World-weary words

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February 3, 2011

11:55 PM

The world of higher education has always been quick to latch on to trends, especially those easily reduced to catchphrases. Ethan Kapstein, one of the candidates for the position of vice provost for international affairs and director of the Wendy and Emery Reves Center for International Studies, hit on one particularly trendy idea as of late: global citizenship. As the other four candidates for his position visit campus over the next few weeks, students at the College of William and Mary can expect to hear those words repeated ad infinitum. Yet, at the risk of tarnishing what is generally an eminently noble goal, the ideas Kapstien presented to help promote global citizenship among College students are largely ill advised.

As an abstract ideal, more knowledge of the world at large and how a student might hope to function effectively within is irrefutably positive — any attempt to argue over the goal itself would be mere quibbling. But Kapstein’s suggestions, a discrete regimen of global affairs modules required for every student at the College, simply would not be a useful initiative for most students.

The College already offers a variety examples of incorporating global citizenship in a more subtle fashion. The Reves Center already assures that a wide assortment of study abroad options are available for interested students and heavily promotes those opportunities. Classes and seminars addressing global topics, increasingly prevalent at the College, always find warm welcome from students, albeit more from some majors than others.

But forcing students to study abroad is simply not useful to some students, further taking time from their major subjects rather than complementing it. Simply going abroad for the sake of travel turns you into a tourist, not the sort of “global citizen” Kapstein describes.

Furthermore, any attempt to further “globalize” the College or its students actually runs into to a larger issue, the currently conflicting identity of the College itself. We are pressured from the General Assembly to be a competitive (read: exclusive) state school, accessible to in-state students almost to the detriment of any out-of-state applicants. On the other hand, there is a competing pressure, felt by most leading universities, to be more diverse, more inclusive, to some extent more globalized. We as a community have to decide the balance of these two goals, but it must be a balance; we cannot reject one extreme for the other.

Reliance on inflated, buzzword-laden rhetoric doesn’t help with that decision. If these were more than buzzwords — if the College were lagging behind in some concretely or empirically defined qualities — we could perhaps weigh them more easily. But, should we rigorously define the attributes of this “global citizen,” we may also learn that College students are not as far behind as Kapstein implies, given the initiatives already supported by the Reves Center and other campus advocates for global affairs.
More importantly, the College has larger internal issues to face before it tries to codify a curriculum of global citizenship. Any available resources would be better spent trying to attract first-rate professors and paying them competitive salaries so they are inclined to stay, rather than encouraging students to pursue their education elsewhere.

That being said, the College must remain competitive. Insofar as every other prominent university currently engages in the same rhetoric of globalization, so must we. There is need to turn that empty rhetoric into pointless policies or symbolic inclusionism. There are better options for promoting “global citizenship,” many of them programs in which the College is already vigorously invested. Much like globalization itself, we think the process of creating global citizens can be a subtle but influential presence at the College — we hope without introducing any new “modules” for students to juggle.

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