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International Education: Don't Leave Home Without It

A YEAR ago, during a visit to a university in Kyoto, I met a Japanese student who explained - in absolutely flawless English - that he was coming to the United States to study Russian because the program at the American college of his choice was better than the one at his own institution. Returning home, I received a fax from an American student studying in India. His message, sent from his portable computer, reassured me that his project in rural India was going well. This same student communicated almo st daily by fax or through Internet, the international computer network, with family and friends all over the world. In such moments, I recognized just how much we have all become citizens of the world.

New technologies, as they begin to dissolve national boundaries, have also dramatically altered the ways in which scholars work. For example, a colleague of mine, an American biologist, recently collaborated on a paper with an Australian professor. After co-writing their paper via Internet, the American transferred the final version to a computer disk which he then mailed to a British journal for publication.

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Another colleague, a well-known literary scholar, is an avid user of an international computer bulletin board. When he recently could not find the source of an obscure quotation, he put it on the bulletin board from his home computer. Ten hours later, a professor in Rome transmitted the information. Using the same computer, my colleague then entered the on-line catalog of his university's library and found the sources he sought.

Not all stories of American interaction abroad are so positive, and anecdotes abound about how a kind of cultural illiteracy has led to ineptitude in foreign markets. For example, when Coca Cola expanded its market to China, the company selected for its name Chinese characters that phonetically produced the sound, "Coca Cola." After the marketing effort failed, managers learned that they had been advertising the phrase, "Bite the Waxed Tadpole." When the company revised the characters to read, "Let the M outh Rejoice," sales improved significantly.

Similarly, when Chevrolet tried to market it's Nova automobile in Latin America, its decisionmakers seemed ignorant that "no va" in Spanish means "won't go." Eastern Airlines' "We Earn Our Wings Daily" assured passengers in Spanish that they would arrive at their destination as angels. Frank Purdue, too, made an unintended claim. His "It Takes a Tough Man to Make a Tender Chicken" announced in Spanish that "It Takes a Virile Man to Make a Chicken Affectionate."

In my judgment, too many colleges and universities have not considered how the emergence of an increasingly global society will affect what students should study. For example, despite a growing internationalism, foreign-language study declined seriously in the 1960s and 1970s. Bowing to student demands that requirements be eliminated and believing that it was not a good idea to teach to captive audiences, many institutions abolished foreign-language requirements for college admission or graduation.

BY 1985 only 15 percent of public four-year colleges and 33 percent of private four-year colleges required a foreign language for admission, while only 34 percent of institutions required at least one foreign-language course for graduation. Because foreign languages were no longer necessary for college admission, many high schools in turn reduced their own foreign-language requirements and offerings.

Many high schools and colleges do not include internationalism in their general education programs. Embracing distribution schemes predicated on the belief that all areas of knowledge are of equivalent value, many institutions offer a smorgasbord that too often encourages students to select only appetizers or desserts.

In a time when people no longer live in isolation from those of other nations or cultures, however, a knowledge of other cultures is essential. We need to teach all our students to understand otherness and to acknowledge and respect differences. The more all of us understand that otherness is not a threat but a source of enrichment, the less likely we are to find ourselves at odds.

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Although it would be impossible today for any individual to have a full understanding of all other cultures, we can and should give our students an understanding in depth of at least one other culture. Just as important, students should be provided with the rationales behind and the differences among various international systems. As future decisionmakers, students need to understand how societies are shaped by political, social, economic, historical, and cultural forces. They also need to understand the ir own history and heritage.

As a nation, we must commit ourselves to expanding opportunities for overseas study and explore new possibilities for exchange programs. We must continue to search for better ways to prepare our students to become global citizens so that future generations will not find themselves biting the waxed tadpole.

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