President Trump’s executive orders, seeking to temporarily stop immigration from several majority-Muslim countries, continue to generate uncertainty for tens of thousands of international students and scholars. Meanwhile, a recent national survey of over 250 U.S. colleges reported that almost 40 percent are experiencing declines in international student applications. The spillover effects of such a potentially major drop in international student enrollment would be significant, including declines in international contributions to the U.S. economy ($33 billion in 2015-16), as well as university revenue (more than half of the increased revenue for some universities).
Such income loss could potentially lead to an increase in local tuition, given many universities’ financial reliance on international student tuition and fees to subsidize their operations. Numerous university leaders, associations and faculty groups have also openly condemned the president’s travel ban for unjustly disrupting the lives of countless internationals as well as on broader moral grounds.
While the attempted revocation of visas based on one’s citizenship continues to make headlines, it is hardly an isolated issue. Regardless of whether the travel ban is upheld, international students and scholars felt unwelcome long before the 2016 presidential election. The difference now is that anti-immigrant sentiments are becoming part of the mainstream discourse. The rhetoric of Trump’s campaign and proposals, with phrases such as “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” have been entrenched in protectionist ideology that received considerable voter support. Such political agendas raise critically important questions in light of the historical mission of higher education in the United States to serve the public good, namely: Who will constitute the “public” in this new era? And what “good” can higher education potentially transform?
Public Nationalism and Isolationism
There are many potential hazards when the public good is narrowly constrained to the interests of the nation-state. The resurgent political slogan “America First,” which has emphasized patriotism at the expense of other countries, assumes that there are winners and losers within this national pursuit of the public good. Such a protectionist version of the public good, however seemingly virtuous, can too easily veer from blind patriotism to national supremacy.
Academe is not immune from such isolationist tendencies, as demonstrated by the fact that most higher education research articles are written by scholars in the United States about the United States -- even while the publication audience is increasingly international. Moreover, the nation is less and less the epicenter of knowledge creation and dissemination, with a surge of scholarly papers and patents originating in China, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, to list a few. Countries are more interconnected now than ever before, in what is now commonly referred to as the global society. In short, the United States has far more to lose than gain by restricting higher education agendas, partnerships and students to the domestic level.
Those of us in higher education might take a second look in trying to identify some of our potential blind spots, which include:
Limiting the “public good” to the privileged. U.S. students’ entry to college and their all too narrowly defined “success” (i.e., graduation) in it are among the most commonly researched and funded areas in higher education in this country. They have become almost synonymous with what we think of as our public-good mission. But, while college degree attainment is certainly important, this limited association may overshadow larger global realities.
The fact is that, from a broader view, anyone who enters any form of U.S. higher education is privileged compared to most other people in the world. Access to education is arguably a human right, but it is not even a remote possibility for the hundreds of millions of people outside the country who are struggling with extreme poverty, forced displacement, lack of safety and other conditions that would make any college campus in the United States a safe refuge.
The World Bank estimates that more than 800 million people, well over double the population of the United States, survive with less than $2 a day. Is the current U.S. higher education notion of the public good a luxury that makes invisible those who struggle to even enter secondary education?
Supply-side economists may argue that higher education has potential indirect benefits for the poor. But the inequalities in places outside the United States are so vast that educational mobility is not a hopeful promise -- it’s more like a winning lottery ticket with insurmountable odds.
My point is not to minimize the very real challenges within this country, especially for low-income and minoritized U.S. college students. Rather, it is to address why it is so important to broaden our view of “public” to those who are not citizens, including not only undocumented residents but also those living outside our national borders, and to consider the broader global context that higher education has the potential to transform.
Otherwise, higher education teaching and research fails in its obligation to address wider national and international societal concerns. Whom we educate and what we research can -- and should -- be more directly linked to poverty, safety and security and intergroup relations that apply more globally, for example.
Neglecting neocolonial consequences. Defining the public beyond the nation-state is not just an appeal for inclusion but also a moral responsibility. Do our national interests, sometimes framed as the public good, lead to “public bad” for other countries? Narrowing the public good to that which falls within U.S. borders has the danger of becoming exclusionary and reinforcing neocolonialism globally. Is a winner-take-all approach consistent with our notion of the public good?
Those involved in higher education can claim to be proponents of the public good -- committing one’s practices and research in ways that promote justice, equity and improved well-being for the nation-state -- but, at the same time, unknowingly perpetuate global inequalities or leave them unchanged. For example, the dominance of the English language in the global knowledge society, the hegemonic criteria in determining and reinforcing national and international university rankings, and the country location of world-class universities and top academic publishers, all of which highly favor the United States, restrict higher education’s ability to serve the global public.
Imagining a Global Good
All that said, the broader notion of a public good that denies the relevance of the nation-state -- such as a global good -- is also problematic. Global agendas still require cooperation from nation-states, from which public investments in education are vital. Moreover, trying to capture a unifying global good can fail to explore the increasingly unequal power relations associated with globalization. A global version of the public good may not address the everyday struggles of marginalized groups. And there is abundant evidence of westernized norms being interchangeably confused or imposed as global ones.
The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals for 2015 was one such attempt to establish a common global agenda and was heavily criticized for its limited inclusion of low-income countries in the planning phase. The UN’s focus on universal primary education, for example, neglected to account for the basic need for qualified teachers and better teacher training in most African countries.
Now, the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, as an effort to be more inclusive of a wider range of stakeholders, consist of 17 goals and a whopping 169 associated objectives. In regard to higher education, the aim is to ensure “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” While such global values might appear quite benign, for the world’s poorest countries, they cannot all be realistically achieved, at least partly due to their inherent incompatibility with other objectives, such as environmental and economic goals. Sub-Saharan Africa is arguably the most peripheral region and would require more reliance on foreign aid and investment, resulting in greater indebtedness and potentially leaving the current political and economic global order unchanged.
So, who comprises the public and where is the public good located? To summarize: the public should not be restricted to the nation-state or watered down globally, as these illusory scales too easily disregard people who live at the margins. The public good is not a zero-sum game, nor it is a metaphorical joining of hands, resulting in all talk and no action.
Rather, the public good is an ideological battle made real in the contested spaces of our everyday lives. Change does not wait for a trickle down of political decisions, even at the highest presidential level. And change does not occur through mere global sensitivities, relegating our sympathies to the so-called third world. Instead, change takes place in the very real day-to-day human struggles that occur within and across national boundaries -- not remotely situated in a faraway location but realized in everyday experience.
Compared to some parts of the world, academics in the United States still have considerable freedom to make choices as to whom and what we study. We can write about the public good as a detached social scientist, and for those of us who do so, we must be conscious of who constitutes the public being addressed and the consequences for those excluded.
But for the more daring, more work is needed in engaging with the public good as a human experience affected by national and international agendas, especially in giving voice to those without power, within and outside our borders, and to make their circumstances known. We may write about the margins, but do we live in them and know them by first names? By actively engaging with the peripheries, we are reconstituting the “public” in which we are all part.
There are numerous socially engaged intellectuals at my university and elsewhere whose work focuses on people in the margins and beyond the nation-state. The forgotten and excluded include refugees and asylum seekers, undocumented students, international students, and others who are too easily overlooked or excluded as part of the university’s mission in serving the public good. What is needed more than a single policy or election result are greater numbers of individuals and groups actively voicing the challenges of the most vulnerable and advocating on their behalf -- whether through community partnerships, coalition building, informing policy or simply being more aware of the implications of our work beyond the U.S. majority’s interests.
In conclusion, the battle for the public good still exists, here in the United States and in countries throughout the world, and it started long before our recent presidential election. My comments are not to engage in one issue at the expense of others, as all movements are interlinked, but to consider more broadly the ways we frame our work and for whom our recommendations are made -- and the globally public responsibilities we all share.
Jenny J. Lee is a professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona.
Memories have a way of turning into history behind your back -- and they do so, I’ve noticed, more often and with greater stealth over time. My most recent experience of this came while streaming The Activists: War, Peace and Politics in the Streets, a documentary that the director, Melody Shemtov, calls “an educational film about the antiwar movement.”
That phrase, for many viewers, will immediately call up a whole string of images from the days of the “television war” in Vietnam. And indeed, the first quarter of the film’s approximately one-hour running time incorporates scenes of protest from that era that will feel familiar to frequent viewers of historical documentaries, whether or not you’ve seen any particular clip before. Then the visual center of gravity, so to speak, shifts noticeably.
The camera continues to show crowds in the street, but the footage has that very bright, sharp quality of digital video. It is a visual texture that will no doubt eventually become a marker of historical distance -- the way something recorded on eight-millimeter film or home video now strikes the eye as self-periodizing. But for now, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t register that way. The viewer may have a sense of being plunged into the present -- except for the fact that there is no antiwar movement to speak of now.
One did emerge during the first decade of this century, involving protests that, at their peak, drew hundreds of thousands of people. The Activists uses interviews with organizers and participants (including a number recorded “on the ground” at demonstrations) to recount how the antiwar movement of the George W. Bush era waxed and waned. The director also uses interviews with people at pro-war rallies -- which, while tending to be minuscule affairs of a few dozen people at the edge of the crowd, always got disproportionate coverage by the news media. On the other hand, they were always there, and it’s an understandable if not indisputable decision to include them as part of the story.
One of the talking heads in The Activists is Michael T. Heaney, a political sociologist I interviewed for this column a little over 10 years ago. At the time, he was doing field work for what became Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party After 9/11, a book he co-authored with Fabio Rojas, published by Cambridge University Press, in 2015. Their research struck me at the time as interesting enough to cover it (here and here) as the movement they were studying went into decline.
Heaney, who is an assistant professor of organizational studies and political science at the University of Michigan, is also listed as a producer and writer of The Activists. He and Shemtov explained the background of their collaboration to me in the course of email discussions. They had known each other as students at the University of Chicago and crossed paths again when she happened to visit the University of Florida while Heaney was teaching there. At the time she was an associate producer at David Grubin Productions, where she was part of the production team that earned an Emmy for The Mysterious Human Heart, a PBS documentary. She told Heaney that she hoped to form her own film company, Melofilms, and he pitched her the idea of a documentary on the antiwar movement.
She liked the idea and kept up with Heaney’s work as he and Rojas conducted their study of the movement in the late ’00s. “His research papers were the road map for the film, both before and during production,” Shemtov says. The connections he had established with leading organizers of the antiwar movement became particularly helpful when she began conducting interviews.
Where scholarly framework and documentary format coincide most markedly is in the emphasis The Activists places on the antiwar movement as an assemblage of collaborating but distinct groups. Some of those groups were formal organizations with members and points of unity -- for example, Code Pink. Others appear to have been loose networks of friends, such as the Granny Peace Brigade. In addition ad hoc clusters of people formed around a sensibility or a shared preference in forms of protest, as would appear to have been the case with Funk the War.
The filmmakers interview figures from the two major antiwar coalitions of the day, which called for the national protests, got the permits and otherwise created the overall structure of the antiwar movement. And it would be easy to narrate the whole history of the movement as a story of the coalitions’ periods of antagonism and cooperation. But Heaney and Rojas’s studies at the time showed that the ideological and organizational differences between them did not correspond to major differences between the constituencies of each coalition.
The latter were necessary to (say) reserve parking for the buses bringing people in from out of town. But what actually got people on the buses tended to be networks and affiliations that were a lot more local and granular.
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 proved to be the end of the antiwar movement, although not of the wars it had opposed. The filmmakers treat the Tea Party, the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street as developments in part inspired by the protests, which I find more plausible as an ending move than as a historical claim. Anyone using The Activists as an educational film would do well to consider Heaney and Rojas’s later work, which suggests that the ebb and flow of mass protest has become one aspect of the polarization of American electoral politics.
It would have made no sense to think of the Vietnam-era protests in such terms. The war had bipartisan support at first; opposition to it intensified even as antiwar sentiment broadened within the American public. I mention this not as a criticism of the documentary but as a reminder to viewers not to assume that mass protest is just normal politics continued by other means. Least of all, perhaps, when politics itself seems to get more abnormal by the day.
Earlier this semester I traveled to India to talk about the importance of a broad, contextual education -- a pragmatic liberal education. Over the last few years, Indian students fortunate enough to have choices about where to pursue their studies have been, like their counterparts in China, increasingly interested in American liberal arts colleges and universities. They see the virtues of studying a variety of subjects before committing to specialization, and they are attracted to small classes and the opportunities to really get to know their teachers. Granted, this is a very small segment of the population, but it is one that, with the growth in the Indian economy, is getting larger every year.
India’s higher education system is the third largest in the world and is expanding at a startling pace. As University of Pennsylvania political scientist Devesh Kapur has noted, over the last few years several new Indian colleges or universities have opened their doors every single day. Most of those institutions are narrowly and professionally focused: engineering, technology, pharmacy and the like. Similar to for-profit universities in the United States, they attract students with the promise of specialized training in specific skills. Yet such for-profits all too often wind up graduating men and women who have a terribly difficult time finding jobs where they can apply what they have learned. Also, when things change, those graduates can find that their skills have become obsolete. And today, things change fast.
The strongest traditional universities in India, like those in Great Britain and many European countries, encourage early specialization. However, many of the families, teachers and students I met with in Mumbai questioned why one’s destiny needed to be decided at age 15. How could one be so sure than engineering or business or medicine was the right path without having had the opportunity to explore a variety of fields -- or to develop habits of inquiry and a work ethic to make that exploration productive?
There are signs of change. Education leaders across Asia have become interested in moving away from exam-dominated curricula and their requisite memorization and toward experiential, interdisciplinary learning aimed at exploring connections between research and action. Having traditionally insisted on early vocational specialization, universities in India, South Korea and China are now considering how best to encourage the inquiry, collaboration and experimentation that are key to the American pragmatic traditions of liberal education.
Inquiry, collaboration across differences and courageous experimentation require freedom of thought, freedom of speech and the free circulation of ideas. Conformity is the bane of authentic education. A liberal education includes deepening one’s ability to learn from people with whom one does not agree -- an ability all the more important in the face of illiberal forces at work in the world today.
As Pankaj Mishra argues in his new book, Age of Anger, the populist politics of resentment sweeping across many countries substitute demonization for curiosity. New provincialisms and nationalisms are gaining force through fear-based politics. Such orchestrated parochialism is antithetical to liberal learning, and liberal learning is one way to counteract it.
That’s one of the reasons why it’s so disturbing to see outbreaks of intolerance on American college campuses. We expect more from our educational institutions. Troubling though occasional outbursts against provocative speakers may be, they should cause far less concern than American policies that scapegoat immigrants or filter ideas through know-nothing nationalism. A refusal on our campuses to counter ideas with arguments, and the easy recourse to juvenile chants and thuggery are indeed signs of educational failure. But I am confident that faculty, students and administrators will find ways to correct this. I am far less sanguine about the ability of our political leaders to find ways to use evidence, reason together and learn from their differences.
Learning across differences in a context of change is a core aspect of liberal education, and the students, business leaders and professors whom I met in India recognized the power of this pedagogy in the contemporary world. Almost everywhere one looks today -- throughout the world -- one sees dramatic changes that are eliminating old jobs and creating new ones. Those adept at using a variety of methodologies have experienced “intellectual cross-training”; they have developed the capacity to continue learning so as to be more empowered to deal with an ever-changing environment.
The importance of technical expertise is obvious, but the problems confronting our world today cannot be addressed by technical specialization alone. Environmental degradation, increasing inequality, international political tensions -- these are complex issues that demand the kind of holistic thinking characteristic of liberal education. Perhaps that’s why some leaders in India are eager to create new institutions that build on the work of traditional educational theorists like Rabindranath Tagore and the example of contemporary institutions like Ashoka University, which has been in the vanguard of offering a liberal arts education in that country.
In Jaipur, I participated in a panel discussion in which everyone deplored the creativity-killing effects of premature specialization. Business strategist Tarun Khanna told the story of a team he works with that has developed an excellent treatment for diabetes. Without an interdisciplinary approach that included communications, cultural studies and design, the medical advances would have gone nowhere. Members of interdisciplinary teams learn from one another because they approach issues from very different perspectives: pragmatic liberal education at work.
I am encouraged to see more Indian students coming to liberal arts colleges and universities like mine to pursue a broadly interdisciplinary education that they can put to work in the world. With the current administration’s legitimation of hostility to immigrants, this trend may not continue. Be that as it may, I am even more encouraged to know of Indian educators and entrepreneurs developing plans to create higher education institutions in their country that will provide a much larger number of students the opportunity to combine science, the arts, the humanities and social sciences into creative endeavors that will have positive benefits for economic, cultural and political life. Liberal education will prove to be pragmatic for those students, and for India, too.