I am a well-traveled New Yorker in my mid-thirties with an advanced degree. I’ve lived abroad. I listen to NPR and read the Times. I am perfectly at ease in diverse environments and I covet the pluralism of big city living.
My friends are a cosmopolitan mix of creatives, scholars, and business types. Most of them grew up on one of the coasts or overseas, and their early exposure to heterogeneous neighbors, rich cultural institutions, diverse media, and international travel afforded them a worldliness they largely take for granted.
But where I grew up, in rural southern Illinois, opportunities for multicultural and global exposure were rare. There was no Chinatown in my hometown. No Spanish-language television. Few of my neighbors had passports. An ‘exotic’ vacation was a trip to Michigan’s upper peninsula or central Florida. There were no exhibits by international artists or lectures by global thought leaders. My hometown’s event calendar consisted of high school sporting events and themed nights at the bowling alley. I am not implying that it’s impossible to be cultured in deep America, but it takes extraordinary personal effort.
Still, I grew up a reasonably cultured kid, which I owe to two things: 1) my parents, who traveled out of the country on occasion and took me with them; and 2) National Public Radio. NPR broadcasts introduced me to people around the world—South African freedom fighters, Chinese laborers, Cuban writers, native American artists, Dutch scientists, Middle East protesters—giving me routine exposure to foreign cultures and different value systems. NPR broadened my provincial existence well enough that when I went to college with kids of far more cosmopolitan upbringing, I didn’t feel culturally disadvantaged. I made friends easily with foreign students. I adjusted well the first (and second) time I lived abroad. The simple act of listening to the radio in my formative years had helped me to mature into a culturally aware citizen of the world.
So, when the U.S. House of Representatives voted to defund NPR last week, it felt like a personal assault. NPR may be a pleasing source of quality journalism for my fellow urbanites, but it (and public broadcasting in general) is the only meaningful source of world news, information, and cultural enrichment for hundreds of rural and exurban American communities. Without funding, none but the largest markets will be able to afford NPR programming, and one of the sharpest weapons we have to fight cultural insularity would be lost.
For me, public broadcasting was a singular source of multicultural experiences that were otherwise beyond my reach. The world desperately needs global-minded citizens; we shouldn’t kill the best means we have to cultivate them.
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