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The Lesson of Crimea is the Power of Education
The US can remain a world leader
only through critical thought, education, and travel

  226829_1989503853009_399277Josh is SRAS's
Assistant Director, and is editor of SRAS's newsletter and the Editor in Chief of Vestnik, The Journal of Russian and Asian Studies.

The main lesson of the Crimean crisis is that we need to remember what makes societies strong.

There have been, since the beginning of civilization, two basic pillars to a strong society. The first is agriculture. A society that is able to feed its members in abundance is able to raise armies, to diversify and expand its economy, and to support the cultural and scientific achievements that define it and bind its members together.

The second pillar is education. A society that learns to form rocks into tools has advantages over those that don't. A society that learns the value of teaching skills to its offspring has even greater advantages. A society that teaches its members to critically analyze a situation – to know when to act, when to sit, and when to run – is the strongest of all, able to finesse situations and adapt to them.

A society that stops valuing education will eventually fail. It will not be able to defend and pursue its interests in a competitive world. This is the lesson of Crimea.

We increasingly regard education as peripheral. We have cut research and higher education programs even as they grow more important. We celebrate the amusing one-liner over the well-formed argument. We protect our children from teachers that would push them – believing, somehow, that the occasional failure would be a greater damage to the child than would be the inability to achieve.

The Crimea crisis is but one aspect of this trend. Crimea has shown that our policy makers did not understand Russia's interests or capabilities. They did not understand the diverse nature of Ukrainian society. They were unable to think in terms of the complexities and realities of the local and regional situations. The media rush that fell upon Russia and Ukraine experts following the crisis exposed a major reason for this: we have far more ways to transmit information than we have experts who have information to transmit.

Our society and those who manage our institutions of learning have devalued subjects that are hard - not only are most American students no longer studying the hard sciences and math that drive technology, but neither are they studying the languages and area studies that are now driving globalization, diplomacy, and business. These subjects can be both intellectually and emotionally taxing; in learning them, our beliefs are challenged as we begin to see just how big and diverse our world really is: things which were once unquestionable are questioned, the incomprehensible becomes understood, and we find that sometimes very good people hold beliefs antithetical to our own. This is true education.

An increasingly dynamic and shockingly diverse global community, full of new opportunities and threats, is now directly on our doorstep. To grab hold of these opportunities and to mitigate these threats, we must first realize that education is both essential and not easy. We must realize that those with differing views from our own should be regarded as people with something to teach us – not as those who are necessarily ignorant, crazy, or corrupt. Above all, we must learn that all areas of education are valuable. We need not only math and science, but also area studies, comparative histories, languages, and travel if we are to maintain our role as a leader of the free world.

America has the ability and the need to do this. We were built by diverse global immigrants. Our economy dwarfs all others. We abound in physical and intellectual wealth even as we lack in unity and leadership.

Devaluing education is as detrimental as salting our fields. The effects may not be felt as quickly, but they are already being felt and will only become more pronounced.

An education that is global, critical, well-traveled, and celebrated is essential to training future generations of Americans to think not just like Americans but also like those who are unique from us. We need Americans that know what life on the ground is like in other parts of the world and how to communicate with people who not only do not speak our language, but who have lived through very different histories and come from very different cultures. Only when this happens will our businesses be better able to grow in new markets and innovate in current markets, our scientists will be better able to reach and push new ideas across the globe, and our diplomats and armies will be able to secure and defend our interests by understanding not just our enemies but our allies and neighbors as well.

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