Internationalization of Education: Neoliberal vs Humanistic Affordances

Shyam Sharma, Stony Brook University*

Some time ago, while I was teaching a first-year writing course that only had international students, after a good class discussion about the importance of writing courses like that as a place to learn some of the fundamentals of American higher education, one student followed me to my office to say how inspired he was by the discussion. But then he added, with tears in his eyes, that he was dropping out of that summer course. After finding out how much the course would cost him during the summer term, he had talked to his parents in South Korea and decided to not take it.

Since the advent of what is called the “global turn” in Writing Studies, our scholarship, programs, and pedagogies have been increasingly focusing on internationalization as a critical educational goal of higher education that we are well positioned to help advance. This interest has manifested particularly in the discourse about multilingualism, translingualism, transnational writing research, and cross-cultural communicative competence. I strongly believe that, as writing teachers, we are an egalitarian, progressive, and sensitive community of scholars who appreciate what our students from around the world bring to our classrooms—how they continue to teach and inspire us—how all students benefit from the increasingly globalized classrooms.

I think that we are advancing the new goal of internationalization as a natural extension of a humanistic and liberal arts education, especially by fostering the sense of global citizenship among all our students, domestic and international. Here is a list of benefits that I think writing offers to our students due to the emerging interest in internationalization:

  • Educational: we’re helping students become more informed about the larger world
  • Professional: we’re helping them to be better prepare for the diversified and globalized workforce and opportunities they will find in it
  • Social/cultural: we’re enabling students to relate to diverse cultures and communities around them—in/through physical and virtual contexts/means
  • Political: we’re helping them to be better global citizens in a world with unabated intercultural tensions, wars, and violence
  • Epistemological: we’re also helping them generate better ideas and perspectives whether the issues are local or global

On the other hand, however, as only the rare student who might follow us to the office and tell us, internationalization is more strikingly an ideal that has been coopted by a neoliberal business model that is reshaping higher education across the world. Australia used to be the world’s largest market of international education, but partly due to the defunding of public higher education, American universities have been forced to compete for a larger pie out of that global market. So, it is not so much that the number of international students doubled and tripled in the past two decades because our institutions wanted to “internationalize higher education” (as in creating more globalized classrooms and provide equal educational opportunity for everyone in the world) but instead that they enrolled more students to make up for budget deficits. Some states and institutions seem more reasonable than others in using pure supply-demand criterion for determining cost for foreign students.

The objective behind presenting these contrasting views about internationalization is not to imply that Korean and Chinese and Brazilian people’s children are entitled to taxpayer-funded public education in the United States (see this article about how tension is building); I don’t think that a global, open-border model of education would be sustainable, realistic, or even fair. I am instead saying that within the regime of the children of Korean and Chinese and Brazilian parents who come to buy education at the market price (whether it is in private institutions or within public ones), educators cannot be effective without acknowledging the reality, without knowing what students go through in order to come to their class, how students struggle, why students drop out. Because we are part of the system, I believe that we must at least start asking the difficult, ethical questions about the situation.

In other words, I don’t worry too much about my university heading in the wrong direction. What makes me really thoughtful is whether, when I face the “globalized” community of students when I enter my classes, I have actually tried my best to design my courses and assignments in order to facilitate exchange of ideas, foster intercultural respect, develop curiosity and interest in the world at large among all of our students. To give you an example, how am I helping Victoria from Long Island and Vikash from India to get to know each other during the semester? Am I prompting them to share their experiences and perspectives brought from and about different cultures and societies? Am I doing my part to extend the meaning of liberal arts education to fit the twenty-first century for both my domestic and international students—even if I cannot do anything about the problem of economic justice.

In fact, I worry most about my international students who’ve been here for a year or two writing papers arguing, for example, that “we” (meaning America and the Western world)—and I quote from a student from a recent class—need to “give our latest technologies to people in poor countries so that they can bypass the same process of going from steam engine to coal power to electricity and then solar power and instead start with solar power to leapfrog their economy.” When I heard that, I said, “That’s such a wonderful argument, Vikash, but I think you are assuming what is known as the ‘white man’s burden’ where ‘we’ ‘give’ ‘them’ something without even asking how that giving is going to work, if it will destroy one socioeconomic structure and not install another in a way that works or lasts.” On the ground, when things begin to technologically leapfrog, “local farmers” often rapidly lose ground to those who have more money, big businesses takes over, and (to use a Hindi idiom), “When bamboos are gone, there won’t be any flutes to play.” Without regard for context, complexity, and nuance, students end up with deeply problematic arguments in the name of global citizenship — and that is why it is so important to not only engage students in global issues and perspectives but also to use critical intervention for making that engagement meaningful.

Even if (or when) market forces take our institutions to objectionable places like the one I just described—even if the nearly million international students are viewed by the society in terms of the 26 billion dollars that they “inject into the economy,” I don’t think that those forces make us completely unable to do anything about it. If we are sensitive to the tension between internationalization as diversification of knowledge and perspective for all students and as internationalization as simply an opportunity for more money and influence in the world, I believe that we can begin to meaningfully integrate communicative competencies for a global world. I think that we can begin to build greater skills and curricular and pedagogical strategies, as well as professional conversations, against the unethical conditions.

Let me conclude by sharing a few insights from what I have started doing in some of the courses I teach, as well as briefly summarizing pertinent scholarship in our field that I draw upon. I believe that the first step is to use critical pedagogical approaches to curriculum design and pedagogy. Let me quote from the book The New Work Order: Behind the Language of the New Capitalism:

If we are to build a global community in which the interests and well-being of all become the concern of all—which, after all, is what it means to be a community—we must ensure that learning is framed in ways that promote a practical commitment to identifying human harm and degradation where it occurs, and to acting in ways that address and overcome it.

The authors present the book as

… a call to undertake education as a moral engagement which is practical as well as intellectual or formal. It requires the disposition to seek, articulate, and act upon positive visions which are always acknowledged as provisional and open to revision in the light of evidence and critique. (Gee, Hull & Lankshear 152)

So, acknowledgement of the condition within which we teach is the first step—action can then follow.

Second, while we can design and implement courses, assignments, and resources that facilitate intercultural exchange of ideas and broadening of students’ knowledge bases by promoting collaboration, what we can do in the classroom is only one part of the project. As Jay Jordan recommends in his book Redesigning Composition for Multilingual Realitieswe also need more active partnership among teachers and research scholars, program administrators and policy-makers within and with others beyond our field. If the broader framework and design remain the same, what we contribute from inside classrooms may ultimately have little impact. In fact, I have learned the hard way that if, for instance, because colleagues in my department who read the writing portfolio don’t know about the new type of argument essay that I helped my students write by using the idea of “multivalent, multi-perspective persuasion that doesn’t take one position on a complex issue,” quite a few students failed the portfolio; so, I had to communicate the idea of that type of argument to my colleagues before going back to use the assignment. So, we may need to help change the system when it doesn’t afford our teaching.

Third, in the debate about whether our public institutions should invest in globalization of education in the interest of all students, if we want to say, yes, we need to invest our resources and attention, then some of us must also start picking a side and put pressure on our institutions to put their money where their mouth is. I believe that a significant amount of advocacy is necessary both in favor of treating international students with justice and fairness (at least in return of their investment) and in favor of promoting global citizenship among both international and domestic students.

Writing in an edited collection titled Globalizing EducationMichael Apple says that “A new discourse is needed for public education for contemporary times” (293) and by that he means a time where we not only use public education for nation-building but also to promote a “cosmopolitan moral democracy” (292). Ultimately, the term “neoliberal” not only has to do with a financial system but with attitude, and attitudes are changed as much by committing to a different vision of education as they can be affected by reallocating budgets.

Thus, I think that we should stop looking at internationalization of education as some kind of self-driving car, each of which some invisible force is driving, insofar as we are responsible to (or simply able to) help translate that vision into teaching/learning practices. I think that when we get into some of the cars that we do drive, we must set the curricular destinations that we want, to the extent that we can, and take the best pedagogical routes that we can take to get there. For if we never create opportunities for both domestic and international students to learn and appreciate the different value systems that they are part of in their life outside school and across national/cultural borders, I think we also lose some of the grounds on which we may argue against the increasingly vulgar neoliberal order in the world out there.

*adapted from paper presented at SUNY Council on Writing conference 2016
Shyam Sharma is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director at SBU


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