You’ll Never Know If You Can’t Go!

OK, let’s start with a very un-funny joke I heard during my European trip last summer.
Q: What do you call someone who speaks three languages?
A:  Tri-lingual.
Q:  What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
A:  Bi-lingual.
Q:  What do you call someone who speaks one language?
A:  An American.
Probably the best part of my trip a year ago was a three-day visit to Oslo to see a Norwegian couple I had met a couple of years before. She teaches English to young people who are finishing up the equivalent of our high school and she asked if I would speak to three or four of the classes at her school. I was delighted to do so, of course, and it was a wonderful experience. In fact, I probably had more fun than the kids.

In one of the classes, I was asked why most Americans don’t speak foreign languages. I responded by asking how many of them had a passport. As you would expect, every kid raised his or her hand. Then I told them that most Americans don’t have passports, which means they can’t travel to foreign countries and that, in turn, means they think there’s no need to speak a foreign language. The kids were shocked.

The fact is, only about 45-percent of Americans own passports and because a passport is now required to cross the borders into Canada or Mexico, we can only assume that a much smaller percentage of our fellow citizens own passports so they can travel to Europe or Asia. Therefore, it’s probably safe to say that perhaps two-thirds of our population will never be exposed to other cultures and other countries where they might just possibly see things being done differently or — dare I say it? — even better than in this country.
Now, can you guess which states rank lowest in terms of how many people have passports? Sure you can. It’s most of the southern states. In fact, it’s most of the RED states. Leading that pack is Mississippi, where only 18-percent of the citizens have passports. In several other states, the numbers vary a bit, but in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia, only about 25-percent of those folks own passports. I’m sure the actual numbers could be computed, but projected on a national level, it’s probably accurate to say that two-thirds of our population is without passports and cannot leave the country.

There are multiple implications to all of this, and I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to say that we can attribute at least some of the opposition to high-speed rail to this. After all, if you can’t travel outside the country, you have no way of knowing what it’s like to have access to really good transportation systems or to understand the mobility and other benefits those systems provide to the people of all those other countries.

Maybe we need a different approach. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to talk about cost-per-passenger-mile and environmental benefits if two thirds of our fellow citizens cannot comprehend how an attendant can casually be pouring hot coffee on a train traveling at more than 200 miles-per-hour. Heck … that still amazes me!