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Higher Education Policy and Practice

Education Wars

Stevens Strategy has taken on a more international clientele in the last few years.  Recently, John Stevens provided client support to American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and Polytechnic Namibia in Windhoek, Namibia and explored with Bob DeColfmacker client work at Indraprastha University and other government and higher education institutions in Delhi, India.  In the past, we have worked with colleges in Switzerland and Pakistan, and Dr. Stevens co-led a workshop last year with the Association of Private Universities of Japan on comparative collegiate governance issues.  John also serves on an international board of advisors working in Albania.

This interface with cultures vastly different yet nearly the same as ours has caused us to realize how complicated our diplomatic world has become, how dangerous it is. The democracies within which we have been engaged recently are fledgling, for the most part, and they are developing in geo-political hotbeds.  They are working hard to develop systems for political, religious and economic freedom, and to do so, they must stand up to efforts from major powers in pursuit of goals contrary to the development of those free societies.  It is complicated and dangerous for those who desire political, religious and economic freedom, of course, but it is no less threatening for those who desire simply to pursue free inquiry, to think critically, to pursue reason rather than dogma.

Researchers in our American colleges and universities and elsewhere are finding how similar human genetics make each of us—American, African, European, Central Asian, Russian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, and Indian (see Haidt, Trivers and Pinker among a long list).  We all, according to this research, have the desire to punish wrong-doers, reward those who have done good, help the needy and assuage our own consciences by acting honorably or fixing the effects of our transgressions.  And we all are hard-wired with the ethics of autonomy, community and divinity.  Our cultures, societies and countries balance and encourage these innate desires and ethics, or they fail.  Some cultures in the east are more likely to tip the balance toward community, and in the west (particularly America) toward autonomy.  Our communist comrades placed too little emphasis on the ethics of autonomy and divinity, for instance.  Democratic political systems are constantly readjusting the recipe to suit contemporary taste and philosophy; one can easily imagine how the dot on the chart of the three axes of autonomy, community and divinity moves with each American election. Of course, individuals (sociopaths) as well as societies (Nazi Germany) can be at variance with this general paradigm.  Things can get seriously out of whack.

Which gets us back to the complicated and dangerous world in which we live.  Three examples from our recent visits follow.

Kyrgyzstan is a society that, because of its nomadic roots, leans towards the autonomy axis in ways more similar to the American ethos than we might imagine.  It is working with determination to build its democratic systems and a free market economy, but it is faced with shortages of investment capital and a poor public education system leading to a shortage of human capital.  In the midst of this and other battles, it finds itself in a vice between three external powers:

  • Post-soviet Russia still laments the loss of this small piece of its empire to western style democracy and is calculating and testing the means at hand to regain influence (It’s a poignant coincidence that the American university is located in the former communist central party headquarters located next to the parliament. Tunnels, now blocked-off, had linked the two complexes.  Massive paintings of Lenin, Marx and Engels still adorn the university’s largest auditorium, while Stalin’s visage has been covered in white),
  • China is concerned with the demise of the political stability that came with central control over this region of the world and covets its natural resources, and
  • Middle Eastern nations, most notably the Saudis, respond to weaknesses in the post-Soviet public education system and provide free or nearly free education in Madrassas.  Some of these schools focus on the militant Wahhabi style of religious schooling that developed the terrorists who toppled America’s twin towers.

India, with a billion people living in the world’s largest standing democracy, needs to compete effectively with China’s rapidly expanding economy.  Its leaders bask in the attention paid to them now by both the US and Russia as these two powers jockey for position in that part of the world.  India’s economy is held back because the population is not fully utilized to create wealth, still suffering from the effects of its caste system.  Its political and social capacity is similarly underutilized.  Its higher education institutions provide quality baccalaureate, master and doctoral level degrees to a small proportion of its people and elementary and secondary instruction does not produce sufficient numbers to qualify for quality higher education.  Here, too, the Madrassas are making strong headway.

Namibia is a remarkable country that has made enormous progress since the revolution that deposed the fascist regime that imposed apartheid on these intelligent, industrious and kind people.  Its capital city of 300,000, Windhoek, is a model to which any mid-size city in the world should aspire, but poverty on the perimeters of the city and throughout the tribal country-side and a seriously declining elementary and secondary education system since the revolution are formidable obstacles to true success.  Here, the Chinese play a role, calling in chits for the support they provided to oppose and overthrow the apartheid regime.  Somehow, the desire of this country’s people for freedom resisted the appeals of communism and the raw human desire for revenge against their former oppressors that have kept many African nations at continuous war.  But still, their industries and their national economy thirst for skilled labor that the Namibian educational system is not yet positioned to produce.

It’s our view that we have temporarily lost our vision for American society’s interface with the world in the midst of our response to its treacherousness.  We are focused on stopping terrorist attacks on our soil—as we must; but a focus only on our own survival is not what makes America compelling to the rest of the world.  America’s cache has thusly declined.  It’s not just America’s economic success that makes us special in the world; it’s our particular recipe for the ethics stew that each society prepares.  Ours is spiced uniquely with personal autonomy and religious freedom—and it has proven to be quite appealing for many tastes.  America needs to reestablish its special vision in this contemporary world, and the special recipe for our zesty stew is, and has always been, the essence of that vision.  But, perhaps because of military tugs on our purse strings, America’s presence in the countries we’ve just discussed is shockingly limited.

Each of these countries is struggling to make an ethical stew, which curiously, would be seasoned quite nicely to America’s tastes.  Indeed, each of these countries shares a common desire with the US for human autonomy, religious freedom, and for the cooperative development of strong national communities respecting democratic principles.  These western values work, and as much as we strive to avoid any element of cultural imperialism in our thinking about the world, these western values are better than the alternatives.  They are a precondition for successful societies.

But each of these countries also has one glaring weakness in common:  Each lacks a strong, secular elementary and secondary education system that will build the talent required to fulfill its economic needs, and frankly, those weak educational systems are susceptible to infiltration from, and are now being infiltrated by, fanatical religious sects.  Our experiences in these three nations do not make us experts in international relations, but we think the need they share for a workforce educated in quality schools focused on free inquiry, critical thinking and a secular curriculum is also extant in most of the other developing democracies of the world.  Fighting military battles against religious fanatics who wish to destroy us may not be avoidable in today’s world.  Fighting the politico-religious dogma that creates these warriors is required in the long haul, however, if we are to stop the guns from firing and bombs from blasting.  If the mix of values we espouse is to prevail, our society needs to wage a peace through the provision of a secular educational foundation in developing democracies that opposes and exceeds in scope the rigid dogma of the Madrassas and particularly that of the militant Wahhabi sect.

All societies must find a reasonable balance for their citizens between autonomy, community and divinity.  Each of us is endowed with a thirst for all three ethics.  If we focus on providing the basis for making sound choices regarding these ethical axes, the demise of the enemies of personal autonomy and religious freedom will be hastened—less blood and talent, fewer dreams and human potentialities will be lost.

That’s our view.  What’s yours?

Originally posted June 11, 2007

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