Internationalization Begins at Home

If we can’t engage in civil discourse on campus, I don’t think we stand a chance at interacting across national borders. 

April 19, 2016

A group of Brazilian professors are petitioning the leadership of LASA (Latin American Studies Association) to remove former Brazilian president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, from the list of featured speakers at their annual conference.  This is yet one more example of our growing inability to engage in respectful public debate.  I have just returned from a stay in Argentina where people who supported or opposed the government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner seem to be incapable of even talking to one another. 

The media is spilling over with reports of conflicts on campuses and it seems that we are inevitably moving in the direction of restricted speech, a trend that does not bode well for the health of higher education, let alone democracy.  Our inability to listen to opinions that differ from our own and to participate in respectful public debate is eroding at alarming speed.

In the US, there have been a plethora of examples, the most recent being the threatened firing of John McAdams at Marquette who jumped into the fray over a campus-wide debate about an aborted classroom discussion of gay marriage.  Then there is the case of Andrea Quenette at the University of Kansas, whose suspension has been suspended after a fracas over her comments about race.  Her subsequent statement is indicative of this worrisome trend, "I don't believe I have much choice other than to be guarded. To be honest, I am afraid of engaging in a discussion of race and diversity in the classroom,"  

So we seem to be on a course where campus administrators or students are imposing restrictions on public speech or where individuals impose restrictions on themselves, to avoid controversy or to accommodate “acceptable dialectic”. This has shades of a conversation I had with a colleague who worked at a university in Hong Kong.  I asked if the government in Beijing imposed any limitations on academic freedom and he replied that it wasn’t necessary since faculty self-censored rather than venture into dangerous territory.

And then there are incidents at Berkeley, Vassar, Brown, Oberlin and elsewhere that might lead one to believe that there is a tidal wave of anti-Semitism sweeping across US campuses.  It is hard to believe that in 2016, UCLA students would deny a Jewish student a role in student government by asking, “Given that you’re a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”  (I seem to remember a national debate over whether someone who was Catholic could be president and lead the US without religious bias.)  So is this “pro-active censoring” based on a stereotype that one group presumes about another?

Speakers are being “booed” of the stage or (as in the case of the LASA conference) institutions and organizations are being pressured to un-invite controversial presenters.  Avoiding difficult conversations—either by institutional policy, peer pressure or self-censorship—will not lessen tensions between different points of view.  In fact I suggest that our inability to conduct difficult conversations on campus contribute to provocative expressions of opinion currently being displayed on the walls of buildings and campus sidewalks and increases the risk of violent confrontation.   

Donald Trump’s candidacy is certainly a reflection of our growing tendency to draw circles around “us” and “them” and to look at anyone outside one’s immediate circle as suspect and menacing.  Building figurative walls is as misguided as building physical walls on our national borders.  One has to wonder that when we can’t tolerate different opinions and beliefs among ourselves, how will we ever achieve any capacity to co-exist with the even greater differences manifested by diverse nations and cultures?  In fact the hostility demonstrated to international students from the Middle East at Idaho State just underscores how far we have to go.

It is difficult to imagine that any college graduate from any university in any country today will be unaffected by an ever more globalized and interdependent world.  The movement towards internationalizing the college curriculum and adding “global competencies” to the desired learning outcomes for undergraduates is not the latest fashion in higher education, rather the skills and confidence to live and work in a multi-cultural world are essential to future success, if not survival. 

The college environment is perhaps our best bet for preparing individuals to join this complex world since for many students it is the most divers environment they have encountered in their life, given that most of them have probably grown up in fairly homogenous communities.  

There is a growing trend to include rhetoric in mission statements about preparing students to enter an increasingly interdependent and vulnerable world as “global citizens”.  If we can’t engage in civil discourse on campus, I don’t think we stand a chance at interacting across national borders.  Graduates are not prepared for an interdependent, globalized world when they resent anyone who holds different opinions, practices a different religion, or who identifies as a different gender, culture, racial or ethnic group. The ability to cooperate productively with people whose beliefs and attitudes are different from our own cannot be achieved by merely sending more students for study abroad. And to my mind, preparing graduates to participate civilly in a civil society is at least as important as preparing graduates for employment.

University leadership needs to implement programs to facilitate difficult dialogs and cultivate the skills needed for respectful communication, not fire faculty for provoking polemical discussions, indulge student organizations that use religion as the basis of judging someone’s capacity for service, or back away from invitations to commencement and other speakers who prove to be controversial. 

So, as in other blogs I have posted, I am once again going to plead for respectful dialog.  We are currently shouting at one another and this does not seem to produce satisfactory results for anyone.  If we can’t get along with fellow citizens, there is little hope that we can ever engage internationally.  Internationalization begins at home.



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