Get Out of Here!

     I never have any real doubts about my constant message to students and faculty regarding the importance of travel abroad and of opening horizons as a means to prepare for the future (or, in some respects, catch up to the present!) Yet, there are times when I wonder why the message doesn’t seem to get through or why students and their institutions simply pay lip service to the concept without truly embracing globalism as a top, if not the top priority for an undergraduate education for the 21st century. When that wondering begins to turn to frustration if not outright despair, I hear or read or experience something from a completely different sector that reminds that I am not alone and that, if I am to fulfill my own commitment to international learning, I must keep pressing on with the message.
     Two recent events have renewed my purpose and recharged my batteries for the struggle. The first was a five-week stint in Europe, surrounded by young Europeans speaking two and three languages, traveling on their own, overcoming obstacles, solving problems by themselves in non-familiar cultural circumstances , in short, living outside their comfort zone in the midst of multiple habits, languages and customs. Within ten years the networks formed and the lessons learned from this summer in terms of how others speak, think, live, and work will have translated into the very skills required for the 21st century workplace among those who hope to lead. These young people constitute the true competition for our current generation of American undergraduates.
     The second event was somewhat less expected but perhaps even more satisfying and potentially more useful in terms of articulating the message to a target group of college administrators and students. While waiting at an airport gate in Munich, I came across a short interview with a Chicago businessman, admired for his entrepreneurial skills yet not readily associated with an international point of view. After describing some of the characteristics that contribute to his own success, this contemporary entrepreneur cuts right through all the verbal dancing that usually accompanies our pleas for internationalism. Here is the exchange between interviewer Adam Bryant, of the New York Times, and Quintin Primo III, founder and CEO of Capri Capital Partners, a Chicago-based real estate investment and development firm:
AB: What is your best advice to young graduates?
QP: Three words: Leave the country. Get out of here. That’s what I tell everybody – just go. I don’t care where you go, just go.
AB: Because?
QP: Because the world is changing. It is no longer acceptable to speak only English if you are 25 and younger. It’s unacceptable. You have little chance of being successful if you speak only one language (…) So you’ve got to get out of your front door, get out of the comfort and quiet of your home, and your safety zone, and step into a pool of risk where you have no idea what the outcome is going to be. Out of it all, you will have a much clearer idea of how the world perceives our culture, and all the value, and the benefits, and the beauty of our culture.
(International Herald Tribune, August 2, 2010)
     Quintin Primo describes the flipside of the travel coin. In order to be a global citizen it is not enough to learn what you can about others; it is just as valuable to learn how others perceive the culture in which we are formed. It can’t be done solely within the four walls of a classroom or the limits of a college campus but there is no better time or opportunity to incorporate this kind of learning than the undergraduate years. So let this become a new mantra for U.S. educators when students come for advice about how to plan for the future: “ Leave the country. Get out of here!”

Job Skills

     On any street in nearly any city or town these days one cannot help but notice the property offices because their windows are plastered with ads for property to buy or rent.  While I was walking down a London street recently, my attention was drawn to such a window only to discover that the ads that covered it were for jobs – jobs at national and international firms.  Curious and somewhat suspicious about this glut of opportunity in hard times, I stopped to see what was available.  There were probably thirty different openings, most for entry or middle level white collar workers, salaries between $35 – 60,000 to start plus benefits, and they all had one thing in common:  the principal requirement was the ability to speak a language in addition to English.  Dutch, German, Italian, French – lots of possibilities but the applicant had to be able to work in two languages.

      The issue of learning one or more foreign languages in order to compete in a global rather than a local economy is one of the truly monumental obstacles for young Americans.  It is not that Americans are “bad” at learning languages.  Many more young people are taking advantage of opportunities to travel and our schools and communities are every day more diverse in terms of ethnic and linguistic representation so that traditional American isolationism is less and less a challenge.  No.  Our students are not learning foreign languages because, for the most part, the adults making decisions about their education don’t think it is very important.  There is much documentation to demonstrate that young children have a particular facility for learning two or more languages simultaneously, yet even in our best school districts, most students don’t even have a choice, and it is invariably a choice not a requirement, to study a second language until middle school at the earliest.  In addition, we don’t do a very good job of explaining to high school students why it might be worth their while to master a second or third language.  In fact, a frequent “incentive” , that a couple of years of classroom language instruction might help them get into a better college or university, has nothing to do with the potential  practical, competitive,  or even educational and cultural benefits of knowing more than one’s native tongue.

     Colleges and universities are not doing much to help this situation.  Even the relatively few that have their own graduation requirements for foreign languages are not generally very discriminating about the preparation that their applicants may have had:  “You took four years in high school but didn’t learn very much?  That’s OK, you can start over again here or we’ll place you into the second year and you’ll just have a couple of semesters to complete the requirement.”  This kind of enabling of mediocrity on the part of higher education sends just the wrong message.  Why do the same colleges and universities that are currently looking at ways to “internationalize” or “globalize” their curricula not demand more in terms of the most authentic way to integrate into and understand how people in a foreign culture think, act and dream?  Until recently it may have been partially accurate to point out that the world conducts its business primarily in English and to the extent that our colleges and universities are preparing students for the workplace, foreign language mastery may not have been at the top of the priority list.  Yet problem solving for the future, just as it will demand the skills of more than one discipline, is also likely to demand a much more thorough understanding of all the people who are involved in contributing to solutions.  Those solutions are becoming both global and interdisciplinary in scope as our “internationalized” curricula are beginning to grasp.  Perhaps it is time to re-think more precisely just what skills American students will need to master if we expect them to compete with their counterparts in other parts of the world and be able to answer the employment ads that draw one’s attention on London streets even in the midst of the current crisis.

Buried Dogs in Bayreuth

      I recently passed through Bayreuth to visit our partner university and to check in with the Washington and Lee Spring Term Abroad program that is centered there.  Bayreuth is an historic town of the northern Bavaria region of Franconia, best known as the place where the fantasies of Richard Wagner found both their expression and final rest.  The train from Munich is a joy on a May morning with the fields glistening with new spring greens and bright mustard yellows.  The 18th century center of Bayreuth is pretty well-restored as old palaces from the court of the Margrave of Bayreuth are only occasionally interrupted by the squared-off functionality of 20th century commercial sites. Some 18th century German towns suffer from an over-the-top Baroque exuberance but at least the exteriors of Bayreuth’s palaces and gates are nicely proportioned and not at all flashy.  Most of the flash has been reserved for the opulent curls and swirls of the Opera House and the New Palace, the most spectacular of the additions to the city insisted upon by Wilhelmina, sister of Frederick the Great and wife of Frederick, Margrave of Bayreuth.

     Strolling along the Maximilianstrasse I was stopped by three young men, one of whom addressed me in a German somewhat less halting than my own, but halting nonetheless.  “Excuse me.  Do you know who is buried behind Wagner’s house?  Hey, wait a minute.  We know you.  You’re Teddy Grover’s dad!”  Actually I am not Teddy Grover’s Dad but, under the circumstances that was close enough to identify the trio as W&L students, just arrived in Bayreuth the day before and carrying out an introductory class treasure hunt in the streets of the city.  They were charged with finding the answers to a series of questions about Bayreuth by asking passers-by in order to practice their German and find out something of their new surroundings.  And there we were, 4000 miles from where we had been and suddenly bonded by a slightly mistaken identity but a clear recognition. 

     What a joy to see these students at work!  Being a student in a foreign country has nothing to do with being a tourist. It is not easy to roam beyond one’s comfort zone, to do the exhausting work of learning a foreign language, of trying to make the most out of what are really precious few moments abroad, of having the mind of a 20-year-old and the vocabulary of a 3-year-old.  Yet the incalculable rewards of doing it right, of working at it night and day to make the slow progress toward fluency on the one hand and maturity on the other, provide among the greatest learning satisfactions to student and professor alike.  Bravo to the Bayreuth trio!  What they are missing in Lexington they have already done before and will do again. What they are gaining in Germany is a unique opportunity to expand their horizons beyond their wildest expectations.

      Who is buried behind Wagner’s beloved Wahnfried?  Richard and Cosima, of course, but that is only two of three.  Did anyone remember to tell you about Russ the Dog?

Competition

COMPETITION

 

A recent conversation with two of our international students has led me to return to a theme that is difficult to articulate but that is at the heart of our international education enterprise.  One of the several aspects that gives global learning among undergraduate students a new urgency is the question of competition – with whom, exactly, are the students we educate today going to be competing tomorrow and what do they need to know in order to be competitive? 

 

One of the advantages of the “breadth” component of a liberal arts education has long been that the liberal arts distinguish its graduates by cultivating in them not just learning skills but important, life-long attitudes about learning that help to sustain them as “learners” through their entire lives.  Until recently, that breadth in liberal arts colleges usually has been nurtured through a strong foundation in general education, accessibility to many choices for courses beyond the major, and an institutional commitment to the predominance of good teaching among all other professional attributes.  While there may be vigorous discussion about how well liberal arts colleges are sustaining the strength of the traditional breadth component, one factor consistently overlooked for this and future generations of students is the necessity, not just the luxury any longer, of incorporating and integrating study abroad within the framework of general education.

 

I say necessity because of what international students represent in terms of the world in which our current U.S. student generation will live, work, and, yes, compete.  The two students with whom I was conversing are completing degrees at Washington and Lee in our most difficult areas of study . . .and English is their third language.  Although they are, in fact, studying “abroad” just by being at Washington and Lee, they have also taken good advantage of our opportunities for students to study internationally in yet other areas of the world outside of their native regions.  In each case, their goal is to return eventually to their home countries, prepared with a world-class education with the emphasis on “world”.  They already understand that their futures depend not just on whatever content they might absorb in the classroom, but probably even more so on understanding how people think, how things work, and how to relate to as many other parts of the world as possible. This is not unusual of undergraduate international students who are, in many ways, exploiting the virtues and advantages of liberal arts education in a manner that too many of our domestic students are not, and it is certainly not limited to international students in the U.S.  Across the European Union, university students have become extraordinarily mobile through the Erasmus programs designed for student mobility.  They are honing their multiple language skills, networking with future partners and, although sharing a certain sense of “Europeanness” wherever they go, are also immersing themselves in what are still fairly distinctive  local cultures.  And that European model is now being emulated in areas as diverse as South America, China, and India,

 

The competition for the W&L student is no longer sitting across the aisle or down the road at Davidson.  They are sitting in Moscow, Mumbai, Shanghai, Vienna, Sao Paulo, and Katmandu.  The sooner we are able to fully integrate global learning into a W&L education, the sooner our students will become acquainted with their real rivals for professional success.