Higher Education Must Resist Parochialism

President Pelton's Commentary in The Oregonian

In the days that followed the unspeakable tragedy of September 11, I reminded our small university community that while the events of that day may have changed us, the days ahead would define us - both as a nation and as individuals.

In this new context, educators of our young people have a tremendous responsibility. Like Martin Luther King, I believe that "what self-centered [people] have torn down, other centered [people] can build up" and that "untamed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality." In the aftermath of such immeasurable violence, part of that reality demands that as educators we resist the natural inclination to withdraw and pull tight our circle of security.

We must resist the temptation to place on hold international faculty and student exchange and the global sharing of intellectual property. We must resist the call to end or greatly diminish the capacity for foreign students to study in America. We cannot agree to limit academic freedom in our classrooms or condemn those educators who speak out against current American policies in the Middle East. As our nation continues to grieve and call for justice, we must, as educators, turn our attention outward. We must play a lead role in conducting reasoned analysis to provide answers to the broader question of "why," not just "whom." Isolationism will not serve this objective nor ensure the future of our country. Instead, we must act on our moral responsibility to make our curricula more international in scope.

Our nation's 4,000 colleges and universities are home to more than 748,000 international students. These numbers support the belief that institutions of higher learning are uniquely placed to address the need for increased global intellectual and cultural understanding.

Corporate America has been aggressive in its global use of human and natural resources. We must become equally aggressive in building human capital -- programs and partnerships that nurture mutual respect and appreciation among nations. Our colleges and universities are our best hope for these new initiatives. Many of our institutions of higher learning have decades-old trusted relationships with hundreds of international universities. We are challenged today to expand these relationships and create new ones.

We cannot wait for wholesale changes in our undergraduate and professional school curriculum to reflect globalization in the 21st century. We must act quickly to increase international research opportunities, faculty and student exchange programs, freshman inquiry courses, honors seminars and similar academic opportunities.

At the local level, we must continue to explore new curricular initiatives. These might be conferences on religion and politics, new courses organized around special topics including globalization, justice and religious fundamentalism. We must focus on questions that help us understand the tragedy.

This is not the time for parochialism. We live in the richest, most privileged country in the world. World leaders are educated in America and send their children and grandchildren to us for what they consider the finest education in the world. Let us as educators seize the moment and lead by example. Let us expand the mission of our colleges and universities as centers of international understanding and exchange. Let us teach with more focused intent on the questions of globalization and its impact on all cultures, large and small.

America's colleges and universities should play a pivotal role in helping our national leaders develop long-term strategies for improved international relations. Educators must be involved in building the context for global understanding and equity.

Like Dr. King, let us build again what others have so callously torn down. As educators we have a responsibility to uphold the ideals of a liberal education -- the substance of which consists in the recognition of basic problems that confront our world, in knowledge of interrelations and distinctions in issues and subject matter, and the comprehension of ideas from diverse viewpoints - for the liberal arts is the education of free people.

M. Lee Pelton, President
Willamette University
Salem, Oregon.