Chatham University

Another Inconvenient Truth

Commencement Address

Dr. Allan Goodman
President of the Institute for International Education (IIE)
Chatham University - Pitttsburgh, May 23, 2009


Anyone who has the honor of being asked to speak at Rachel Carson's alma mater must be mindful of the awesome power of education. With the graduate degrees you receive today, you are a big step closer not only to changing individual lives but also to changing the world. Because your degrees are in the sciences most directly connected to the healing professions, to teaching, and to making our local communities more livable, each here, consequently, may be able to have the impact that she did with your own courses, the movements you might found, and, above all as she put it, your "sense of wonder." Indeed, I hope this most indispensable of all the senses will take you far beyond this lovely campus.

You are already interested, I know, in international work. The recent outbreak of swine flu reminds us that disease has no boundaries. Through what you have studied and what you will now do, you are also able to demonstrate that healing and service have no boundaries either. And our world needs your service more than ever.

It is a special privilege to be asked by President Barazzone, who serves with such dedication on the advisory board for the nation's flagship Fulbright Senior Scholar program to offer some reflections on what Ms Carson asked us all to contemplate: namely, "to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe." Doing this now is as important to improving international relations as it is to the environment. And America faces particular challenges.

Those of us in the field of international education frequently forget just how poorly informed most Americans are about the world. Seventy percent do not have a passport, about the same percentage of college-educated Americans who cannot locate Iran, Israel, or Indonesia on a map today, who think that Sudan is in Asia, and who do not know the name of the president of Russia. Less than one percent of our citizens enrolled in college and university degree programs studied abroad last year.

At Chatham, your "Global Focus" program is helping to change those numbers – and nearly half of the graduating seniors today, in fact, did study abroad. And next year, in its special focus on Africa, this Chatham program is helping to save the life of a distinguished scholar from Zimbabwe who will be here in a joint partnership between the University and the Institute's Scholar Rescue Fund. All of us at the Institute's Fund are grateful to Laura and to Anne for their work with our staff to make this fellowship happen.

But the net effect of all the national trends I mentioned was highlighted recently by Doris Lessing when she accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature: "it is common for young men and women who have had years of education to know nothing about the world."

What is the remedy?

When visiting a campus or speaking to conventions of educators, I am often asked how I would change curricula in order to prepare the next generation for global citizenship. And for many years, I took the bait and discussed tinkering around the edges.

But a recent survey by the American Council on Education – coupled to the statistics cited above –– suggest that more radical action is needed. Shortly after 9/11 ACE asked its members if some aspect of preparing for global citizenship were a part of their mission statement. About thirty-five percent replied affirmatively. When ACE re-did the survey last year, the number had increased, but to only thirty-eight percent.

Radical remedial action is required.

So if I were president of a university today, I would require all entering students to arrive on campus with a passport and then use it during the course of their degree. I would not specify what they should study or where they should go, hoping that well-meaning and increasingly globally-minded faculty and student advisors would assist in identifying what might make the most sense and when.

Presently, only one university in America has this requirement – although there are signs that more may be interested. A handful of others are now making study abroad an actual requirement. And in the two months since the launch of IIE's "Get a Passport: Study Abroad" campaign (iie.org/passport), colleges and universities in many states have joined as Partner Campuses. They are hosting Passport Days on campus, sending passport applications out with new student packets and subsidizing passport application fees for students who study abroad, among other excellent activities.

But getting a passport is actually not my radical idea.

The radical idea is that I would also require all graduates of the university where I served to have an immersive, intensive foreign language experience; to learn to speak and work at least in the foreign language they studied in high school. Chatham's first curriculum in 1869, in fact, required proficiency in Latin, French, or German, so the idea may not be all that radical on this campus.

But why is a card-carrying political scientist (who failed the French exam for his Ph.D. seven times and who is deeply grateful that he was allowed to count statistics as a "second" foreign language) now saying that foreign language is central to higher education – and to preparing citizens for global citizenship? And why am I recommending this at a time when many colleges and universities are dropping language from their undergraduate entrance requirements and when enrollment in language courses may be at its lowest point in the nation's history?

For sure, I do not know the right contents to inject into a mega course on globalization. And if I did, I suspect that too many of the readings would be in English. I also do not know when over the course of a four year degree it would make sense. Many of my colleagues are trying to solve these problems and I greatly respect and appreciate their efforts. But I am not willing to settle for one or a few courses or just a January trip or even a semester abroad.

Actually learning and using another's language above all reminds Americans that we are not alone. It is as simple as that. We share the world and its problems. And we cannot solve them all on our own or entirely in English, no matter how many Indians speak or Chinese are learning to speak English.

Now I did not come to this conclusion talking to diplomats and scholars in the field of international relations. I learned this from watching my daughter practice medicine in the National Health Service Corps. Her clinic in Washington DC serves indigent children and their families. They come from all over the world, but mainly Central and South America. She and her team of nurses practice medicine almost entirely in Spanish. In this way a community health center is connected to the patient's world. Without being able to communicate across cultures –– and especially across complex Spanish verb tenses to know where and when an infant fell ill, for how long the fever has persisted, and what home remedies have been applied and why –– even the best medicine if it is rendered only in English will be less effective.

For languages convey much more than facts. Since they are the repositories of culture, knowing them enables us to gain perspective. It has never been more important for Americans to have that degree of understanding or access to different ways of thinking. And, who knows, maybe someone else's way of reaching a conclusion or stating a fact will change what Americans think, as well as the world we share.

Rachel Carson would have appreciated that.