University of Iowa

Reflections at the end of the academic year

May 13th, 2014

By Downing Thomas

Exam week seems to make me more reflective than other times, perhaps because it is the end of a long academic year. I got thinking the other day about the words “international” and “global.” Where do they come from? Actually, these terms are really not very old at all, only going back a couple hundred years. Before the nineteenth century, the term that was probably closest semantically to “international” was the word “commerce,” which could refer to a broad range of activities, including verbal communication, and the exchange of goods and services (so, the “commerce of nations” or “commerce” between peoples). The word “international” was coined in a legal context, pointing to the realm of what was called at the time the “law of nations,” which attempted to set out the obligations and rights of nations generally, towards the end of the eighteenth century when rights were definitely in the air. The adjective “global” only emerges about the time of the industrial revolution, just a few decades before the airplane. So, to be “global,” to think or act or live “globally,” is something relatively new.  

Previously, while one could imagine the globe, and a few select individuals from countries with immense resources could circumnavigate it, at the level of the human being, to act globally would have made no sense. We were very much circumscribed by our local languages, practices, and laws. Today, by contrast, it is a truism to say that today the globe is shrinking, so deeply is the local embedded in global processes and events, for better and for worse. So, the world is shrinking, but it would be very misleading to claim that the world is flat, to adopt Thomas Friedman’s often-cited phrase. The world is very rocky indeed, with steep inclines and chasms involving cultural and linguistic differences. One must be able to negotiate these differences. No one really knows what “global competence” is, despite the popularity of the phrase these days. In the end, though, I do think a facet of the global aspirations of universities like the University of Iowa is captured in the academic activities that we support and promote in International Programs -- i.e., those designed to reduce barriers and create opportunities to connect across differences (linguistic, cultural, political and other obstacles).

Why is cultural understanding important? A recent study done by the British Council, entitled Culture at Work, stresses the importance businesses place in the global abilities of their employees. Businesses understand the importance of going global. Going global diversifies revenues, offers opportunities to broaden product lines, protects domestic markets from international competitors, and creates new opportunities to maintain or expand the workforce. Job seekers, the report argues, “would benefit from presenting evidence of strong communication skills, foreign language abilities and international experiences when competing for jobs.”  The research behind the report demonstrates that employers value the things that intercultural knowledge positively impacts: the ability of individuals to work in teams, concluding transactions across borders, and developing long-term relationships with customers and suppliers. In short, intercultural understanding impacts the bottom line.

Aside from the practical reasons cultural knowledge is important, it is also rewarding to be able to circulate comfortably in a variety of environments, have access to internet and print publications and literature in other languages, and to develop meaningful relationships with others who do not share your linguistic or cultural background. In short, there is also a dimension of personal fulfillment in expanding one’s knowledge of the world and its people. We should not neglect that. After all, it is the reason we got involved in international education in the first place.

Downing Thomas