Nicholas Donabet Kristof is an American journalist and political commentator. A winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, he is a regular CNN contributor and an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. Born in Chicago, Kristof was raised in Yamhill, Oregon, the son of two professors at nearby Portland State University. He published a Commentary this weekend in The New York Times entitled “The Isolationism Antidote” calling on young people to “Study Spanish in Bolivia. Or teach English in South Korea. Or volunteer in Nepal.” Never Once Does He Mention The Peace Corps! Where have you been Nicholas? What do you think we have been doing since 1961? We’re older than you!
Read It And Weep
The Isolationism Antidote
By Nicholas Kristof
Feb. 10, 2024
Why has the isolationist wing of Congress been blocking aid to Ukraine and become, in effect, a tool for President Vladimir Putin of Russia?
Republican politics explain some of this folly, but I think another reason is pure cluelessness. Congress has a thread of insularity, reflecting an American population that is, by the standards of the rich world, poorly traveled — only 48 percent of Americans have a passport — and notoriously bad at languages:
Question: If someone who speaks two languages is bilingual, and someone who speaks three languages is trilingual, then what do you call a person who speaks just one language?
Answer: an American.
Lack of familiarity with the world is, I think, one reason the United States periodically pursues self-destructive policies around the world. Perhaps the worst foreign policy mistake in this century was the George W. Bush administration’s expectation that Iraqis would welcome American troops with flowers in 2003; that’s the kind of delusion found among people who have never actually had a conversation with an Arab person. A second Trump presidency might entail even more consequential mistakes: pulling out of NATO, abandoning Ukraine, upending the post-World War II international system.
Time spent abroad corrodes stereotypes (of the kind one hears these days about Israelis and Palestinians alike) and shores up our empathy by reminding us of our common humanity. It also makes our country more competitive: I would argue that Utah has benefited economically because it is unusually cosmopolitan, a consequence of having a large number of residents who have lived abroad as Mormon missionaries.
So my message to young people: Go west! Go east! Go north! And above all, go to the global south! Universities should likewise push students harder to study abroad for at least a semester (or to take a gap year before college to work or study in another country).
We wouldn’t consider university graduates fully educated if they had never read Shakespeare, didn’t know the cube root of 27 and thought Plato’s “Republic” was a small Central American country. And as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, another component of a complete education is some international experience.
I spent a summer before college earning money working on a farm in France, and it helped change my life trajectory. But don’t think that the way to study abroad is necessarily to join a herd touring Rome or London. Instead, try teaching English in a small town in South Korea, Taiwan or Japan. Or volunteer in Nepal or Sierra Leone. (You can explore options at idealist.org and omprakash.org.)
The United States is increasingly integrating with Latin America, so learn Spanish! But don’t learn it in a college classroom. For a tiny fraction of the cost of college tuition, you can have a blast studying or working on your own in Chile, Argentina or a safe part of Mexico. Or in Bolivia — is any country more magical? And not to suggest anything untoward, but note that the best language teachers are, of course, girlfriends and boyfriends.
Cost is already an obstacle for young people seeking college degrees, of course, and studying abroad can make educational debts even more onerous. Colleges should do a better job of offering programs in inexpensive countries like India, Morocco and Mexico.
I’d love to see a cultural shift that put more emphasis on young people traveling the world on a shoestring. Perhaps the best example is the way young Australians — including working-class men and women — sometimes save for a few years, quit their jobs and fly one-way to Europe, and then gradually travel home overland over the course of many months. They periodically run out of money and then look for jobs to finance the next leg. Many have told me it was a defining experience of their lives.
Because financial challenges are real, let me add that what’s most important for personal growth is that the experience be “foreign” to you, without necessarily unfolding in a foreign country. You build new muscles when you get out of your comfort zone, and that can be in your hometown, volunteering in a homeless shelter or teaching at a prison — or busing tables can be its own education. An American who grew up in the city might apply for a job on a Texas ranch; a farm girl from Kansas could get a job at a McDonald’s in El Paso.
Parents invariably worry about risks, and these can be real: The biggest peril may be road accidents, especially with motorcycles. Be prudent, maybe travel with a friend, don’t accept drinks that might be drugged and put everything in perspective by remembering that people abroad often think of the United States as a dangerous place.
In my own small effort to promote global issues, since 2006 I’ve picked an American university student to travel with me each year on my “win a trip” reporting trip somewhere in the world. I’m thrilled to announce that the winner this year is Trisha Mukherjee of New Jersey, a student at the Columbia University School of Journalism. The runner-up, if Mukherjee can’t make it, is Audrey Thibert of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Stay tuned.
Thanks to all who applied. To those who weren’t chosen, and to other university students, my counsel is simple: Take a leap and land in a place — abroad or at home — where you’re out of your depth and have no idea what’s going on. You’ll learn about yourself, your horizons will be extended, and you may return able to offer sound counsel about Ukraine and the entire world to some parochial members of our Congress.