Help an ignorant American become aware of world issues, politics, and all things relevant.
February 2, 2010 9:01 PM   Subscribe

Recently I have come to the conclusion that I am an extremely ignorant American. I know very little about American politics and world issues and politics. I've been living in my safe little American bubble for 18 years and I want to get out! I want to get educated but it's overwhelming..where should I start? Textbooks (but should I bother reading an American textbook?), websites, blogs, essays, CNN, BBC, Google? I also want to be aware of things people think Americans are usually ignorant of, and I would like to learn little things about cultures that aren't in guidebooks. Email me at throwaway.email20 (at) gmail (dot) com
posted by anonymous to Education (50 answers total) 79 users marked this as a favorite
The Economist
posted by mr_roboto at 9:03 PM on February 2, 2010 [11 favorites]

It's a weekly magazine, first published in September 1843 to take part in a "severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress." If you read every issue each week, you will be well informed about what is going on in the world.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:06 PM on February 2, 2010

I have almost no time to keep up with the world these days, and my copies of the Economist just sat there collecting dust until I cancelled my subscription and took it out of my RSS feed. But every morning, I pull up Morning Brief by the Passport blog editors at Foreign Policy magazine. A tidy summary of one of the big stories of the day, a sentence or two about something else, and then a bunch of links to newsworthy stories broken down by region. Just peruse them at your leisure, read through the stories, look up things you don't recognize or understand. It takes time, but at least here, it'll be relevant and timely.
posted by SpringAquifer at 9:07 PM on February 2, 2010 [8 favorites]

I wish that I would have asked this question when I was your age - it would have prevented a lot of regret for me later on.

That having been said, the way to get out of your safe little American bubble is to get out of America for a while. Travel is the cure for what ills you. I'm assuming that you mentioned 18 years because that's your age. That, to me, means that you're at the perfect age to go travel for a while. Pick someplace that appeals to you, get your passport in order, save enough money to go for a good while (no less than a month, but the more the better), and GO. You're at the age when you're unlikely to have many responsibilities that would prevent you from packing up and fucking off for a while.

Mark Twain put it better than I ever could: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."
posted by deadmessenger at 9:07 PM on February 2, 2010 [6 favorites]

Ideally, travel. In between travelling, read the international news online, and follow the same story at, say, the NY Times, CNN, Fox (yes, really), the Guardian, the Times, and Al Jazeera. This should give you some idea of how the US media spins some stories.
posted by pompomtom at 9:12 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the The SBS World Guide is a pretty good start, and have many friends who enjoy and highly recommend it.
posted by bunglin jones at 9:36 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't Know Much About History
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:49 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

History Lessons is a great book that shows how other countries view American history. Examples: how the British are taught about the War of 1812 or how Iranians learn about the Iran Hostage Crisis. It's very eye opening.
posted by jedicus at 9:50 PM on February 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

If you are interested in history as opposed to current events then I recommend looking into the catalog of The Teaching Company.

All of the lectures I have listened to have been the equivalent of a 3rd or 4rth year university course on the subject.

Finally, don't discount a source because it is "American". That's just as boneheaded as the kind of world view you are trying to get away from. While the US style research University is a hell of a crappy system to be an undergrad in it does produce a lot of great research.
posted by Riemann at 9:53 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you can't afford to travel, you can expand your cultural understanding of the world by absorbing and appreciating art from around the world, right at home. Any good movie rental place should have a quality selection of foreign titles, and Netflix has a surprisingly good selection. Many of the most renowned foreign films in an American context have to do with the plights and histories of the countries in question. You can visit art museums dedicated to art from around the world - a trip to Washington D.C. will get you worldwide historical treasures right in front of your face without the need for a passport, but do a little local research and the chances of a niche museum dedicated to Asian or African or European art or history being within a day's drive is surprisingly high, all across the country. A visit to your local library and a few pertinent details conveyed to your librarian will point you to fiction and nonfiction works of literature that you can read to both entertain and educate yourself. Basically, the world, and knowledge of it, is right at your fingertips, through all different forms of artistic and cultural expression. You just have to take the initiative to go out and get it. By embracing a variety of these things, you can begin to form a better idea of the history of the world, and then more capably understand the current state of things.
posted by Mizu at 9:53 PM on February 2, 2010

Your bubble is because you have not been exposed to enough cultures, societies, ways of thinking, viewpoints and beliefs that are different from yours and your immediate cultural environment.

Go travel. Immerse yourself in a place and among people that are different from you, keep and open mind, and do not reject anything just because it is different from what you know.

You will not truly understand third world hunger and poverty until you have seen it and lived it. You will not truly understand the world's religions until you've experienced them firsthand. You will not truly understand why much of the world hates America right now until you eject yourself from your bubble of close-minded thinking can see it from their perspectives.

Get out. Go travel. Join the Peace Corps. Volunteer in Africa. Sign up for foreign service. Join the Army. Backpack Europe (but avoid other spoiled rich Americans).
posted by camworld at 9:56 PM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hit post too soon... As I was saying, the book Don't Know Much About History can quickly give you background info on history. For more present-tense stuff, of course you can read the news, as recommended above.

But your interest seems broad enough that you might want to focus at least as much on a news/opinion magazine. The Economist is the best magazine that covers the whole world thoroughly. But it could actually be overwhelming in its scope, with lots of articles on country-specific issues that won't necessarily grab your interest. It's a lofty goal, but at least your short term goals should be more about quality (getting motivated to pay attention to this kind of thing) rather than quantity (learning lots of information fast about as many countries as possible). Unlike American publications, the Economist doesn't make an effort to keep reminding the reader, "Here's why this matters to Americans," which can be an upside or downside.

So, I recommend The New Republic. Of course, it does have international coverage, but without the even-handed, every-country-is-equally-important perspective of The Economist. I've been regularly reading TNR since I was 18 (I'm 28), and I find it to be by far the best American news/opinion magazine -- yes, better than the Atlantic, better than the Nation, better than Harpers, better than the New Yorker. When you read a New Republic article you become informed about the intricacies of an important issue -- but it's not dull and academic, it's boldly opinionated and insightful.

Also, look up everything you don't know about in Wikipedia or a similar source. For background info on specific countries and other locations, try the CIA's World Factbook.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:11 PM on February 2, 2010

If you use a college education correctly, it can be very helpful. Take the right classes: the ones
a) with the very best teachers (look up student evaluations, talk to other people, and so on)
b) in subjects like history, political science, and economics
c) preferably seminars rather than lectures

Get to know these professors! Talk to them during office hours. Learn from them. Maybe do research for some of them.

Also, read a lot, but don't try to learn about everything at once: find whatever interests you and learn about it. Choose high-quality publications, books, or even scholarly journals. For instance, suppose you're interested in Africa. Read a history or two about it. Look up key figures on wikipedia. Suddenly you'll know a lot more about it.

Oh, and consider learning another language or three. That can really open up other cultures.
posted by Malad at 10:11 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just asking the question is a huge first step. To your list of news sites, I'd just say all of the above. Curiousity is key... find a story and just start pulling at the threads. Sites like Mefi and Arts and Letter Daily are a good resource to find leads. Just be careful to read from a lot of sources so you don't end up in an virtual version of Twain's "one little corner of the earth".

As a lot of people mentioned, travel is great, but you can make a great start right at your desk. People who grew up with the internet sometimes don't realize just what a difference it has made in this area.
posted by Noon Under the Trees at 10:19 PM on February 2, 2010

If you read every issue each week, you will be well informed about what is going on in the world.

And after a few years, you'll know enough to realise what it was BSing you about; The Economist's prospectus commits itself to "ORIGINAL LEADING ARTICLES, in which free-trade principles will be most rigidly applied to all the important questions of the day", and that's no different today. So, useful, but grain of salt.

BBC World Service. Newshour is good. Again, it comes from a particular perspective: institutional, paternalistic, with a whiff of old colonialism at times, but you'll hear stuff about bits of the world that don't even make it to PBS. Other sources? Just be eclectic.

Bookwise, seconding Don't Know Much About History; What Every American Should Know About the Rest of the World is a wee bit dated and somewhat superficial and scrappy, but far less arid than a textbook would be. Good bathroom reading, if you're that way inclined.

But travel, travel, travel. You're at the age where you'll have more freedom (and a greater tolerance of certain types of squalor) than later in life, and while a little foreknowledge will do you well before you go, learning from experience will be far richer.
posted by holgate at 11:02 PM on February 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

Seconding Riemann on the Teaching Company. Check your local library. A similar line of courses is available from The Modern Scholar.

Also, I'm about 1/3 through The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877 with Professor David Blight from Yale University's Open Courses program. It's free and jaw-droppingly good.
posted by turbodog at 11:02 PM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Since a lot of other people have already recommended some good print resources, here are some other ideas:

If you're interested in foreign radio stations (including the BBC), this website is a good resource. I think it must have hundreds of links to radio stations from other countries. I have a Mac and I can download the links into my music library. I'm sure you can do something similar if you've got a PC. I particularly like the BBC World Service's program, The World Today, which airs where I am every M-Th evening. You can also find the BBC World Service on a local radio station sometimes. It my town it airs on NPR.

I think watching foreign movies and television shows can open up your eyes quite a bit too. Among other things, characters will often refer to things that you've never heard of, which--if you're like me--can send you on some interesting fact-finding missions. This has the added benefit of narrowing down your research field: instead of trying to figure out what you don't know about Everything, you can just figure out why your favorite character keeps talking about such-and-such or so-and-so, and the answers to your initial question can then lead you to other interesting questions, etc.
posted by colfax at 11:29 PM on February 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

Learn a foreign language and read news, debate about current affairs and history, literature and all the rest in that (of course there's the music, films and the rest of the cultural output too). It's a great way to 'walk a mile in another man's shoes' and with the right breadth of exposure can really challenge the habits of thinking you've gained form your own background. On top of the above, with the right language it's a saleable skill as well as the key to a wider understanding (including the learning process itself at times) and some previously inaccessible cultural pleasures.
posted by Abiezer at 11:38 PM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Subscribe to and watch AlJazeera's English Channel on Youtube. Whenever they mention a location or reference to something in history, or some organization: google it. Keep in mind that they are not impartial, but also realize no commercial media organization is impartial.

Look up and listen to BBC, ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) podcasts, especially ones having to do with topics you've never thought about. Likewise, whenever you hear a reference to something you don't know, google it.

For the love of God stay away from CNN, or other US corporate media. Oh, speaking of media, it's a good idea to be critical of where you get your information. Realize that what is reported is not always true. Even the BBC World News reports factually incorrect or otherwise misleading statements simply due to inadequate fact checking.
posted by parallax7d at 11:44 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I used to really like Le Monde diplomatique. It's an excellent international news magazine. They cover the US from a non-US perspective (which can be a bit of an eye-opener), and they cover stories and parts of the world you wouldn't hear much about otherwise, at least in US media, especially parts of Africa that aren't South Africa or Nigeria.

I used to have free access. I've been meaning to subscribe to it. This question reminded me.

This recommendation is out of date, but if they're anywhere near as good as they used to be, a subscription's worth it.
posted by nangar at 12:08 AM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you can only glean so much from material largely written in the Western world. When I was trying to do what you're doing, I read a lot of foreign language sites, but in English Tehlka was particularly eye-opening to me, especially providing alternative perspective to NPR/BBC on events in the middle East.

While I didn't understand a lot of the cultural, geographic and political references, it perked my ears up to a lot of things of things people think Americans are usually ignorant of. So then I could read about them in Western media when they were finally (though lightly) covered. The writing also has a lot of cultural nuances that aren't in guidebooks. If nothing else, I gained an appreciation of how little I knew, and strengthened my resolve to see India one day, whether or not I could afford it at the time.
posted by iiniisfree at 12:11 AM on February 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

The AlJazeera and Le Monde advice is very good. One thing that caused a lot of friction-through-misunderstanding between me and a family member was the fact that neither of us were aware that CNN is different when outside of the US. So the news and spin and types of stories were, sometimes, vastly different than what I was receiving in Europe through CNN International.

oh yeah, and travel, travel, travel, travel.... there is no substitute.
posted by alchemist at 1:05 AM on February 3, 2010

Find some foreigners.

I work with a variety of Africans and Asians (in which I include Indians and Pakistanis), and I routinely quiz them when I have questions (I've also been given a couple of books about Mohammad (pbuh) and a newspaper about Hare Krishna); then I follow up at home by researching on the web.

The last three times there's been an FPP about China, I've called over a Chinese colleague, and gotten his take on the FPP. With the FPP on the 46 Chinese ethnicities, we went through every one, with him pronouncing the name of the ethnicity, my mis-pronouncing it, and him and providing (pun intended) color commentary on that ethnicity.

(I've meant to follow up with that in the comments and have failed to do, so: "What I don't understand is this: Cau Cau beats Guan Yu in battle, but who gets deity status and a statue in every shrine in every single apartment in Hong Kong?" Guan Yu is loyal; and "姦 which is three copies of the female radical. It turns out to mean 'debauchery'" is an understatement: my colleague blanched when he saw it.

I do the same thing with the Nigerians, and the Mormons, and the Indians, and the Muslims (after I got the basics and a whole lot about all the neat things (hadith and sunnah) that Mohammad (pbuh) did, it was interesting to ask Sunni about Shiite and vice versa, and Telugu about Gujarati, and ... -- people love to dish on their "neighbors" and rivals.)

And so forth. People love to talk about themselves and their cultures and religions; as long as you're reasonably respectful (and god knows I'm often not), they'll tell you all you want to know and far more. And the great thing about that is, instead of getting the "textbook" or "official" positions, you get the real, not politically correct view of the (wo)man in the street.
posted by orthogonality at 1:55 AM on February 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

It'll be OK, you can't know everything.. I mean, yes I've been a ways outside a safe American bubble, though only in highly developed European countries, so a bubble nevertheless. Though I am fortunate to live in a pretty international city. There are ignorant people and uneducated people everywhere in the world, not everyone has opportunities for education really.. and there's a lot of money to be made in misinforming people.

Anyway, there's NPR - the news shows, Talk of the Nation, some of the worldwide shows - depends on what your station plays - mine, WAMU in Washington DC, has a really good variety, some international news focused programs, a couple of good newsmagazines in the evening, a Canadian news program at 11, and overnight is BBC World Service radio. So I recommend that. If your local NPR is music most of the day you can just listen to a different station online, or if you have an iPhone, check out the NPR app or the Public Radio app, you can pick what program to hear & listen to stations all over the country, it's really nice.
posted by citron at 2:16 AM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and the other thing is.. it's overwhelming because it IS overwhelming! The internets has made such a vast amount of information available to us.. we're all editors now, I suppose. There are good general resources listed here.

Also.. it can be tempting to cherrypick your news to the point where you only hear the news you want to hear. For instance, if you are interested in politics and like Candidate A, take care that you aren't subconsciously gravitating toward only stories that say interesting/positive things about Candidate A and attack Candidate B, and tuning out (or mistrusting) stores that tell the opposite. Or if you read a story about a conflict and start subconsciously filtering out facts that make you uncomfortable or aren't what you expected. Now that online news sources most all allow comments, there are plenty of people commenting who don't even share the same basic ideas about facts and reality..!
posted by citron at 2:28 AM on February 3, 2010

"Travel" is a good solution. But it is possible to travel far and long without being exposed to much in the way of either locals or travellers of other nationalities. To counter the effect of being insulated on your travels I would recommend taking the approach that will give you the best travellers tales to take home. Specifically:
1. If you can engineer any way of working or studying abroad - even if only for a short time - do so.
2. Try to pursue your existing interests overseas: if you like music then go and see your favourite band play at a foreign music festival. If you like to run then try a marathon in Paris.
3. If you limited by time then try to experience one place in depth rather than 10 on a superficial level.
4.Solutions like sofa surfing - which will bring you into the homes of local people are a great option.
posted by rongorongo at 3:31 AM on February 3, 2010

A very safe and relatively easy way to take a first step out of your comfort zone and expose yourself to other cultures:


That is, food from other cultures which you've cooked yourself. It's one thing to get Chinese takeout, it's another to buy the ingredients and cook it yourself. If you're in a small town, this may be tricky ("where in the HELL am I going to get lotus root around HERE?"), but the quest to get it may lead you into an Asian market, which could lead you to ask the owner about where to find it, which could also get you to ask about other things, which could get him to point you into another direction, which....

Plus, it just tastes different.

It's a baby step, but it's a very achievable one.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:50 AM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

For sure, live in a different country. I moved to the UK over 3 years ago and it's been THE most eye opening experience. And it's "just" Britain! Where you could argue it has a lot in common with America.

I also highly recommend the BBC but not just for the news, try and get a hold of some good shows, particularly news panel shows (Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You). Try to download some of their audio programs as well.

This past New Years my fiance, who is Scottish, and I went back to my hometown, San Francisco where he got to meet a lot of my high school friends at a wedding reception. During one conversation my friend (who is UC educated, running her own business) asked him, "Wow, so where did you learn to speak English so well? Did you learn in Scotland or did you live in America when you were a kid?"

Full credit to my fiance for taking it completely in stride and calmly informing her that they speak english in Scotland. I could have died.
posted by like_neon at 5:10 AM on February 3, 2010

Take introductory economics, micro and macro. Some study econ and then assume that these theories are flawless and work under every set of assumptions. Not true. However, econ will go a long way in helping you understand how things work. Perhaps also take a Western political philosophy class. Not the end, you need to learn the content, but this would perhaps give you a framework in which to hang your new knowledge. There was a very difficult but excellent one that I really wish I had taken in college.

Don't always take classes with people who agree with you. Don't always talk with people who agree with you. Depending on where you live, that could be more or less challenging. (This from someone who lives in the People's Republic of Cambridge, MA. While the state voted for Brown, my city was 85%ish for Coakley.)

And yes, The Economist.
posted by teragram at 6:01 AM on February 3, 2010

Rats, wish I had thought of this before posting: read a book about political psychology. Misinformation, how people process things, cognitive shortcuts, all VERY interesting. Again, this won't teach you details about US politics/world politics/history...BUT it will perhaps teach you to take what you hear with a large grain of salt, and to question your own assumptions and thought processes.
posted by teragram at 6:04 AM on February 3, 2010

For an excellent blog that will touch on a variety of different subjects that might interest you (especially American politics) try Andrew Sullivan.

For pure politics, try Talking Points Memo.

I would also suggest podcasts. The Economist has good short podcasts on a wide variety of subjects. The CBC from Canada also has an excellent variety of radio shows, especially The Current, As It Happens, and, if you're looking for more arts and entertainment, Q.

As for travel, someone already mentioned it but I think it bears repeating that I find it much more valuable to live and work abroad rather than just travel. In my experience spending a few weeks somewhere can be awesome and interesting, but it can be hard to scratch beneath the surface and get at what makes a country tick. Staying in hotels and hostels will just result in meeting other Americans and tourists. It's a great time, but not nearly as much of a learning experience as renting an apartment, finding a job, paying taxes, and having to adapt to local customs and ways of life.
posted by fso at 6:30 AM on February 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you ever have the opportunity to study abroad, do it.
posted by kmavap at 6:36 AM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

You've been given a lot of advice and some of it you absolutely should do since they are cheap (consume non-local foods and culture) and relatively easy depending on where you are (seek out and befriend non-locals). Note I emphasized non-local because if you are like most people, you don't really know the nuances of people that live 1,000 miles away and for a country like the USA, well that includes a whole lot of different sub-cultures. Sure we share a language and consume a single mass culture but there is still a lot of regional differences.

As for some easier approaches to learning about current events and politics, why don't you check out Google News or The Slatest from Slate. Both update during the day and attempt to provide an aggregation of what is happening right now.

As for your last question, well, you are going to have to focus on some place exceedingly obscure for there not to be any travel guides. The Internet, cheap publishing and every cheaper International travel means more and more places are covered by the travel industry.
posted by mmascolino at 6:56 AM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present by Howard Zinn

Came in to suggest this and mention that it is available for free here.
posted by torquemaniac at 7:21 AM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

James Kunstler's blog Clusterfuck Nation is a fascinating perspective on American culture, politics, an the end of the American bubble as we know it. He's kind of doomsdayer-ish at times, but but he's got a lot to say and his writing is excellent, even if you don't agree with everything or even if you think he's full of BS.
posted by Rocket26 at 8:04 AM on February 3, 2010

PBS's NewsHour (different than the BBC's) is a good source for American news / politics. It goes more go more in-depth than CNN or the broadcast networks.

The Financial Times is a good source for international news with a business spin.

Seconding the Economist as well.
posted by dgc at 8:09 AM on February 3, 2010

I know very little about American politics--

The best short introduction I've seen to American politics is an essay by political scientist Anthony King in the Atlantic Monthly, Running Scared. ("Painfully often the legislation our politicians pass is designed less to solve problems than to protect the politicians from defeat in our neverending election campaigns. They are, in short, too frightened of us to govern")

If you have the time, Tocqueville's Democracy in America (full text available online) provides an outsider's view of democracy.

Textbooks (but should I bother reading an American textbook?)

Sure, if you have the time and attention span.

For the basics of US history, I'd recommend Samuel Eliot Morison's Oxford History of the American People. I'd suggest reading it before you start on Zinn, since Zinn's writing as a critic of the standard history.

For the basics of world history, I'd recommend William McNeill's A World History. I'd follow up with Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (power politics and military conflict between 1500 and 2000), and Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel (prehistory and the origins of agriculture).

If you don't have time for books, I'd recommend the Economist or the New York Times. I'd also recommend the New York Review of Books; compared to the Economist, it doesn't try to cover the whole world, but it often has detailed essays on particular topics. A recent example.
posted by russilwvong at 8:15 AM on February 3, 2010

Watch the ANY nightly news from ANYWHERE but the United States. The best way to not know what is going on in the world is to watch MSNBC, FOX, or CNN (USA Edition).
posted by blue_beetle at 8:29 AM on February 3, 2010

As others have mentioned, Slate is excellent for this sort of thing. They talk about all the hot issues relating to domestic matters, and regularly cover international issues in terms that are easy to understand, and highly readable for the average person. Get in the habit of checking it daily and just click on a handful of the main stories.

For general international news the BBC News web site is the world standard. The BBC is really the only news organization you can count on having a reporter in every country. American news outlets are increasingly pathetic in this regard.

Also listen to NPR in the morning and evening. Between those 3 you should be set.

The main thing is to read stuff can't switch off for a week and expect to keep up on things.
posted by the foreground at 8:41 AM on February 3, 2010

NPR. The New York Times. The International Herald Tribune is the global version of the New York Times.

Books. Whenever a subject interests you, read a book on it.

Make and keep friends who don't look, think and act like you.
posted by girlmightlive at 9:23 AM on February 3, 2010

The book *Lies My Teacher Told Me* is a good place to start. Also, nthing Howard Zinn.
posted by chicainthecity at 9:39 AM on February 3, 2010

Also, The Real News Network is an independent television news without any corporate or government sponsorship, wholly user supported. Good stuff for analysis and viewpoints most Americans aren't exposed to.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:55 AM on February 3, 2010

The NY Times Week in Review, The Guardian Weekly, and The Browser are useful news aggregators. The Atlantic Wire provides quick overviews of various topics, as does Headlines from The Morning News.
posted by Korou at 1:57 PM on February 3, 2010

If you have any opportunity to live abroad - especially to study abroad - do it, do it, do it. The bigger the culture shock, the better. Third world? Even better still. Note that I said live abroad rather than just travel.

I was frigggggggggggggging clueless until, at age 17, I left the country for a year to be an exchange student in Bolivia. I learned more about my country in that year abroad than I'd learned during the previous 17 years, and when I returned, I never stopped learning. It's as if a new window into the US had been opened, and everything became so much more clear. That includes the goods and the bads.

Find a way to study abroad. It'll be one of the best decisions you'll ever make.
posted by 2oh1 at 2:58 PM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


(It provided one of the most enjoyable, eye opening summers of my life)
posted by Alex404 at 10:38 PM on February 3, 2010

Also, don't be hard on yourself for being American. Ignorance is everywhere.
posted by Alex404 at 10:40 PM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

A lighter book suggestion: E. H. Gombrich, A Little History of the World. A classic children's history written in 1935 (the author is a famous art historian), recently published in English for the first time.
posted by russilwvong at 4:11 AM on February 4, 2010

NPR has two daily five minute news podcasts.

7 AM.

If you wanted to spend more time, Al Jazeera reports the news of the developing world *from* the developing world's point of view.

And perhaps be willing to accept when America isn't the good guy; we armed Afghanistan, we own a lot of Haiti's crushing debts (taken out by their old dictator), and so on.
posted by talldean at 5:19 AM on February 4, 2010

I strongly recommend Bob Harris' Who Hates Whom. It provides a very accessable historical context to various ongoing global conflicts.
posted by Phlogiston at 9:34 AM on February 4, 2010

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