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International Education: the only cement for any Transatlantic Bridge


by Franck Biancheri


Think of this seemingly stupid sentence :‘the world is getting globalized !’. It does contain something not stupid though as it is true that in today’s world all local issues are now interconnected. From Irak’s war to jobs outsourcing, from scientific research to religious trends, everything happening on our small planet is now directly echoed in almost every parts of it.

Did I say ‘echoed’ ? Yes, I did say ‘echoed’ ; and that is where international education represents a crucial investment for all societies : each event, each phenomenon which happens somewhere does affect all of us directly or indirectly, but we only hear its echo most of the time. We do not have a direct vision or understanding of the event. Therefore we need to be able to put it into a larger picture, to ‘rebuild’ its meaning in order to know how it may affect us, what to think o it and how we should react. Without such a know-how, leadership will be a lethal succession of mistakes ; and jobs will keep on going to the country next door (which maybe on the other side of the planet).

When we look at Transatlantic relations, it is more than obvious that international education plays a major role in shaping up EU/US relations. Till the 80s, Europeans were very parochial. They were not moving much inside the European Community, or just for vacation reasons (for the average citizens). Half of the continent was sealed off. European elites were mostly going to the US for getting trained, collecting credits for their future careers in Europe. But they were seldom moving in between European countries.

On the contrary, since WWII, US elites were moving around from Asia to Europe, creating the fabric of ‘Free World’ alternative to communism, and promoting US industries and businesses on a scale never seen before. Meanwhile they were hosting a large proportion of world’s elites (‘free world’ of course) eager to get US education. Surprisingly enough, US elites of the 50s/60s were thrown into this global responsibilities with not so much of ‘formal international education’ but were benefiting from one important factor : European diversity flavours were still very present in them because large European immigration was still going on at their parents’time ; and second because their education system was still very much open to ‘Old Europe’ and its diversity. Meanwhile, at the level of average US citizens, the large array of military bases opened by the US in Asia and Europe (and WWII, followed by Korean and Vietnam wars) was offering every single year direct exposure to other cultures and languages for hundreds of thousands of young Americans.

This situation changed completely during the 80s

On the one hand, Europe drastically accelerated its pace towards continental integration (from Single European Market to the Euro and the integration of Eastern Europe) with direct consequences of throwing hundreds of thousands of Europeans into this new ‘European space’ : students studying in other European countries thanks to programmes like Erasmus, businessmen expanding their activities on a continental basis, NGOs starting to build networks with their counterparts all around Europe, scientists re-discovering the fact that cooperation could take place in between Europeans, civil servants being involved on almost a daily basis within decision making processes involving all their counterparts in other European governments, … . The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 accelerated the whole ‘Europeanization’ process of the continent. All over Europe, learning languages, discovering other European’s vision of our common history, fields trip in other European countries started to become a compulsory component for basic education (even in countries like France used to be very ignorant of others languages and cultures).

On the other hand, the end of Cold War acted as a kind of catalyst for steadily decreasing US international education exposure : US troops abroad and in particular in Europe were drastically reduced, stopping what was the only large process of exposure of young Americans of all classes to other cultures and languages ; while US elites became convinced of the supremacy of the US model and therefore that other continents/countries had almost nothing important to offer to them. They could only learn from … the US. No surprise if progressively the whole education system became deprived of content dealing with language teaching, history or geography, while medias were not even giving any significant coverage of what is happening in the rest of the world.

That is where we stand today : the most important global player, the US, is educating its future generations in an almost complete lack of international education ; while Europe is, because of its internal dynamics, putting more emphasis than ever to try to get its children having a good command of at least two languages, history and geography and tries to increase direct exposures of its young people to ‘other countries’.

Things may be a bit more contrasted, but after having travelled for years throughout Europe and the US, to dozens of big and small towns, meeting with lots of kids or students as well as teachers, I am pretty sure that it is very close to reality.

Moving forward together to put international education higher on leaders’ agenda

On both sides of the Atlantic there are forces which want to increase the importance of international education within pupils and students curriculae. They know that workers who do not know foreign languages, do not know where other countries are located on a map, do not know that other cultures do not share the same vision of the world nor the same way of life … have all chances to see their job outsourced to other workers elsewhere on this planet, where workers are most certainly cheaper … but also better educated. Europe and the US also know that the price to pay for the lack of international education is nationalism : Europeans paid it twice in less than 30 years. Whatever bridges our two societies can build, they will not last unless they are based upon a solid international education, starting at primary school.

As I was saying recently to some of my US colleagues, for a European, it is absolutely impossible to conceive international education starting at university level. There you may definitely have good lessons on ‘international affairs’ but it has nothing to do with international education which is about being able to understand basic things about other cultures, histories, languages ; being exposed to them, to human diversity … International education cannot be an academic topic only ; it is a way to look at the world, to live in the world.

Maybe the coming session on this topic which will be organised within the second Miami Transatlantic Week at the end of April should start with that question ?

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