Debates in International Education

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Last spring, I gathered together University of Iowa faculty who are formally or informally affiliated with International Programs.  The purpose of the gathering was to bring together a larger group of faculty who, because they are appointed in departments spread across campus, do not always have the chance to meet and discuss issues of common interest.

One of the topics of discussion focused on the role of area studies in higher education today.  There are those who, overly focused on global processes and transnational phenomena, would find it impossible to understand how a given policy might play out in a single country.  “Those who have studied World Bank-imposed economic or environmental programs in Africa,” as William G. Moseley has recently argued, “can attest to the problem of policy making uninformed by an awareness of regional differences” (see Area Studies in a Global Context).  On the other hand, the opposite is also true, as Moseley notes: “we can promote local food production in West Africa until we are blue in the face, but those efforts will always be stymied if we do not account for national policies and international trade relationships.”

Our International Studies undergraduate major is emblematic of the tension between the transnational character of global processes and the specificities of local knowledge.  For 12 of the 36 minimum semester hours (i.e., usually 4 courses) required for the degree, students must focus either on a particular region or on a thematic area such as international business or human rights.  In other words, it offers students a non-denominational degree, a choice between area studies and global studies.  The structure of the major itself reveals the hesitation between two views of international education.

I should add that the B.A. in International Studies does require three full years of a foreign language, an entire year beyond the base-level General Education requirement in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  That requirement, together with the guidance of faculty who will push students to gain specialized knowledge in a region, no doubt grounds what might otherwise be overly theoretical or abstract perspectives.  So, for the same reason that disciplinary perspectives are necessary for productive interdisciplinary teaching and research, the experience of a given undergraduate is likely to benefit from the productive tension between area and global studies in international education.

Another topic that was salient in our discussion last spring revolved around the idea of a “moral education.”  Are we, as international educators, supposed to provide undergraduate students with experiences that help them to become better people and citizens through new understandings of themselves (through encounters with the foreign), or is our job to impart knowledge (content, whether geographical, anthropological, linguistic, or historical) that will help them to expand their horizons?