The Future of Global Education
April 8, 2014
Granville, Ohio

As part of the Global Studies Seminar on campus, Adam Weinberg shared his observations and insights on the past, present and future of global education, not only from his vantage point as president of Denison, but also as immediate past president of World Learning, one of the premier international education, exchange, and development organizations in the world.

Global education is imperative for the future of America’s students. In fact, I think you would be hard pressed to find any college in the U.S. that does not claim a globalized curriculum as a chief goal in its strategic plan. But in my previous role as president of World Learning, I found that too often, the leaders of those institutions could not tell me why it mattered or how they planned to fully realize that goal. And frankly, I worry that American institutions are going about it in the wrong way.

First, some context. We think of study abroad as something that was invented 30 years ago by American colleges and universities. In truth, it dates back much further. Aristotle, for example, was born in Macedonia and educated in Greece. And members of European’s elite have been leaving their home countries for broader educations for centuries.

By the late 1880s, there were faculty at Princeton and Indiana universities who were taking students abroad for academic credit. But in my view, study abroad as we currently think about it dates to the post-World War I era, when efforts were focused on creating cross-cultural understanding with the hope that if young Americans and young Europeans could learn to understand each other, then a new generation of emerging leaders might be able to build relationships that would enhance world peace and avoid future wars. That did not work, of course, but it was a great theory, and it was the birth of thinking about internationalization as a way of learning to live together.

So the Institute of International Education started in the 1920s. Then The Experiment in International Living in 1932. The Fulbright Program in 1946. The Center for International Education in 1951. And the Peace Corps in 1961.

Since then, the numbers of students studying in foreign countries has grown considerably, from 71,000 in 1989, to 283,000 in 2012. And as proof that global education is here to stay, I will point out that very few schools cut their study abroad programs during the recent economic downturn.

But less than five percent of all U.S. college students have a study abroad experience. And more worrisome, those going abroad often are going to the wrong places and on very culturally and academically thin programs. The fact that we have virtually no U.S. students studying in China is a serious problem. What does it mean that less than 2 percent of U.S. students studying abroad are choosing to go India? A large part of the future, I think, will be shaped by relations that either happen or do not happen between the U.S., China, India, Russia, Brazil, and other major powers. Very few U.S. students are going to those countries or learning about them during their college careers. Instead, the vast majority of American students are studying abroad in Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand—all wonderful places, but they are areas where understanding remains strong. It's possible that there are parts of Florence, Italy, with more U.S. citizens per capita than some places in this country. Put most bluntly, it is more difficult to have a life-changing cultural learning experience in central London than it is in southwestern Tanzania.

Here is an example. I recently had breakfast with a Denison student who spent a semester in Rwanda. She lived with a Rwandan family in an area where there are virtually no white people, very few Americans. She had to learn their language, one that is not commonly spoken in the world, and she took rigorous courses each day on post-genocide conflicts, all while living in a country that had been ravaged by genocide not long before. Her experience was personally and intellectually transformative.

Do I think she had a more transformative learning experience than she probably would have had in Florence, for all its beauty and history, where she barely would have had to learn Italian to get by? Yes, I do. Am I suggesting that no American student should study abroad in Florence? Not at all. What I am saying is that global education programs in places like Western Europe have to work exceptionally hard to create transformative learning experiences. Sometimes this happens and too often it does not.

In many ways, the same is true in reverse. The number of international students studying in the U.S. also has grown, from virtually none in 1950 to more than 800,000 last year. But a recent study showed that 38 percent of international students went back to their home countries having made no real friends in the U.S. For Chinese students, which is the largest group in the U.S. and one that I would argue is one of the most important to build relationships with, that figure was 50 percent. I fear that U.S. colleges and universities send international students back to their home countries with a lesser view of the U.S.—of who we are and what we stand for.

In addition, the process of getting here needs to be rethought. Imagine being a 20-year-old from Iraq. You have been invited to the U.S. by the State Department. It is your first time away from home, and you arrive in LAX, and all of a sudden you are whisked away by Homeland Security. I understand, respect and believe in the need for secure borders, but I also believe the current system is neither efficient nor effective. It does not make sense to identify future leaders, invite them to study here, and then alienate them while they are here. And after they have received a great education here, when they want to stay and contribute—perhaps start a new business—we make them leave. That is reverse diplomacy. It does not well serve our country or the world.

Why does all this matter? I just spent eight years working in the nonprofit global sector, and I came away from that experience knowing this to be true: cultural misunderstanding is a dangerous thing. The vast majority of the programs that we were running globally were human rights programs in the Middle East, Africa and Central and South America. Every time a program fell apart, it was not because the idea was bad or the funding dried up. It fell apart because two groups, or two people, could not find ways to get along. They misunderstood each other. So just putting people together in the same place is not a cure-all.

So what is the answer? If the system is flawed, and I argue that it is, how do we fix it? As a sociologist and a new president, what I am thinking about is, how do we create global networks that are based on relationships of reciprocity?

First and foremost, I believe in study abroad, but we have to do it right. We need new models that infuse international perspectives, experiences, and content throughout the curriculum. We need clear goals, along with metrics we can use to measure progress toward those goals. We have to get people into places that are going to be vitally important on the global landscape, and we have to make sure our programs are sound. We want students to be culturally challenged so that they are able to form global competencies. We also have to enable more students to participate. With 95 percent of U.S. college students never studying abroad, we are unlikely to transform higher education, much less the world. And we have to make sure that our returning students are well integrated so that they are able to help internationalize our campus. It is part of our ethical principles as an institution of higher education to be good citizens of the world.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to rethink our curricula at U.S. colleges and help facilitate new relationships between the world’s faculty, here and abroad.

Denison recently has joined Global Liberal Arts Alliance, a new initiative of 25 liberal arts colleges located in 13 countries. The goal is to help faculty develop those relationships and then find ways to link courses, students, and research—finding ways to infuse “the global” throughout everything we do. As an example, last fall a Denison faculty member linked her German class on campus with a class in Bulgaria. Students practiced conversational skills and studied together.

The future will be shaped by people who are globally skilled. We must produce a generation that is capable and excited to work with people who are different. By actively becoming a part of the solution, we create pathways to success, not just for our own future, but also on a global scale.

Read more of Adam Weinberg's remarks and writings.