Guest Column: At a Global Crossroads

By Caryn McTighe Musil, Senior Scholar and Director of Civic Learning and Democracy Initiatives, Association of American Colleges and Universities

Open inquiry, critical judgment, and a habit of refusing automatic compliance to authority are traits that have always made higher education dangerous to a totalitarian society that seeks censorship instead of investigation, indoctrination instead of questioning, and obedience instead of freethinking. Teaching students to ask questions, imagine alternatives, discern truth, distinguish between fact and fiction, and listen carefully to learn from opposing views all combine to disrupt unexamined norms and empower a citizenry.

The close symbiosis of flourishing democracies and higher education was brought home to me when I headed the US delegation in a Ford Foundation–funded initiative called the Tri-National Project from 1995 to 1999 that included India, South Africa, and the United States. Its purpose was to explore the role of higher education in diverse democracies. Together we represented the largest, the oldest, and, at the time, the newest democracies. Each country had a history of resisting and defeating a colonial ruler, all included profoundly diverse populations, and each saw higher education as a site for citizenship and nation building.

Having been intensely immersed in scholarship, teaching, and campus climate issues related to US diversity, I was challenged by the Tri-National Project to understand my local work as global work. The experience was utterly transformative. Like the best US diversity work and global learning, our engagement relied on cross-country comparisons, cultural immersion, multiple perspectives, intercultural learning, intersectional identities, and accounts of citizen activism. Diversity across shifting and differing dimensions illuminated our thinking about caste, religion, and gender in India; race, class, and gender in the United States; or race, wealth, and tribal/ethnic identity in South Africa. All of us believed that higher education had to challenge the stratification systems that kept such inequalities firmly in place. 

To educate students for global citizenship is to ask students, regardless of country or culture, to immerse themselves with open minds and hearts in the politics, culture, and history of other people’s countries—and their own. This can be brought home for students, as it was for us as delegates, by confronting (1) the gruesome historical realities in anti-apartheid museums and Robben Island, where political prisoners such as Nelsen Mandela were incarcerated; (2) the consequences of being denied full citizenship in the Pueblo of Zuni in New Mexico or on the streets of Harlem; or (3) the stark economic inequalities represented by the fact that impoverished local Indian populations get their drinking water from a ditch adjacent to the dazzling Taj Mahal. Interrogating and unraveling such intertwined systems that confer advantage or anguish are practices at the core of educating for responsible global citizenship.

Table Mountain, overlooking Capetown, South Africa, as viewed by boat on the way to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated.
 

How exactly do we embed such learning in higher education as we seek to provide students with the contexts and learning environments in which the blurred lines of local and global are illuminated? How do we teach that we are each global in our diverse identities; that we are all the Other? As institutions wade into these thorny, illuminating challenges—and do so in an age of rising bigotry, nativism, and authoritarianism—several agenda items have special priority: 

• Challenge historical fallacies and repeated misinformation and myths.

• Explore identity across multiple levels (individual, local, global) as a pathway to understanding connections and disconnections.

• Deploy the rich multicultural, multinational experience on most contemporary campuses as a microcosm of global diversity.

• Organize college learning to address the messy, complex challenges that destabilize our common future—creatively, collaboratively, and with hands-on engagement in local and global contexts.

• Brand this work in higher education as preparation for meaningful, socially responsible living—that is, for global citizenship.

As the Tri-National Project ended, a new global partnership emerged between the Council of Europe and the United States as colleges and universities on both sides of the pond explored how effective higher education was as a site for democratic citizenship in the face of what felt like irresolvable conflicts, whether in Kosovo; Belfast, Northern Ireland; or Chester, Pennsylvania. The partnership evolved into the Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility, and Democracy and is affiliated with the Council of Europe, which was founded in 1949 after World War II to promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. 

In addition to comparative research projects and publications, the consortium has sponsored four global forums. The fifth, which will take place in Rome in June 2017, is titled “Higher Education for Diversity, Social Inclusion, and Community: A Democratic Imperative.” In Rome, we will tackle crosscutting global issues like knowledge in an age of post-truth politics, diversity and social inclusion in the face of fierce racial and religious bigotry, and immigration and support for refugees in a period of virulent nativism.

Should we retreat from our commitments to global social justice or resist the whipping headwinds howling for us to succumb to fear of the Other? Colleges and universities, as sites for global citizenship, need to do their job: construct additional entryways of accessibility, create more permeable borders for intellectual exchange nationally and locally, and embrace difference as a means of achieving new knowledge and forging a third way out of seemingly intractable problems. That choice will make higher education dangerously democratic, indeed.