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Perspectives: Think ‘Glocal’

Why should educators commit to offering an education that is international? Integrating a meaningful international educational experience can be expensive at a time when institutions are facing rising costs and cutbacks. In a poor economy, education is being transformed into a commodity, with students and their families expecting a degree to be the key to finding employment.

Increasingly, educators are forced to convince legislatures that sending students abroad to gain international exposure is in the economic interest of the United States. The economic realities should speak for themselves. Jobs today are created in a global marketplace. Our students need to understand the interconnectedness of the forces that shape and influence commercial markets here and abroad. Then they need to be prepared and eager to step into the global marketplace armed with foreign language skills and cross-cultural understanding.

Travel by students and scholars to faraway countries has a long and distinguished history. During ancient times, scholars in China, Egypt, Greece and North Africa welcomed learned colleagues from distant regions.

They journeyed to important centers of learning to visit libraries and exchange knowledge. Europe’s oldest university, Italy’s University of Bologna, was founded in the 12th century and was followed by universities in England, France and Germany. The vigorous thought exchange in Europe was critical to shaping intellectual life and commercial trade throughout that continent and beyond. Scholars such as Peter Abelard and Franciscus Gratianus were the great intellectual figures of their day, and drew students from across Europe, speaking many languages and bringing with them many new perspectives and ideas. When the students returned to their homes, they carried the new ideas home with them.

History has shown us many times over that education is one of the clearest predictors of a nation’s success. A poorly educated populace leads to weakness in the arts and commerce, failed governance and violence both internally and internationally. Foreign students and scholars, as well as their governments, have long recognized that the United States has the best higher education system in the world.

Grounded in the bedrock of the liberal arts and humanities, foreign students and scholars come here to study in record numbers.

In the 2009-10 academic year, there were 690,923 foreign students in the United States and 113,494 scholars from 187 countries. These foreign students and scholars contributed an estimated $20 billion to the U.S. economy.

Now, international education is under attack by narrow-minded politicians. There are threats of budget cuts in programs that support and sustain international education. Several state governors are taking aggressive stances against teachers, and Congress is promising deep cuts that would affect foreign language programs. If these measures succeed, the long-term impact on international education will be extremely detrimental.

All educators should raise their collective voice to the cuts proposed in the programs authorized under two federal laws: Title VI of the Higher Education Act and the Fulbright-Hays Act. These programs, the cornerstone of a distinguished history of international education, could have funds slashed by as much as 40 percent, from more than $126 million to $76 million.

Programs funded under Title VI and Fulbright-Hays offer a rich array of educational opportunities. Fulbright-Hays is targeted primarily at doctoral students to conduct research overseas. The Title VI program has enabled the building of more than 150 centers at universities across the country and includes language resource centers, national resource centers, and centers for international business education and research.

Jim Leach, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, continues to ask all educators to affirm the liberal arts and humanities in the national discourse on education. Speaking at the recent conference of the American Council of Learned Societies, Leach, a former congressman from Iowa, told the audience that the humanities are now expected to prepare students for jobs rather than a deep understanding of the world. Charging that education has been transformed from a public good to an investment, Leach said that stimulating the imagination and understanding the world are critical to good citizenship and the basis of a healthy economy. “The humanities” Leach said, “uplift the mind and strike fear in despots.”

Throughout recorded history, educators have known that the flow of students and scholars is vital to the exchange of ideas that lead to improvement in societies.

It is more relevant today with technology that allows ideas and information to move in seconds across thousands of miles to millions of people. This speed of information makes the ability to think critically and analyze carefully more important than ever. Equally important is the exposure of students to other people and societies, whether they go abroad or interact with foreign students and scholars on U.S. campuses. The jobs of today and tomorrow will require students to be educated with a deep and abiding global perspective. D

— Karen Jenkins is executive director of the African Studies Association at Rutgers University.

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