Social Education 55(5) pps. 320-325
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies

Students' Geopolitical Perspectives*

Patricia G. Avery and Jan Armstrong Gamradt, with JoAnn Trygestad and Susan Sedro
(All quotations from students have been transcribed verbatim. We have chosen to preserve their spelling, phrasing, etc.)
[In this world] theres life and Death, Peace and War, friendly and Unfriendly. Wealth and Poor but we all try to live in harmony. [10th grade rural female]
Everyone is basically good inside, but sometimes it's hard to tell. We're killing our environment. [The world is] a scary place. [10th grade urban female]
[The world is] big, awsom, and cool. [10th grade urban male]
For over fifteen years, surveys have documented U.S. students' limited understanding of international issues and their low level of concern for global problems (Barrows 1981; Gallup Organization 1988; Jennings 1967; Jones 1980; Pike and Barrows 1979; Torney, Oppenheim, and Farnen, 1975). An increasing number of programs under the rubric of global education are being designed and implemented to address these deficiencies. Yet our understanding of students' conceptualizations of the global sphere in their own terms remains quite limited.

In this study we describe the global orientations of a small number of students. The individual's global orientation is viewed as part of an interrelated set of geopolitical perspectives, which includes cognitive and affective associations toward the community, state, national, and global spheres. These associations reflect the individual's sense of place within the geopolitical universe and may be thought of as culturally-transmitted, expanding, interrelated sets of cognitive and affective "maps." These maps are highly personal, yet culturally patterned. They reflect the individual's sense of connection to, or isolation from, the broader social context. In an important sense, geopolitical associations involve a kind of imaginary social world-a world that all of us construct, modify, and reconstruct throughout our lives.

The theoretical orientation underlying our approach views education as a form of culture acquisition (Pitman, Eisikovits, and Dobbert 1989). In keeping with the broad tenets of social constructivism, this model assumes that each generation plays an active role in the construction of a shared social, political, and moral reality (Ingelby 1986, 297-317). Hence, geopolitical associations are not transmitted, but are actively constructed by the learner.

Although previous researchers have documented students' perceptions of these four geopolitical spheres (community, state, national, global), each sphere is usually considered in isolation from the others. Studies that have examined national and global knowledge or attitudes indicate that United States students are more interested in and knowledgeable about domestic than international issues, processes, and institutions (Jones 1980; Torney 1977).

Only one study has examined older adolescents' interest in various levels of the geopolitical sphere. Jennings (1967) found that high school seniors were more likely to be interested in either national or international affairs than state and local events. Further, students' focus of interest influenced other cognitive, affective, and evaluative orientations. For example, students who were more interested in the national or international spheres were likely to be more knowledgeable about public affairs in general and to profess more confidence in national political leaders.

Those concerned with global education often stress the theme of interrelatedness or interconnections (Hanvey 1982; Kniep 1989). Consistent with this theme, we wanted to look at patterns of responses among individuals' geopolitical associations. Underlying this approach is the assumption that changes in orientations toward one sphere will affect associations with other geopolitical units. For example, as persons learn more about the global sphere, they may also develop a better appreciation of their community's place within the global context. If we focus exclusively on global orientations per se, we miss the rich and varied dimensions of geopolitical understanding.

The Need for Alternative Methodologies
In a recent critique of the political socialization research, Cook (1989) notes that both political scientists and psychologists have sought to determine when and how children approximate adult political conceptualizations, attitudes, and interests. Political scientists' dominant concern has been the effectiveness with which the agents of political socialization (e.g., family, media, school) shape students' views and thereby act to sustain the political regime. Their questionnaires typically incorporate a predetermined set of responses that reflect adult concerns and perspectives. Psychologists' stage theories assume an endpoint toward which individuals proceed. The child's view of justice and equality, for example, is considered naive and over-simplified in relation to adult conceptualizations.

Cook suggests that we may learn more about children's constructions of the social and political world by listening to their ideas without preconceived notions of the ideal or end result. The in-depth interviews conducted by Coles (1986), Connell (1971), and Stevens (1982) provide exemplars of this approach. By proceeding inductively, these researchers found that children knew and observed far more about social and political institutions than previous researchers had suggested. A priori assumptions about the goals of research and the corresponding methodologies adopted may have acted to limit, rather than broaden, our understanding of young people's perspectives.

In-depth interviews have provided qualitatively rich information about the nature of students' political perceptions and attitudes. Yet such interviews are impractical for teachers or school districts interested in gaining a better understanding of their students' conceptualizations of the global sphere. Complete reliance on traditional attitude- and knowledge-based measures fails to give students opportunities to express their thoughts, concerns, and perceptions in their own terms.

Our conceptualization and methodology reflect an appreciation of the complexity of geopolitical perspectives and a respect for the views of young people. The measure of students' geopolitical associations was designed with an awareness of the time constraints within most school settings.

Our focus is an exploration of the following questions:

(1) How do students describe their community, state, nation, and world?
(2) Are any patterns evident among students' associations with the community, state, national, and global spheres?
(3) Do discernible patterns of difference exist between students of rural and urban communities?

The sample was comprised of 187 tenth grade students enrolled in one rural and one urban school district in Minnesota. The urban school is situated near the heart of a major metropolitan downtown area. One of seven high schools in the district, it has an enrollment of 1,891 students in grades 9-12. In contrast, the rural high school serves all 524 of its district's students in grades 9-12.

The students ranged in age from 14 to 18 years; the mean age was 15.4 years. The majority of respondents were white (90 percent) and United States citizens (98 percent); 57 percent were female and 43 percent male. The mean number of years of residence within the community was 9.7; there was little variation between the school districts. Given the exploratory nature of the study, no attempt was made to select a random sample; hence, the results are not generalizable.

The Mind's Eye Project Survey consists of eleven open-ended items, all of which explore different aspects of the students' geopolitical perspectives.

Four items ask students to describe their community, state, nation, and world to an outsider:

If I were to tell someone from another country about my community, I would tell them...
If I were going to tell someone from another country about Minnesota, I would tell them...
What people from other countries should know about the United States is that...
Suppose that an extraterrestrial being came to visit you and asked, "What is this world you live in?" List three things you would tell the E.T. about the world.
These items provide students with an opportunity to articulate their perceptions of the four geopolitical units. They also encourage students to think about what an individual from another place might want to know and what they should be told about these places.

Analytical Procedures
Our analysis focused on students' responses to the four open-ended sentence completion items. A coding taxonomy was developed through standard, inductive, content analytic procedures (Weber 1985). Inter-rater agreement ranged from 75 percent to 100 percent. After the taxonomy was established, the coding of one student's responses to the four items required approximately 1.5 to 2 minutes.

Each written response was classified in terms of its thematic content by counting the number of distinctly different themes or ideas it contained. Some of the students' responses focused on only one theme. For example, the statement "Minnesota has many beautiful lakes and forests" contains one theme (environmental features). The response "Minnesota's weather can be brutal, but Minnesotans are friendly people, and we have a good educational system" touches on several aspects of life in Minnesota (environmental features; people, positive; and institutions). Table 1 shows the kinds of themes present in the students' descriptions of the geopolitical units as well as a comparison of students' responses according to local community context (rural and urban).

Descriptions of Geopolitical Units Community. Residents (people, posi-tive) and environmental features were important associations for students living in rural areas. They often described their community as small and the residents as friendly. Typical responses were:

It's one of the friendlyest around. If you need something they'll help. If you want to help they'll take it. Its small and piece full. Beautyful. [rural female]
It is a small place many warm and friendy people willing to help. And to be there as a friend. [rural male]
Urban students also associated their community with its residents, but they were more likely to describe community members in terms of their diversity:

It's pretty cool. There's a very diverse group of people which makes life interesting. [urban female]
That my community is very good people In my community is made up of many different race and in my community people care a lot about what they do. [urban male]
Rural students were more likely to note the lack of activities within their community. A rural male explained, "My community is very boring. Its a nice town. There [is] just nothing for teenagers to do in this town." Clearly, the presence or absence of "things to do" was an important issue for many of our young respondents. It also appeared to be an important aspect of the perceptual framework within which students view their community.

A slightly less predominant theme included specific institutions associated with the community. For example, one student described his urban community as "somewhat interesting but it lacks good transportation." An urban female noted that "in [student's city] there are many opportunities for careers in the arts, business, etc."

For both groups of students, general evaluative comments with no specific frame of reference tended to be more positive than negative (evaluation). Comments such as "It is very interesting" [rural male], and "Its better than most" [urban female], were more numerous than statements such as "its screwed up" [urban male].

Not surprisingly, urban students were more likely to note the presence of social problems, such as crime, violence, and drug abuse (18 percent as compared to 4 percent). For example, one urban student described his community this way: "There's a part that's really cool and comfortable to be in, but there are places where you could get killed walking down the street. There's something for everyone!"

It is important to note that even within the same communities, respondents often offered sharply contrasting descriptions. Although many rural students described their community as friendly, caring, and close-knit, others described it as "a dreadful retirement town," as a place where "gossip gets around fast," and as a place where "everybody has there own little group of people and they go about there business." Similarly, while some urban students described the dark side of life within their community, others focused on the merits of urban life: "It has many economical backgrounds. From blue collar, to office workers to students to retired people making it a perfect environment for any person." Thus, while there are noteworthy (and predictable) differences in the way students from different communities view their hometowns, there are also interesting contrasts in the kinds of images generated by students living in the same communities.

State. When asked what they would tell someone from another country about Minnesota, a large majority of students (70 percent) described the state's environmental features. These young Minnesotans often mentioned the state's lakes, rivers, forests, fish, wildlife, and-almost always-its cold and snowy winters. We noted that many students described Minnesota as a "clean" place, and wanted to dispel various myths and misconceptions about the state.

It is not always cold. [rural male]
It is NOT a farm state all over. [Student's city] is one of the best places to live because it offers much without being incredibly big and busy. [urban female]
Students tended to offer positive images of the state. A mere 4 percent mentioned social problems (drugs, crime, poverty, etc.), and only 2 percent described residents in terms of negative characteristics (people, negative). Minnesotans were more likely to be described as "nice" and "friendly" people (people, positive).

Students' descriptions of their state did not contain references to abstract ideals and values (e.g., freedom, democracy, equal opportunity). They did, however, contain explicit references to various social institutions. Thirteen percent described or referred to economic enterprises (agriculture, businesses, professional sports franchises) or to governmental institutions (especially the state's educational system).

For the most part, the respondents seemed to be proud of their state. They described Minnesota in terms of its climate, landscape, activities, and, to a lesser degree, its people and institutions.

Nation. The two themes most often associated with the United States were values or ideals and social problems. Almost one-third of the respondents (32 percent) described the United States in terms of values or ideals. Students often emphasized that the United States is a "free" country, that people living here are "free to choose" the way they live, and that U.S. citizens are "equal." Comments such as "It's a free country and its a great place to live" [rural male], and "it is a free country. You can be who or whatever you want" [urban female], were typical.

Although many praised the United States for its democratic values, over one-fifth (21 percent) expressed concern for the many social problems facing the nation. For example, a rural male student observed that "the drug and crime rates are high" in the United States. An urban male student offered this advice: "U.S. is too violant. Stay in your own country." Interestingly, urban students were almost as likely to cite social problems as values or ideals; rural students, however, more often mentioned values or ideals.

A small percentage of students (7 percent) wrote about both values or ideals and social problems. For example, one urban female wrote, "Black afro americans all around the contry in place still have to fight for equal opertunities. But the U.S. is allso the most equal countrie that we have in this world." Her critical comments about the United States and its citizenry are tempered with positive affirmations of the nation's strengths.

Nearly one-fifth of the students (19 percent) associated the nation with specific institutions (e.g., business, education, religion). An equal percentage mentioned positive characteristics of the people of the United States (people, positive). Urban students were more likely to mention both the positive and negative characteristics of the American people than were rural students. Perhaps these students feel more connected to the nation as a community of peoples.

The young people in this study generally expressed very positive sentiments toward their country. They tended to describe the nation in terms of values (freedoms), people, and institutions. Students also appeared to be aware of the social problems that confront the nation. Their responses are consistent with previous research which suggests that the strong national attachment formed early in life endures but is moderated somewhat in adolescence (Murdock 1983; Sigel and Hoskin 1981).

World. When asked what they would tell an extraterrestrial being about the world, students (23 percent) frequently mentioned environmental features. Comments focused on either factual information such as "called earth, It's third planet from the sun, has O, H20 and many different creatures" [rural male], or the physical beauty of the world, "Many places are very beautifuquot; [urban female]. However, not all comments were positive; 17 percent of the students voiced concerns about the destruction of the environment due to pollution and unsound practices (environmental problems). As one urban female put it, "We're killing our environment."

In a number of areas, students' responses to this item extended themes identified in other items. One of these themes was the tendency to describe people in positive or neutral terms (people, positive), rather than negatively. Twenty-seven percent focused on positive characteristics such as "Everyone is basically good inside" [urban female], "many nice people" [rural male], or "friendly beings" [rural female].

Twenty-seven percent of the students mentioned social problems such as war, crime, drugs, or homelessness. One urban male observed that "drugs are corrupting our people." A rural female student noted that "many people are dying because of hungar." Another rural male student mentioned "drugs, violence, and milions upon millions of pollutants."

As we coded the students' descriptions of the world, we observed that many had difficulty speaking of the world as a whole. More students declined to respond to this item than any other question (13 percent). Additionally, a small percentage (11 percent) seemed to describe the United States instead of the world. Responses such as "You can vote Freedom of speeche" [urban male] were coded as values or ideals. Their difficulty in conceptualizing the world may reflect a lack of exposure to an integrated global perspective.

Patterns of Geopolitical Associations
Four patterns among students' geopolitical perspectives are evident. Problems tended to be associated with the more distant geopolitical spheres, rather than with the more immediate surroundings. Students in the sample associated social problems with the national and world context, rather than with the local or state levels. Environmental problems were almost exclusively associated with the global sphere.

At the same time, students' associations with the four geopolitical units tended to be more positive than negative. Across categories, people were likely to be noted for their worthy characteristics, and general evaluative comments were apt to convey a positive sentiment. With one exception (urban students' descriptions of the world), these young people were more likely to note the beauty of the lakes, rivers and mountains, for example, than to comment on environmental problems and issues.

Abstract values and ideals tended to be associated with the larger geopolitical units. Students made reference to qualities such as "freedom," "equal opportunity," and "rights," when describing the nation and the world. With few exceptions, the respondents did not refer to these values when they described their state and community.

Finally, students seemed to have difficulty describing the global sphere. One-fifth of the students chose either not to respond to this item, or to write about national values and ideals generally associated with the United States. Institutions were least often mentioned in connection with the global sphere, and most often associated with the national context.

Rural and Urban Perspectives
In general, students from the two communities were more alike than different in their geopolitical perspectives. Both rural and urban students seemed to associate their community and state with environmental features, people, and activities; the nation was described in more abstract terms, including values or ideals, social problems, and institutions; environmental problems tended to be located at the global level. However, at least three patterns of differences between students of rural and urban communities are evident.

Across geopolitical levels, rural students tended to note environmental features and activities more than urban students. Rural residents may place a special value on the physical environment and its relationship to people's work and recreation. These students also seemed particularly concerned about activities or the lack of activities. Rural communities may offer a narrower range of activities than urban areas, and therefore the presence or absence of activities becomes especially salient to rural adolescents. In contrast, urban students were more likely to mention social problems. While rural communities are hardly immune from poverty, crime, and drugs, in a densely populated urban area these problems are likely to be more visible to the adolescent.

The students' responses hold important implications for pedagogy and research. Students tended to associate social problems with the national and world spheres. Even the urban students, who noted social problems at the community level, were more likely to mention these issues in connection with the larger geopolitical spheres. Environmental problems were mentioned almost exclusively at the global level. Perhaps these are the images most often conveyed through the media. On the other hand, students may tend to marginalize the problems that exist within their own communities, preferring to locate them in the wider geopolitical context. Regardless, social issues and environmental problems become more abstract and less personalized when viewed from a distance. This "distance" may present challenges for educators as they try to engage students in grappling with these critical issues.

Abstract values and ideals ("freedom," "rights," "equal opportunity") were not associated with the state and community. Are these highly valued attributes solely the product of national institutions? Why did these young people associate them so firmly with the nation, but not with state, local, and international institutions? Perhaps the students have simply assumed that these national attributes are umbrella characteristics-traits which can be assumed to pertain to all states and localities within the United States. We wonder whether the respondents are confident that American citizens enjoy similar rights and liberties regardless of where they live. If students consider freedoms protected at the national level, what incentive do they have for preserving their freedoms at the local and state levels?

Students were least likely to mention institutions in connection with the global sphere. This finding is consistent with previous work that indicates United States students often lack knowledge of international political and social institutions (Torney 1977; Torney and Brice 1979). Given students' awareness of global issues and problems, a curricular focus on international institutions might help them understand efforts that are being made to alleviate these problems and how they might become involved in such efforts.

We can only speculate as to the complex phenomena that have given shape to students' constructions of their community, state, nation, and world. We suspect, however, that the students' tendency to locate social and environmental issues at the global level, to associate freedom and liberty with the nation, and to deemphasize the role of international institutions is, in part, a reflection of the ideas and perspectives conveyed through the formal curriculum. If so, we need to ask ourselves whether these perspectives are consistent with our goals as social and political educators.

Researchers concerned with the development of global knowledge and attitudes have been attentive to the ways in which a national context shapes students' experiences and orientations. For example, Torney, Oppenheim, and Farnen (1975) suggested that United States students' low level of intercultural contact in comparison to European youth explained, in part, their lower level of knowledge and interest in international affairs. In a comparison of Japanese and United States youth, Cogan, Torney-Purta, and Anderson (1988) found Japanese youth much less willing to accept war as a viable option in foreign affairs. The researchers accounted for the difference in terms of historical and political national context.

We suspect that community context (rural or urban settings) may also play an important role in forming students' global orientations. Thus far, researchers have tended to neglect community context as a salient factor in shaping young people's geopolitical perspectives. Yet if we are to understand the development of geopolitical associations, we need to study the local environment not only in terms of students' cognitive and affective associations with it, but also as it interacts with state, national, and global identities.

The sample in our study was fairly small, and clearly not representative of students throughout the United States. Would students from other rural and urban communities express similar perspectives? How do variables such as gender, social class, and travel experiences affect geopolitical associations? How do geopolitical perspectives develop over time? These are but a few of the questions that arise from our inquiry.

We suggest that a focus on geopolitical perspectives could broaden and enliven the dialogue among students, teachers, and researchers. For the classroom teacher, the four items from the Mind's Eye Project Survey may provide a useful springboard for discussion about one's sense of community across geopolitical units. Students and educators could reflect on the origins of their associations, how their perceptions have been modified over time, and the role those images play in how one interprets political and social events and ideas. For the educational researcher, students' responses can provide important insights into the cultural and perceptual origins of young people's sense of community in the global sphere. A focus on students' thoughts and concerns can aid both educators and researchers in understanding our youth's feelings of identity with and isolation from the broader social context.


1 The survey described here was developed as part of an effort to document and evaluate the effectiveness of a three-year reform project aimed at "internationalizing" and "restructuring" the K-12 public school curriculum in three rural school districts. The present study was part of the pilot phase in the development of the survey.

2 Other items included "I would like President Bush to know that people my age are very concerned about..." and "The most interesting country in the world today is [blank]. This nation is interesting because..." Readers interested in the complete survey should contact the first author.

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