The three most commonly taught foreign languages in American schools are French, Spanish, and Latin. The three languages spoken by America's global competitors and enemies — Farsi, Arabic, and Mandarin — are virtually impossible to find in public or private schools.
And that's both a problem and an opportunity, says Memphis entrepreneur Bob Compton.
"The main reason we teach French," he says, "is because we have French teachers. But maybe it is also because our economy is starting to look more like France, with the government stepping in. Maybe knowing French will be an advantage as we slowly become the French of the 21st century."
Two years ago, Compton produced a documentary film, Two Million Minutes, that contrasts the amount of time America's top students spend on athletics, part-time jobs, and social activities with the emphasis that students in China and India put on math and science. The title refers to the total amount of time students spend in high school.
The film had a modest commercial release but has sold 20,000 DVDs. Recent headlines have given urgency to its message.
"We should teach Mandarin for economic competitiveness," Compton says. "Farsi and Arabic we should teach for national security. The problem with all three of those languages, and probably any language, is that they are best taught to us when we are young. You and I could probably learn Farsi if we had to, but we would really struggle. If you are 6 years old, Farsi is fun."
If nothing else, Compton believes that making even a token gesture to teach Mandarin and Farsi would be wise at a time when the news is dominated by stories about terrorism in the Middle East and the U.S. losing jobs in the global economy.
"My kids know more about Spain because they study Spanish," he said. "If my kids studied Arabic and Farsi, they would know more about the Middle East, which I think works to their benefit. That is going to be a trouble spot all their lives. The more we understand will allow us as a voting public to make more informed decisions on who we elect to deal with those problems."
Any public or private school in Memphis that added Mandarin, Farsi, or Arabic would immediately stand out as an innovator. Bill Haltom, a Memphis attorney, tried unsuccessfully to find a school that would teach Mandarin to his son Will, who is now 22 years old and living in Japan, where he teaches English.
"We found out when he was 12 that he had an interest in Asian languages and a proclivity for it," Haltom said.
His son took Japanese at White Station High School and studied Mandarin with a Chinese tutor from Rhodes College before attending Wittenberg University.
As for Farsi or Arabic, there is little opportunity for a high school student to study them, short of dropping out of school, joining the Army, and going to Iraq.
Meanwhile, bilingual graduate students from India, Pakistan, and China are welcomed at American universities, including the University of Memphis, where they claim a hefty share of the degrees awarded in math and science.
"India and China have a few top universities in engineering, but they don't have the depth," says Compton, who has revisited those countries with two American students for a follow-up to his documentary.
"Both governments have realized that to match the U.S. college and graduate school system would cost billions of dollars and take 50 years. So they encourage their best and brightest to come to America. We not only welcome them, we give them scholarships."
Compton, who has two daughters at St. George's High School, was inspired to make his film after traveling through India and China on business in 2005. He was "stunned" at the differences.
"My daughters' education was about the same as my education 34 years ago and my parents' education 60 years ago," Compton says. "When my parents were coming into the workforce after World War II, America's toughest competitors were Switzerland and New Zealand. Europe and Russia were bombed to the ground. When I got out of high school, Japan and Germany were our competitors. In 30 years, look what they have done to our auto industry."
In our sports-crazed society, Compton uses a sports analogy to drive home his point. The U.S., he says, ranks 23rd or 24th in global academic performance.
"If our Olympic team finished 24th, the president and Congress would mobilize our country and never allow it to happen again."