interest in Asia, Europe, or the Middle East, leaving much to be desired regarding its understanding of and engagement with Latin America. Not only does the region share a long and complicated history with the United States, but it represents a wealth of opportunities. U.S. trade with countries in the Western Hemisphere totaled USD $1.5 trillion in 2019. The United States has free trade agreements with several countries across the region, including Colombia and Peru. Furthermore, the region’s geographic location and ties to the United States have meant that it has periodically been of extreme importance to U.S. geopolitical interests.
The two regions not only share close historical ties, but Latin America provides a useful mirror to examine several contemporary issues impacting the United States. While there is a clear connection between understanding the politics and history of Latin America and current issues, such as immigration, deepening our understanding of dynamics in the region can also provide important insights into other critical issues. For instance, although the dynamics are different, Latin America and the Caribbean continue to face the legacies of colonialism and slavery. Understanding how these factors play out in other countries can help us better understand their legacies within the United States. Furthermore, understanding the complicated history of U.S. engagement with the region can help us better understand contemporary diplomatic challenges.
Given these ties, it is clear that the United States government should be more focused on improving engagement with and understanding of the dynamics of the Western Hemisphere. Boosting public interest in the region can have long-lasting implications for policymakers looking to develop deeper relations across the Americas.
One of the most efficient ways to boost such engagement is to increase the region’s prevalence within the U.S. education system. At several points in U.S. history, the federal government recognized the value of fostering closer regional ties through educational programs—some of which are still in place today. While efforts to impart information about Latin America to the U.S. public were central to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, the most enduring attempt to integrate the study of Hemispheric affairs into U.S. education came in 1958 when the government passed Title VI of the National Defense Education Act; Title VI was later added to the Higher Education Act of 1965. Efforts such as these—originally created to combat the spread of Soviet influence—still exist today and provide critical funding to regional studies programs at the university level. More specifically, Title VI funding supplies resources to two key areas: National Resource Centers (NRCs) and Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships. While the NRC funding provides specific support for studying different regions, FLAS fellowships offer important resources that allow undergraduate and graduate students to develop foreign language skills.
Title VI funding is essential if the United States wants to increase interest in Latin America and the Caribbean. Not only does funding for NRCs and FLAS fellowships allow universities to hire additional faculty with regional expertise—thus allowing for more classes on these subjects—but it can also invoke interest among students to study the region by providing opportunities to earn scholarships and pursue unique study abroad programs. In the 2022–2025 funding cycle, approximately 19.8 percent of Title VI funding for NRCs and FLAS fellowships was awarded to programs focused on the Western Hemisphere, for a total of 19 NRCs and 22 FLAS programs. Canada was disproportionately represented, receiving approximately 1.8 percent of total funding—or just over 9 percent of the total budget for the Western Hemisphere. While the share of Title VI funding going to Hemispheric studies is up compared to previous years, it remains far too low for a region so closely linked with the United States.
Source: U.S. Department of Education. National Resource Centers Program. Accessed 10/5/22.
Additionally, Title VI funding has an added element incorporated into many of these programs: targeted efforts to promote the development of Latin American and Caribbean topics in K-12 education. Some Latin American studies centers are doing this already. For instance, several universities across the country provide K-12 teacher training and outreach programs. These trainings can provide teachers with new ways of thinking about how to incorporate Hemispheric issues into their curricula. Furthermore, these same centers are often involved in developing lesson plans that can be used for younger audiences. These plans include exploring ties between one’s own state and the region, looking at different Latin American and Caribbean celebrations, and examining the migrant experience through literature, among many more. With younger students already being exposed to the region through popular films like Disney’s Coco and Encanto, teachers have an easy entry into engaging students about the region in fun and interactive ways.
These educational opportunities can further manifest at the high school level in the form of classes focused specifically on Inter-American history. Although there are important ways that this could be integrated across all of the high school history curricula, one area where there is a notable gap is in Advanced Placement (AP) classes. While some AP classes already exist for U.S., European, and World history, such programs do not exist for Africa or Latin America. By developing and offering more specialized regional courses, students will have the opportunity to develop their interest in different geographical regions far before they pursue higher education, which is when many of these classes are typically first offered.
However, this is not a new concept. The United States is already promoting Hemispheric solidarity through international exchanges and study abroad programs. Initiatives such as the 100,000 Strong in the Americas program seek to boost the number of U.S. college students studying in Latin America and vice versa. Likewise, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Fulbright program provides an important avenue through which students and scholars from around the world can interact with one another. Programs focusing on people-to-people connections can generate interest in the region by creating lasting impacts beyond what is taught in the classroom. Efforts to promote study abroad programs for high school and community college students can provide similar benefits—and they are already underway, including in the form of U.S-Brazil Connect, Rotary Youth Exchanges, and the Youth Ambassadors Program. However, more can be done to expand the availability of these types of opportunities for students.
Building bridges with countries across the Americas is in the United States’s national interest. However, creating meaningful connections without developing interest and expertise among the U.S. public will not be easy. Integrating Hemispheric studies into the U.S. education system is a simple way to increase the U.S. public’s engagement with the region. Building upon existing programs and working further to integrate Hemispheric studies into the U.S. education curriculum could be an important first step in highlighting both to the American public and to the region that the U.S. is interested in developing longer-term connections across the Americas.
Adam Ratzlaff is the Deputy Director of Global Americans. Ratzlaff has consulted for the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. He holds an MA from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, a BA from Tulane University, and is currently pursuing his doctoral degree.
Diana Roy is a writer and editor covering Latin America and immigration issues at the Council on Foreign Relations. She received her BA from American University in Washington, DC. Her global affairs work has previously been featured in International Policy Digest, the Center for International Policy, and the Inter-American Dialogue. The views expressed herein are strictly her own.