Fanning an ember of peace: US-USSR academic exchange

The Reagan-Gorbachev ``fireside summit'' has ended. Out of the fireplace, however, has popped a little-noticed but intriguing ember: an agreement to seek increased levels of educational exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. Why intriguing? Because what is needed for peace, as both sides seem to recognize, is nothing short of a shift in the underlying attitudes of each culture. And such ``great changes in culture,'' in the apt words of president Samuel Banks of Dickinson College, ``occur through leavening, not through fireworks.''

Dr. Banks pretends to no expertise on summitry. In fact, until we sat down for a conversation here in Boston the other day, the tall, friendly Southerner hadn't had much time to reflect on the summit. What he has reflected deeply upon, in a decade as president of his small and widely respected liberal arts college in Carlisle, Pa., is the ``leavening'' values of overseas educational exchanges.

Dickinson, in fact, has one of the most extensive international programs in the nation today. The college mandates foreign-language study. It sends significant numbers of students and faculty to its own overseas programs in Italy, Spain, France, West Germany, England, and (as of last summer) the Soviet Union. This October, it was singled out by the National Endowment for the Humanities as a model for international education programs.

Why do such exchanges matter? Banks lays out three lines of argument. Two, he admits, are fairly obvious: the idea that we live in a shrinking world and the fact that, wherever we live, we must accommodate ourselves to the differences as well as the similarities of our neighbors.

His third reason penetrates deeper. ``The most basic thing higher education does,'' he says, ``is to help you to unlearn.'' We have all grown up, he explains, to accept unthinkingly ``a totally furnished, automatic world.'' Higher education, then, is not so much about bending minds as about unbending them. ``You teach [students] to question what they already knew,'' he adds, ``without becoming rebels.'' The result: You produce leaders.

So what sort of educational exchange program might the superpowers usefully pursue?

Whatever is done, says Banks, there must be ``a critical mass of people doing it.'' If the purpose of the exchange is just ``window dressing,'' he adds, ``we will send eight major thinkers to the Soviet Union, and they will lecture in Moscow and Kiev and Leningrad.'' In return, the Soviets will do the same in the US.

``I suppose that's valuable,'' he continues. ``But in terms of bending the course of society? No. I'd a lot rather [send] a range of 500 professors -- assistant professors, instructors, teaching assistants, rather than full professors. They listen better, most of the time.'' Make sure they have some competence in the language, he explains. Send them for a full year. Let them take their families. Let them live squarely in the university context. And, of course, have the Soviets send a similar contingent to the US.

But that's not all. Why not add about five students per professor -- 2,500 students, drawn from schools around both nations? Let them live, not in ``American ghettos,'' but with families (not easy to do, he says, in cramped Moscow apartments) or in dormitories. Let each solemnly agree (as do many of Dickinson's current exchange students) not to speak their native tongue for as long as they are away.

How much would it cost? Quickly assigning some rough annual costs ($25,000 each for 500 professors, $10,000 each for 2,500 students), he comes to an outlay of $17.5 million. ``You're talking about a pittance,'' he says, ``compared to most of the programs that have been tried.'' That's true, even if you added 50 percent for overhead and another 10 percent for travel expenses -- for a grand total of $28 million. The numbers, he emphasizes, are not important. What matters is that the exchanges involve sign ificant numbers of young learners. The numbers are there just to demonstrate that the costs are indeed bearable.

There are, of course, some pitfalls. Among them:

Purpose. ``You have to know precisely why you're there,'' he says, adding that ``you can diffuse your energies very very quickly'' if, for example, you confuse academics with tourism.

Reentry programs. ``It's not responsible just to dump people'' overseas, Banks says. Having spoken to numbers of returning students, he says that, in many ways, ``the toughest [part] of all is to come back.''

Effect on the organizing institutions. Exchange programs, he says, will inevitably change the kinds of faculty needed by the school. He says faculty administrators who are to keep a ``presence'' in the Soviet Union need to be able to ``handle a budget, play mother superior, counselor, tour guide, and friend'' -- as well as do their own teaching and research.

Clearly, the obstacles to such exchanges are significant. But so are the obstacles to a lasting peace. No one, going into the summit, thought otherwise. ``It will require a lot more energy, time, and money to change relationships between nations than anyone even begins to think,'' Banks says.

So fanning this particular ember into a flame may not be easy. Education never is. But the promise -- that, in some not-so-distant future, the leaders of these two superpowers might once have spent a year in each other's countries -- could be worth more than any number of fireside chats between leaders who haven't. A Monday column

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.