From the rhetoric of ‘America First’ to the promises of the Brexiteers, all things ‘global’ are under attack.
A recent cover of the well-respected weekly The Economist declared that globalisation has trickled down to snail-paced ‘slowbalisation’, with a picture of a snail on the edge of the globe.
Many political pundits have published books attributing the rise of right- and left-wing populism and backlash against globalisation to the failure of globalism, resulting in increasing sentiments of ‘Us vs Them’.
It is undeniable that in economic terms global trends are spiralling downwards: foreign direct investments have fallen to their lowest level since 2004 and cross-border bank loans are among the lowest they have been in the same period. Anti-immigration sentiments are at an all-time high in the Euro-American world.
In United States institutions of higher learning the bloom is also off the global rose, once flowering at breakneck speed. Discouraged by the exclusionary sentiments coming from the White House and increasingly strict visa regulations, fewer foreign students have been coming to the US than over the rest of the past decade.
Disappointed by the lack of financial returns on their investments in overseas campuses, universities are also moving away from once highly touted global models.
As mentioned in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, there is a corresponding decline in the emphasis on global education in the mission statements and strategic plans of universities and colleges.
Yet, it is undeniable that the world continues to be more interconnected and interdependent. Consider the fact that almost three billion people in the world have access to smartphones and therefore feel directly connected to the world. One in four people live in a place where they were not born and that trend is expected to grow.
This means that more culturally diverse people are living cheek by jowl, physically or virtually, requiring greater understanding of their differences. Last but not least, neither climate change nor diseases pay any attention to national boundaries. It is clear that no major problem in the world can be solved by any one nation.
If the universities and colleges are to fulfil their missions of preparing students to navigate the realities of the world and of developing research that is commensurate with the complexity of current and future trends, there’s no question that it’s time to firmly align the study of the global condition to their very mission.
It is equally important, however, to refine the thinking and practices that have stood for all things global on our campuses.
New ways of thinking
In the past 15 years or so, when many institutions were jumping on the global bandwagon at breakneck speed, global had a more transactional, import-export feel: campuses and studies abroad exported and foreign students imported. Potential financial gains were couched in mission-related declarations.
It was not fully acknowledged that the essence of the global condition lies in the relational understanding of our place in the world. It is not sufficient to be an explorer of the world; one has to learn to reflect on one’s place in the world and one’s attendant responsibility for it.
That means that we have to recognise that events, processes and decisions that occur in one part of the world have repercussions in all other parts.
Global in this context requires that we develop new ways of thinking about the connectivity and fissures that emerge from such relations and create new methods of understanding the complex relationship between the local and the global. We have to learn to see global less in opposition to local and more in relation to it. Thus, we have to better understand the local in the context of the global and vice versa.
When the fire breaks out in a textile factory in Bangladesh, for example, it is not just a sad occasion for a poor country far from our shores; we have to recognise our culpability in buying the cheap clothes from those factories.
At the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University, founded by President Lee Bollinger in 2006, the idea of global “as a collaborative intellectual process of discovery intended to facilitate the emergence of new concepts, methodologies and fields of inquiry in the pursuit of knowledge necessary to understand and act in the world in which we live” is central to its mission.
Preparing students for a complex world
Over a decade, we have learnt, through scholarly collaboration across disciplines and geographies and through our annual class of graduate students from all over the world, that this kind of work is neither simple nor easily quantifiable.
It doesn’t require traipsing all over the world, but it does require an ability to work with diverse groups of people from different backgrounds with an open mind and intellectual curiosity.
If institutions of higher learning are committed to preparing their students for the complexity of the world and the implications of this complexity, it is imperative that engagement with the global is treated not as an add-on or as an isolated phenomenon but as being central to the mission of the institution.
In this sense, global is more of a palimpsest, a layered phenomenon that builds on local and national interactions, full of opportunities and fissures. It’s not just about numbers of students travelling or numbers of foreign students coming to our campuses, but more about developing the critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence that are necessary to navigate the continuing globalising world that we live in.