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Q&A: Internationalism on campus

H. Stephen Straight, professor of anthropology and linguistics and vice provost for undergraduate education and international affairs, recently discussed the importance of internationalization.

Why does the University emphasize internationalization?

All universities worthy of the name emphasize internationalism, both as a matter of timeless principle and as an imperative of current realities. From their earliest beginnings, universities have been inherently international; they have prided themselves on the inclusion of the best and the most up-to-date scholarly research and creative activities in all of the arts and sciences from around the world.

Throughout the 20th century, American universities lost much of their connectedness to scholarly developments elsewhere in the world. Like American society in general, our universities, and especially our curricular offerings, became more ethnocentric and more monolingual. The sciences and humanities became dominated by Americans while scholarly publication and global commerce became dominated by English.

This Anglo-American linguistic-scholarly complex has now been challenged by the new realities of the 21st century. These new realities have arrived with a vengeance, directed violently against long-standing American foreign-affairs precepts and practices. At the same time, the world’s largest corporations, long a source of American economic strength and protective of American interests, have become multi-national and increasingly dominated by non-American investors.

Even the nations from which terrorists come feel the anarchical threat of the suicide bombers and their reactionary, backward-looking ideologies. The survival of civilization as we know it depends upon our ability to find common ground with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Increasing internationalization of universities, in curriculum, student body, research and outreach, constitutes an absolute necessity for the foreseeable future.

You believe Binghamton is uniquely positioned to capitalize on the rise of English language instruction abroad. Don’t most experts think this trend will lead to lower international enrollment at American universities?

The rise of English as the medium of instruction in universities throughout the world (in Africa, Europe and all parts of Asia — but less so in our own hemisphere, ironically), and the rapid rise in standards of living and other factors that lead many to prefer staying where they are rather than coming to the United States for their education, may at first blush appear to lessen the attractiveness of American higher education for the world’s college-going population, but I have a contrarian view.

Given the superiority of American higher-educational curricula, instructional methods and attention to learning outcomes as the measure of teaching success, and given the fact that there are more first-language English-speaking college students in the United States than anywhere in the world, we can expect to remain an attractive place to study. Here students can obtain cuttingedge education while immersing themselves in American English.

If we add to these factors the increasing convergence of curricular structures and degree requirements around the world, we can see why the dual-diploma programs that Binghamton has established with English-medium university partners in Turkey may prove attractive to many other students in the world. With just two years of absence from home, graduates of these programs obtain diplomas from two universities, one in the U.S. and one in their own country. Their studies include not only top-of-theline content but also the development of linguistic skills far superior to what they can hope to obtain in a class full of nonnative English speakers at home.

Over time such bilingual programs can expect to attract both non-U.S. and U.S. enrollees, to improve educational outcomes and linguistic skills at both university partners, and to pave the way for faculty exchange and many other inter- institutional connections.

How does international education help students prepare for life in the “real world?”

The three main areas in which international education prepares students for life are the same three areas in which education in general does so. I call these the Three E’s of Education.

Through exposure to learning materials and experiences around the globe, students will enhance their Erudition. This same education, and the linguistic and intercultural communication skills that it will inevitably develop, will also enhance their Employability. The third E is Engagement: What the entire world needs more than anything else for the foreseeable future is an educated populace who understand and can interact successfully with people from other linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

What do you consider the best destinations for U.S. students going abroad?

It’s clear that their current favored destinations are far from ideal. Top on their list are places such as Australia and the U.K. in which the language barrier and the severity of “culture shock” is very low.

Although these are wonderful places to visit, many other destinations offer far more valuable learning experiences. Differences in language, culture and standards of living provide incomparable and essential building blocks for human intellectual, esthetic and moral growth. More students should be choosing Lisbon over London, Sao Paolo over Sydney, Fudan over Florence.

What role does foreign language instruction play in all of this? Does it matter whether Americans speak a second language anymore if so many people from other countries now speak English?

College students should ideally enter with advanced skills in at least one language other than English. My advice would be to begin the study of Spanish no later than fifth grade and to add another language (Arabic, Chinese, French, Portuguese, whatever) no later than ninth grade, so that you graduate with advanced knowledge of Spanish, intermediate knowledge of a third language and readiness to move to a fourth as circumstances demand.

America’s “devout monolingualism,” as one commentator has called it, has worked against our interests in the past and promises to become an even greater liability in the future. The universal acquisition of English by educated people throughout the world should serve not as an excuse to worsen this historical handicap but rather as an opportunity to be able to acquire new languages with the help of English-speaking bilinguals.

The effort will prove more than worth it for the individual in terms of enhanced sales, cooperation and cross-cultural understanding. The pay-off of such multilingual, multicultural engagement to the United States and rest of the world may make the difference between animosity and good will, between war and peace, between extinction and survival. To paraphrase H. G. Wells, civilization has become increasingly a race between catastrophe and international education.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08