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Faculty Forum Papers

March 1981 - The Challenge of Change By

Jack Van de Water
Director of International Education

March 12, 1981

     The inauguration of Ronald Reagan at the very moment the hostages were released was the perfect combination to produce a feeling of transition and a mood of change in our country. There is now a sense of national effort to regain America's self-confidence in its role as a leader in the world, the strong defender of democracy. This mood of change gives decision-makers in both state and federal government this opportunity to shift priorities and re-allocate resources. We are now in a critical period. The decisions of the next few months will have a strong impact on the future. We will see many changes.

     The challenge of change is to recognize what the future holds in regard to fundamental social needs and values. This is the problem. The changes we are seeing reflect the growing preoccupation with national defense, military power, and short-term U.S. self-interest. Our government leaders, reflecting the mood of the country, intend to restore the confidence of Americans that the U.S. can play a dominant role in the world. Unfortunately the world has changed. The U.S. has a new role in the world but many of us seem not to have noticed. International interdependence is a present reality, not an abstract theory. Our national self-sufficiency is now only an historical fact. In this new world, our future well-being depends upon cooperation with and support from other nations with different traditions, cultures, governments, and languages with which we are nearly completely unfamiliar. The links between the U.S. and the rest of the world are extensive and growing rapidly. These links affect our lives and livelihoods. Our economy is now tightly linked to the international marketplace. About one dollar in every three in farm sales comes from exports; one manufacturing job in six depends upon exports. A decision made in Saudi Arabia or Nigeria raises the cost of a gallon of gas in Gladstone or Newport. A good harvest in Brazil lowers the price of a cup of coffee in Corvallis. A drought in the U.S.S.R. enables farmers in Eastern Oregon to buy new combines, but it may also force Salem shoppers to pay more for a loaf of bread. The Bantam Book you read, the Keebler chocolate chip cookie you nibble, even the Alka Seltzer tablet you take are the products of foreign-owned companies. In a similar trend, U.S. investment has reached the point where one-fourth of each new dollar invested goes abroad.

     It is this interdependence that is the real challenge of change. Our state and national leaders must recognize that what is needed is to educate Americans to their new role in the world and to make decisions based on the realities of interdependence. What we need for the future is the strength of knowing how to understand and to benefit from the changes producing interdependence.

     Why do we so often ignore our new role in the world? The difficulty for Americans is that much of the rest of the world has developed within a framework of dependence upon other countries; whereas we, for the first time in our national existence, have become dependent on others. We are now, like most other societies throughout history, directly affected by important events and decisions over which we have little or no control. The dominance of this country is giving way to a shared partnership with other countries and cultures. This change is difficult for most of us to accept.

     In higher education we have entered a critical period. President Reagan has given a lower priority to federal support for education. Budget cuts have been proposed that would reduce U.S. support for developing countries and international agencies. At the state and local level a similar situation exists. A small but growing number of educators are voicing support for a higher priority to be given to international education. (International education is used in the broad sense and refers to the process of acquiring knowledge of the existence, diversity and interrelationship of the countries and cultures of the world). At the same time, these voices are not as loud as those calling for a reduction of financial support to education at all levels. Proponents of international education are left with the curious result of decreasing budgets and declining programs when it is obvious that America's economic and cultural dependence on others is increasing. The Global 2000 International Studies Report have stated the case for a higher priority for international education, but remain in urgent need of improving the international dimension of the education of our citizens. We need more support for understanding other countries and cultures. Overall, the response of the American educational system to the challenge of preparing citizens for effective coping in an interdependent world is woefully inadequate.

     The major educational need is in the classroom. We must develop the international dimension of each course and each discipline. We do not need new courses as much as we need new attitudes. We need encouragement to change existing courses and curricular offerings, to infuse an international component into the subject matter, whether it be in engineering, education, military science or sociology.

     The decline in language learning is a serious problem. It affects our ability to remedy the balance of payments problem. It has implications for our national security. Consider our potential for misunderstanding the Soviets of the Chinese or the Iranians. Consider the fact that there are more teachers of English in the U.S.S.R. than there are students of Russian in the entire United States. It is going to be far more difficult for America to survive and compete in a world where nations are increasingly dependent on one another if we cannot communicate with our neighbors in their own language and cultural contexts.

     Oregonians should give careful attention to the decisions of the next few months, both in Washington, D.C. and in Salem. Where we must strengthen our country is in the classroom where we should educate students to minimize the present difficulties we have relating to, understanding, and working with people of other nations. The present mood of change must include support for developing our national strength by improving our ability to understand interdependence and its implications. Those countries with citizens able to learn and understand the traditions of others, who are able to converse in the language of their associates, will have a competitive advantage in every aspect of global affairs. Are our schools and colleges preparing these citizens?