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Office of the President

Preparing Students for the Global Economy

April 1, 2010

In his weekly column, President Barry Mills explains his views on how best to prepare students to succeed in a global economy.

Last week, I traveled to Memphis to participate in an education symposium at St. George’s Independent School on the occasion of the school’s 50th anniversary. St. George’s president, William Taylor, and his wife, Jennifer, are Bowdoin parents (their son, Wilson is a junior at the College). Bill asked me to join a group of other college presidents—including the presidents of the universities of Richmond, Mississippi, and Memphis, and Rhodes College—on a panel moderated by John McCardell, the former president of Middlebury who is now leading Sewanee: The University of the South. Our topic: “Preparing the Next Generation of Leaders.”

My remarks at St. George’s centered on the importance of global and international education as preparation for future citizens of this country. It is an important topic, so I thought I’d share the essence of what I had to say.

MapIt is a truism—thanks to the likes of Thomas Friedman—that the world is flat. The concept of American exceptionalism is open for debate and interpretation, as evidenced by bestsellers written by Fareed Zakaria and Mitt Romney, and by the both nuanced and aggressive approach of our country’s relations with the world promoted by President Obama. The fact that there are precious few in our country who speak Arabic—or who understand the religion and culture of Islam—has had clear implications for our society. One doesn’t need to be a college president to understand that the future for our students requires a competency and a subtlety of mind that informs them about the world and their place in it.

American colleges and universities tend to offer instruction in traditional subjects like international relations, law, history, and culture, with courses on contemporary issues. But for our students and their parents, the focus is often squarely on current interests like national security and economics, and colleges and universities respond to those interests and to that economic/business reality. In the late 80s, it was all about the Soviet Union. During the early 90s, it was all about Japan. In the late 90s we took a break to focus on “dot.coms,” and in the current decade it’s about the Middle East, China, India, and, probably soon, Brazil.

The interesting question for colleges, universities, and schools is how do we define our role in preparing students for international and global issues? How do we think about preparing our young people to be leaders and participants in this global community? The debate about whether any of this is important has been settled. The more difficult question for each institution is how will they define their role and what they will actually do.

How do we go about creating global education? At small liberal arts colleges, many students study away in foreign countries for all or part of their junior year. These students often—but not always—gain valuable experience in foreign lands that supports their area of study—fields like history, archeology, or economics. If they are able to spend time with the locals and not with other Americans, they learn about the country they visit. At some colleges, the number of students taking advantage of study away is as high as 50%.

CafeGoucher College in Maryland requires students to study away. At the Ivies and other research universities, there is less emphasis on study away during the academic year—but greater emphasis on summer internships and so-called “gap years.” Harvard promotes the value of summer internships in different lands, while Princeton has a formal program for certain admitted students that provides a foreign experience during a “gap year.”

Middlebury College has a world-renowned language program and recently incorporated the Monterey Institute into its offerings, emphasizing the importance of liberal arts education and international perspective.

And at Bowdoin, we have incorporated service learning, community service, and environmental activism into our international initiatives.

These institutions and many others in America are committed to admitting international students to create opportunity on their campuses and to allow traditional students to interact with these international students. In my view, this nation of immigrants must remain mindful of the opportunities we miss for our country if we fail to open or minds and our institutions to these students from away.

The efforts that colleges, universities, and schools are putting into global education are serious and intentional. Yet, when people have these conversations about global education, there is often the sense that we aren’t doing all that we should, and that maybe there is a lack of genuine conviction or a failure to find “the formula.” I would like to suggest that perhaps the reason for the discomfort is that there isn’t such a formula. There isn’t a perfect solution.

I realize that that’s not exactly what parents want to hear. Our sons and daughter will attend only one undergraduate college or university (hopefully), and parents want to know how best to think about this issue.

So let me put down a couple of markers for people to think about. First, the best colleges, universities, and schools all desire to be exceptional—to demonstrate that they have the answer. I would suggest a bit of humility is in order for all of these places.

Sen. George Mitchell
Sen. George J. Mitchell '54

What are we trying to accomplish here? Clearly, we want our students to be able citizens in a global community. But college is only a beginning. There is a life after college during which we continue to learn. Our goal should be to start these young people on a path where they can acquire the life skills and the knowledge to be able global citizens, and to make sure—to the extent possible—that they do not reach adulthood without the intellectual and emotional capacity to engage effectively in a global society. To suggest that colleges are somehow required or able to complete this task is both unrealistic and insufficiently humble.

I believe there are two prerequisites for this lifelong journey: mastery of a foreign language and grounding in the liberal arts. It is my experience that people who are able to speak the language of another country with proficiency are often those with the cultural and social sophistication necessary to become global citizens. So, if I could start with a blank slate, I would encourage and even require all of our students to gain language proficiency at some point during their education. But since I can’t require it, I would hope that all students would aspire to learn a foreign language and realize that potential. Then I would remind all of our organizations to think about what is required to become a global citizen.

George Mitchell came to Bowdoin College for the first time in 1950 by hitchhiking some fifty miles from his home in the mill town of Waterville, Maine. He was 16 years old and had never been away from home. He studied, played some basketball, and took advantage of the opportunities that a liberal arts education provides. George Mitchell would go on to lead the United States Senate and to negotiate peace in Northern Ireland. Today he serves as President Obama’s envoy for peace in the Middle East. At Bowdoin in those days, we did teach some foreign languages, but there was no concentrated study in international affairs and no “study away.”

Amb. Thomas R. Pickering '53

Another Bowdoin graduate, Tom Pickering of the Class of 1953, has served as U.S. Ambassador to Jordan, Nigeria, El Salvador, Israel, India, and Russia. As U.S. Representative to the United Nations, Tom was largely responsible for forging the international coalition that responded to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. When Tom was at Bowdoin, there was no international connection whatsoever. Today, Tom Pickering is fluent in French, Spanish, and Swahili, and has a working knowledge of Russian, Hebrew, and Arabic. He is a career diplomat who Time magazine once called the “five star general of the diplomatic corps.”

And then there’s Chris Hill, a member of the Bowdoin Class of 1974. He had no undergraduate training in international relations. Today he is U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, having served previously as ambassador to Poland and as the U.S. negotiator dealing with Milosovic and Kim Jung Il. Same undergraduate story, yet today, Chris is a respected citizen of the world.

Amb. Christopher Hill '74

George Mitchell, Tom Pickering, and Chris Hill were all educated at a liberal arts college grounded in critical inquiry and a commitment to the common good. They can—and often do—talk about what they learned at Bowdoin (and there are similar stories at other liberal arts colleges). They learned how to think, read, communicate, analyze, and make good judgments—skills that have served them well in the international arena. These liberal arts graduates—and many like them—are able citizens of the world who began their journey on our campuses and gained the skills necessary to continue their growth on the world stage. What they learned at college was to be fearless learners and listeners with a subtlety of mind and a sense of the common good that allow them to make good judgments.

Now, I understand the world is flatter today, more economically interconnected, with Internet connections at warp speed. But I still believe that the very best education for global citizenry is grounded fundamentally in the capacity for lifelong learning and principled leadership that we already teach. It is grounded in educating students who are not insular in perspective or experience. If we continue to do our jobs as educators, our students will be well prepared to embark on lives and careers as global citizens.