Globalist Analysis

Home Alone: The Domestication of U.S. Global Education (Part I)

Is the current model of U.S. global education actually creating global citizens?

Read Part II here.

Takeaways


  • It turns out that only 17% of American undergraduates know a foreign language on even minimal terms.
  • You can't fling a rock in American higher education these days without hitting an "outcomes statement."
  • Only 3% of all American undergraduates study abroad, and only 7% have something like global awareness, according to the American Council on Education.
  • The Institute for International Education (IIE) astonishingly counts as study abroad any experience outside the U.S. that carries credit, even if you speak or hear no other language.

Late in my mother's life, I took her to her favorite Italian restaurant.

I recall her staring at the menu, full of its -inis, -ellis, -ollis, and -ottis. Tortellini, rotini, fettucini, fettucelli, mostaciolli, manicotti. She looked up at me from the menu and, genuinely perplexed, asked, "When did everything become pasta?"

In my mother's narrowed and somewhat xenophobic world of post-Depression New Jersey, there was no pasta to be found. It was all noodles (with occasional macaroni).

For her, the menu was a real conundrum: how and when did her noodles convert to pasta? This "pastacization" of macaroni was high pretense.

Beneath all that new sauce scented with pepperoncelli and sided with arugula, under the flair of contrived European service and the shocking gourmet price for what was otherwise a measly grain product, it was still noodles to her.

My mother's words ring in my ears as I myself now wonder: When did everything become global? Beneath all the new educational sauce scented with global service commitments and virtual pen pals, under that contrived "foreign" flair and, of course, the very gourmet price of study abroad, just when did it all become global?

If you are an American academic these days, you can't afford not to spout the high pretense of global. As with many concepts in American higher eduspeak, global means little. But, then, when did emptiness ever prevent an idea from having influence?

I say that from experience. As a university dean and president, I developed a terribly useful skill. I am now able to give an entire speech in nothing but edugibberish. Here's some on global:

"We are embarking on a complex, synergistic trajectory that will transform our local interests into global commitments. If we meet this global challenge with the core lessons of our mission, tempered by our time-tested personal values, we will convert the global challenge into a strategic institutional direction."

I'll have the noodles, please!

Whither (or wither?) the new American global education? Only 3% of all American undergraduates study abroad, and only 7% have something like global awareness, according to the American Council on Education (ACE).

And these low figures come in the context of some bizarre ways of keeping global score. The Institute for International Education (IIE) astonishingly counts as study abroad any experience outside the U.S. that carries credit, even if you speak or hear no other language in that experience!

Often well-resourced and unavoidably fashionable, American global education has not shed much of the armor and downward glances of American higher education generally — and so it has sadly missed the lessons of its own purported efforts.

From our science to our policy to our very sense of the rest of the world, we continue to be home alone, even when we find ourselves abroad. As Alex Neff from "The Ugly American" in Transitions Abroad observes, "Study abroad has engaged in so little self-criticism that such statements (as 'fostering global understanding' and 'creating global citizens') are really little more than self-aggrandizement."

In some cases, we work hard to pretend to be global — such as when we conduct "global science" across American and European research labs. This usually means science conducted in English by the Europeans for the sake of the Americans.

We are then surprised that the European laboratory staff knows not only their home language and English, but also Italian, French, Spanish, Russian, or German.

Could it possibly be that the European educational mobility agreements require that students know another EU language well? In contrast, it turns out that only 17% of American undergraduates know a foreign language on even minimal terms.

In other cases, we are proud of the disconnect, as the proliferation of completely English-based global business degrees and certificates demonstrates. Shielding ourselves from sustained, authentic contact with others and keeping our heads down, just to be safe, we are blind to American individualism's contradiction: You cannot be an individual by yourself.

Aloneness, even isolation, is a relative notion. You can be alone only insofar as there are other people against which to judge aloneness. Just ask MacCaulay Culkin — the bandits that he must fight off from his home define his very aloneness.

To put it more simply: In a universe of one, there are no individuals, however entrepreneurial, up-by-the-bootstraps, and frontier-chasing they might be.

The Davey Crocket idolatry of American global education is readily found in the literature on study abroad itself. In an otherwise sympathetic piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Talya Zemach-Bersin describes her excitement at setting out for an exotic study abroad experience in Tibet and Nepal, only to be astonished and saddened that when there, she was consistently viewed as a privileged American.

What a shock! As far as I can see, Ms. Zemach-Bersin got her global lesson. She is one of the few who can afford to traipse around the world sponging up the exotic, much like the 19th century anthropologists (who, under the cover of good academic intentions, were actually pilfering indigenous artifacts). When you come to another culture armed with the thin hypotheses of world appreciation, you will likely fail the course — or, at best, ask for an Incomplete.

The domestication of the American global mind can be traced in large part to its sense of learning. You can't fling a rock in American higher education these days without hitting an "outcomes statement."

This is not because of the test-envy of No Child Left Behind — which merely capitalized on higher education's endemic inferiority complex and attendant lust for believability — but because American education is an intrinsically commercial enterprise.

Outcomes are products that fuel the market. The global is first and foremost a thing, not an experience.

Editors Note: This is the first of a two-part series. Read Part II here.

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