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American Higher Education and Foreign Policy

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America under George Bush embarked upon a remarkably assertive foreign policy placing heavy reliance on the use of force of arms and downplaying diplomacy. As a presidential candidate in 2000, Bush promised that “humility” would be the keynote of his foreign policy. What he delivered was of course anything but humble.

Still America’s reputation abroad was once the envy of much of the developed world, and to a considerable extent that reputation did not rest either on military might, or diplomacy. Instead it was a commitment to education, broad support for education programs – especially higher education – and the superiority of America’s model of higher education that made the difference. That explains why dozens of “American universities” now span the globe. They are not in any respect to be equated with Donald Rumsfeld’s “lilypads,” the system of ready-to-operate military bases constructed around the globe. To the contrary, these universities are successful because, like the American institutions they take as a starting point, they define themselves in terms of service to their community. It’s difficult, for instance, to imagine a more intensely anti-Bush Administration environment today than Beirut or Cairo, and yet the American universities in these cities have grown deep roots that place them right at the center of the communities they serve, and insulate them from rough times when relations with Washington sour.

A fascinating article appearing recently in China’s Oriental Morning Post helps make this point. The article is captioned “Why American Schools Create Better Leaders Than Ours …” and it proceeds to make a strong case for the superiority of the American higher education model across the board. But the author argued that the system started very early, with a process that challenges youth to think for themselves.

To cultivate our future citizens with a strong sense of responsibility, we must therefore let them organize and judge among themselves. After all, children cannot obey parents and teachers for the rest of their lives. When they grow up they should be independent, free-thinking individuals and make their own choices in life. Our educational system should prepare them for a future of taking responsibility.

Even as the world unites in an increasingly critical posture towards America over its foreign policy misadventures, our educational system remains the world’s envy. America’s recovery of its authority and respect on the world stage must start by capitalizing on this vital asset.

The German philosopher-poet Friedrich Schiller argued, in one of his great historical lectures delivered at the University of Jena, that there are only two forces in the world that were capable of improving the condition of mankind: legislation – by which he meant both the process of making laws and forming social morals – and education. Progress will occur most smoothly when both of these tools are used together. And war, he said, would never be effective as an agent for positive social transformation. Too often the law of unintended consequences kicks in, producing a result that was unplanned. The experience of a neo-imperial policy in Iraq and Afghanistan is quickly validating his final observation. But his arguments about education seem very promising, and particularly of benefit to American foreign policy makers.

They may easily be dismissed as “tools of the weak,” but in the strength of America as a great nation of educators is far better attuned to the accomplishment of American objectives on the world stage – particularly if those aims include the founders’ vision of spreading freedom, prosperity and happiness. At this point education is the one tool in our foreign policy arsenal of which no American need feel anything other than pride.

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