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Bringing a global perspective to the ivory tower

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Despite those dour appraisals, there are some indications that the US is beginning to pay more attention to the world around it. According to Maurice Harari, director of the Center for International Education at California State University, Long Beach, and formerly AASCU vice-president for international programs, ''A graph of student interest in international affairs would show a sharp drop after Vietnam, and another fall with the downturn in the economy. But paradoxically,'' he continues, ''it's the economic interest that's causing the turnaround we're starting to see.''

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In addition, the federal government has shown renewed interest in international education after it looked as though Reagan administration budget cuts might end all federal involvement. The administration has proposed major budget increases for the segment of the Fulbright scholarship program that brings foreigners to the United States and $25 million for new programs to bring Central American undergraduates to the US.

The Reagan draft budget for 1985 proposes no funding for the international segment of the Higher Education Act, which funds competitively selected international studies and foreign-language programs. But the Department of Education has set up a center for international education, and a recent Pentagon report calls for greater federal investment in language training and area studies.

Yet many educators say the relevant question is what individual colleges can do to foster greater international awareness. In the case of Florida International University (FIU), the turning point came when the school established a deanship to coordinate all international education activities. Says William Leffland, dean of FIU's International Affairs Center, ''This post put weight behind the school's stated goal of opening up students to the world.'' Hiring faculty with international interests - no matter what the field - became a priority, as did courses that exposed students to foreign points of view.

In addition, the school began concentrating on what it saw as its natural focal point: the Caribbean Basin and South America. Today FIU sponsors a long list of exchanges and research projects with Latin American institutions, earning it an international reputation in the field.

Still, bringing a global perspective to a school in Miami, with its cosmopolitan population and international business community, might seem easier than in other parts of the US. But according to William Taylor, head of the Center for International Education at the University of Southern Mississippi, the ''internationalization'' process at a school serving a small, ''inwardly turned'' region of the country was similar. ''We had to work on the faculty first,'' says Dr. Taylor, who lists financial incentives for broadening courses, hiring practices that put a premium on international interests, and encouraging faculty to study abroad as ways they have begun the process.

As for students, college officials say foreign-language study is still one of the best ways to pique interest in the world. To attract more interest, many language teachers are placing more emphasis on conversation and business or science vocabulary - and less on literature.

The strategy may be working. According to Richard Brod of the Foreign Language Association in New York City, there are some indications that language study in the US is on the rise. ''Still, only about 50 percent of colleges have a language requirement for the BA degree,'' Mr. Brod notes - down from a high of 89 percent in the mid-'60s. He says that in the past two years about 70 colleges have added or toughened foreign-language requirements for graduation.

Now, a number of cities and school districts around the US are increasing, or reimposing, language requirements for high school graduation. Such trends, say many educators, are part of what is most needed: to expose American youth to the world at an earlier age. Colleges from Florida to California report efforts to help train primary and secondary school teachers to teach international subjects; to encourage those teachers to travel and study abroad; and to bring college faculty to high schools for team-taught courses.

As S. Frederick Starr, president of Oberlin College, told the House Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education in Washington recently, the study of foreign languages and international affairs ''must be firmly rooted in our primary schools. Until this happens, even the best-conceived (international education) programs will fail.''

First of four articles: Tomorrow: Americans studying abroad.