Globe-trotting universities serve diplomacy and markets, not democracy

Published on openDemocracy, by JIM SLEEPER, September 1, 2013.

American liberal arts colleges are embracing collaborations with authoritarian regimes worldwide, with implications for US foreign policy. Following up his op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday, Jim Sleeper reports on the issue in greater depth in this openDemocracy essay … //

… It’s one thing, and probably a good thing, for Western research universities to set up research projects and programs in law, business, medicine, and technical training in a wide variety of societies. Nearly 250 are doing so, eight in Kazakhstan alone (including Duke, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh, as well as Wisconsin), dozens in the United Arab Emirates and China, a dozen in Singapore.   

Some have been shrewd enough to put down only light footprints: Columbia University’s undergraduate “learning centers” in Europe and Asia can be pulled back fairly quickly if it decides its academic mission and freedoms are being compromised. Carnegie Mellon’s undergraduate college in Qatar’s huge, $33-billion “Education City” gives degrees mostly in sciences, in a building it shares with Northwestern University, whose undergraduate curriculum emphasizes journalism and communications. Georgetown offers a bachelor’s degree in Foreign Service in “Education City.”

But it’s another thing entirely for liberal-arts colleges to stake their prestige and strained pedagogical resources on collaborations with repressive authoritarians to introduce their own hand-picked young and transient international students to what the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott called the “the Great Conversation” of the humanities about lasting challenges to politics and the spirit — all under contract to regimes that have become quite deft at suppressing such conversations with surveillance and seductions, as well as truncheons and prison cells.

We Americans have an infamously bad habit of exporting contradictions and hypocrisies we ought to face and resolve at home. If the British Empire grew “in a fit of absence of mind,” as the historian John Robert Seeley suggested, the single-minded stampede of American liberal educators to share liberal education with the world on the tabs and under the thumbs of illiberal rulers is as delusional as the more Christian collegiate mission early in the last century “to evangelize the world in a generation,” as the slogan of the campus based Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions put it.

Yet if any academic mission is now proclaimed with equal ardor by the proudly public University of Wisconsin at Madison, the venerably private Yale University, and the hard-driving New York University (“a private university in the public service,” it styled itself, before becoming “A Global Network University”), it’s to bring the blessings of liberal education to illiberal societies in a world connected and flattened by commerce.

NYU President John Sexton enthuses that his “Global Network University” will “mirror the flow of talent and creativity that increasingly defines the world.”

Yale University’ claims that the new college it has co-founded with Singapore’s National University will be “a place of revelatory stimulation” that will reinvent liberal education “from the ground up,” in “A community of learning, founded by two great universities, in Asia, for the world.”

Liberal education with an American republican inflection struggles to realize Thomas Jefferson’s vision, in founding for the University of Virginia in 1819, of a crucible for citizen leaders who “are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” its emphasis is on nurturing “citizens who can think critically, understand their own history, and give voice to their beliefs while respecting the views of others,” as the American Academy of Arts & Sciences put it recently in a call to renew the humanities.

Some of us who try hard to teach this way believe that when efforts to sustain the liberal arts as a civic art have worked well, they’ve made democracy more resilient. As Assistant Secretary Blake suggested, they’ve attracted international students who want to escape rote learning in repressive homelands.

But the American Academy worries rightly about the humanities’ prospects in the United States itself, more than in societies where they’ve never taken root. Buffeted by market, political and social pressures, liberal educators whose own public funding is dwindling and whose students’ resources and aspirations are narrowing have set sail for lavish subsidies and burgeoning new student markets. But they’ve forgotten that whoever pays the piper ultimately calls the tune.

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Authoritarian rulers have weaknesses, too, as they try to ride the global tides that have carried Western universities to their shores. They’re expanding state coercion to try to shore up the social cohesion their societies once drew from Confucian, Islamic, or even Western colonial traditions that are dissolving amid riptides of global finance, communications, labor migration, and consumer marketing that, so far, have generated huge inequalities amid prosperity and loosened restraints on degrading and criminal behavior.

The Economist casts “a sceptical eye” on this variant of state-capitalist control, pioneered by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, whom it characterized as “a tireless advocate of ‘Asian values,’ by which he meant a mixture of family values and authoritarianism.” The Lees have drawn subliminally from Confucian traditions that present the head of state as a paterfamilias in order to rein in the county’s increasingly soulless and demoralizing materialism. “States hover like crows over the nests that nations make,” warned the historian Robert Wiebe in 2001 against these hollow, often brutal invocations of old cultural wellsprings to shore up new concentrations of power and profits.

Similarly, the sheiks of the Emirates – and even Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan– have adapted Islamic traditions to offset the civic and social costs of their own simultaneous promotions of go-go investment and marketing that dissolve pre-market cultures of honor.

These rulers want liberal education to help them finesse the brutality and hypocrisy of these bargains. They want American colleges’ imprimaturs and the “critical thinking” and felicity in writing and speaking that a liberal education may provide to regime managers and spokesmen.

The students themselves are often as well-meaning as they are bright, and some hope that the new colleges will give them some intellectual and political wiggle room. But most simply want lucrative careers, just as most American students do: “In an Asian society likes ours,” a Singaporean student in the United States told me, “there is an infatuation with the Ox-bridges, HYP (Harvard Yale Princeton). So much so that joint programmes are the flavour of the day, example Singapore-MIT, Duke-NUS, Yale-NUS, and a now defunct Johns Hopkins-Singapore program.”

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Liberal education does need to make accommodations to wealth and power. At the dawn of the 18th century, Yale’s own Puritan founders, eager to purify a mission they thought was being corrupted by Harvard, found themselves turning for support to Elihu Yale, an officer of one of the world’s first multi-national corporations, the East India Company, which a century would later acquire the island of “Singapura” for the British crown.

But now university leaders are wandering a bit like Alice in Wonderland – or in NYU’s case, like Captain Cook — into fogs of duplicity cast by regimes whose “features of Western-style democracy are worn relatively lightly and combined with a markedly authoritarian mode of rule,” as a recent analysis by the Washington-based Trans-Atlantic Academy put it. Authoritarian rulers must be laughing up their sleeves at their good fortune in capturing American innocents abroad.

No one expects university leaders to pose Socratic questions to such rulers or to captains of commerce and finance who are riding the golden riptides. American colleges are “like ships caught in the same current, some more obviously helpless than others, … but all drifting toward certain destruction on a lee shore,” the American editor Lewis Lapham warned in 2001.

Still, someone should warn them against supplying riders of the storm with little more than well-disciplined crews and tighter rigging. Colleges have to nourish and hold to the understanding, always fragile to begin with, that wise interrogation strengthens a society’s public life in ways that armies and states can’t.

If American colleges, surfing the golden tides, transform themselves from the crucibles of civic-republican citizen-leadership that they’ve been at their best into career-networking centers and cultural galleria for a global managerial class that answers to no republican polity or moral code, the American republic will lose its own compass and its anchors.

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