CINCINNATI -- Before Ohio Sen. Frank LaRose was deployed to Iraq as a green beret, he learned about important differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims – communities whose differences have led to deadly conflicts throughout the Arab world.
People named Abu Bakr or a variation on that name, he knew, were invariably Sunni, and those named Ali were Shiite. LaRose was able to use information like that to avoid missteps as he established relationships.
"It made me more effective at my job for having a basic appreciation for the people I was working with," LaRose said.
The Republican senator from Copley Township near Akron cites his experience as one reason why a basic knowledge of other cultures and their histories is invaluable to well-educated Americans.
To that end, LaRose has sponsored a bill that would require Ohio high school students be taught at least one world history and civilizations class, a move he and other proponents say is key to succeeding in a world brought ever closer by globalization.
"We're stating that if Ohio students are going to compete and succeed in a global economy, they're going to have to know about the other 96 percent of the people on this planet," he said, adding, "Anybody with a smart phone can transact global commerce."
Ohio doesn't require world history be taught, but most school districts throughout the state do require that it be taken by sophomores, a choice bolstered by the fact that the Ohio Graduation Test covers world events.
But that test will be retired as early as next school year and be replaced by new tests that will cover much less world history. LaRose and other proponents worry that school districts will reduce or eliminate their world cultures requirements to devote more time to American history and government, which will be tested extensively, unless the state steps in with a new directive.
"What's tested is usually what's taught," LaRose said.
Current Ohio law requires high school students to take American history, American government, and two units of unspecified "social studies." The law would switch one of those unspecified courses to a world cultures and civilizations requirement.
"It's not going to fix everything to ensure that kids are literate about the globe and our country, but without it, there's not even a chance of them getting a basic foundation," said Corbin Moore, president of the Ohio Council for Social Studies .
He fears that students could graduate from high school having never covered seminal events like the Holocaust except through reading "The Diary of Anne Frank."
John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education, said world history would be covered in the new end-of-course exam only as it pertained to America's role in important events. He cited immigration, foreign affairs, imperialism, the two world wars, Korean and Vietnam wars, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, post-Cold War period, and the Persian Gulf War.
"The American government (end-of-class exam) does not cover world history," he said.
Asked if the department will advocate for world history absent the Ohio Graduation Test requirements, Charlton said: "The (department) does advocate for students to receive a strong social studies education that includes world history."
That advocacy is non-binding on school districts, though, absent new legislation.
Julie Sellers, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, supports Ohio making world cultures a required course, particularly to ensure low-income students don't lose the chance to take it. Many impoverished students have to take remedial courses to catch up to their peers, and those courses may crowd out world history unless it's required, she said.
"I agree with the Ohio Council for the Social Studies," Sellers said.
LaRose's bill, Senate Bill 96 , is considered budget neutral because the only change it would make to current law would be to dictate that one social studies course that is already required be shifted from an open-ended elective to a course "in the study of world history and cultures from around the world other than that of the United States."
The bill cleared the education committee 8-0 in mid-February and could be considered by the full senate soon at the discretion of senate leaders.
"What our bill does is very simple and straightforward," LaRose said. "We're not dictating any specific curriculum."
As a veteran, LaRose has a particular interest in equipping graduates for international government work.
"For us to be prepared for military and diplomatic service, we need to have people educated about other cultures," he said.
Some students who have a penchant for world affairs may be set on a path in that field thanks to that first required class, he said.
Moore said that a basic literacy of world affairs has broader career consequences.
"It would be pretty sad that if in this day and age Ohio kids wouldn't learn anything about the world," he said. "Too bad that the kids who want to work at Procter & Gamble, or someplace
like that, would know nothing about the countries they're trying to sell products to," he said.
Moore hopes that voters and legislators see the issue as a non-partisan one:
"We're not lobbyists. We're just concerned teachers who want our kids to be competitive with kids around the world and to be the best citizens they can be."