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A global perspective in uncertain times

Editorial in the December 2002 issue of University Business magazine.

Our global community has faced increasingly menacing and debilitating challenges in recent months and years: international terrorism, civil wars, genocide, economic distress, a depleted environment, overpopulation, starvation, poverty, racism and other problems which have tested our humanity.

Now, the world is waiting for our reply. The world wants to know how many people we can send who, in the words of Cecil Rhodes, are “willing to fight the world’s fight.” This “fight” is not a military offensive but a collective effort more far-reaching than any incursion, past or present.

These people we send must be extraordinary. They must possess the ability to be self-critical, to reach beyond their own well-being, to make informed decisions and to solve difficult problems. They will be people who deeply desire to reply to the world’s greatest dilemmas and to create a just and more enlightened society. Their legacy will be a more peaceful world, a cleaner planet and a healthier society. Indeed, there will be food to go around, and everyone will have some dignity in his or her life.

Far too many people believe that my thoughts are Utopian. The world, for them, is a salvage operation. If that were the case, there would be no place for institutions of higher learning and, certainly, no compelling reason to continue supporting the existence of the nation’s liberal arts colleges where global service and learning are paramount. Getting complex issues, and, in turn, the world, into clear focus often requires a transformative experience-one that inspires, and nurtures, a more enlightened global perspective.

For most agents of global change, their catalyst often has been some life-altering, unique, cross-cultural endeavor that propagates a broader, more lucid vision of the complex world in which we live. Such a transformation often begins in the liberal arts classroom.

Those who will likely help our world community solve its most pressing problems will draw information and inspiration from broad-based study of any number of disciplines, including political science, history, philosophy, economics, sociology, mathematics, biology, ethics and religion, just to name a few. While the finest major universities in America have been superbly polishing the research component of individualized fields of study, the nation’s liberal arts colleges continue to focus on the broad development of the whole person. After all, most issues of grave concern are not singularly focused. They are multi-dimensional and require a thought process that includes both depth and breadth. They are the kind of issues commonly explored and debated at the nation’s finest liberal arts colleges-across the curricula and across the world.

For example, take California’s Pomona College. There, students engross themselves in programs concentrating on six cultures and languages. Nearly half the student body pursues cross-cultural study in more than 20 foreign nations. Likewise, at Carleton College (MN), students pair up with peers from other nations in team-taught seminars that explore global issues. An impressive 70 percent of Carleton students pursue a cross-cultural experience. Students are living, studying and working in remote parts of the world where service is most needed. Among Maine’s most highly-regarded liberal arts colleges-Bates, Bowdoin and Colby-students spend semesters learning in China, Ecuador, India, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. At Colgate University in New York, nearly half the students spend time in Central America, Nigeria, Russia, Poland and other world nations. Connecticut College sends students to work and study in China, India, Mexico, Morocco and South Africa; while Beloit College (WI) places 50 percent of their students in countries such as Cameroon, Nepal, Senegal, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

At Southwestern University in Texas, the liberal arts college where I serve as president, nearly half of the student body pursues a cross-cultural experience, often focused on service learning. Most recently, students have worked and studied in Chiligatoro and Pueblo Viejo, Honduras, aiding the Save the Children organization; and in Debrecen, Hungary, where students assisted and instructed children of political and economic refugees, a large portion of whom had fled Taliban-forced army service in Afghanistan.

Changing our global community for the better seems a hopeless endeavor to many. Still, I draw strength and hope from those students who have touched lives in meaningful ways in remote regions around the world. These young, unsung heroes continue to inspire positive change in places still, sadly, considered irrelevant to the everyday experience of most Americans.