Liberal Education

Toward "Genuine Reciprocity": Reconceptualizing International Liberal Education in the Era of Globalization

From the South African case study [one can] conclude that higher education in developing countries will be destroyed if rampant internationalization of higher education from developed countries is not stopped. Hence threatening the viability of developing countries participating in the new global knowledge economy and forever reducing them to 'the wretched of the earth.'
(Thandwa Mthembu 2001)

To become aware of the West in the eyes and handiwork of its Others, to wonder at the fascination of their fascination, is to abandon border logistics and enter into the 'second contact' era of the borderland where 'us' and 'them' lose their polarity and swim in and out of focus.
(Michael Taussig 1993)

From opposite sides of the boundary between the developed and less developed worlds, Mthembu and Taussig name the difficulties that attend our attempts, as inhabitants of the West, to engage in international education. They alert us to pitfalls and paradoxes of cross-cultural exchange in the post-colonial era. They problematize our ability, as inhabitants of the West, to establish relations with those whom the cultural history of colonization has consigned to be objects of "our" civilization. The two critics, a South African professor of mathematics and an American anthropologist, raise urgent, related questions for U.S. liberal arts educators seeking to internationalize our programs of study:

  1. How should we, as educators at U.S. liberal arts institutions, conceptualize the nature of our relations with other cultures and countries in the context of globalization?
  2. How can we organize those relations in a way that goes beyond "border logistics" and engages us and the inhabitants of these other cultures and countries--our international colleagues--in substantive exchanges that carry the promise of creative change?

Our projects unfold in the context of globalization. Indeed, we frequently cite globalization as the inspiration for our responsibility to internationalize, or "globalize," educational programs. Yet globalization is not wholly conducive to our aspirations. As analysts from Thomas Friedman (2000) to John Gray (1988), George Soros (2002), and Joseph Stiglitz (2002) have recognized, globalization creates and/or magnifies inequalities and inequities. These undermine cooperation and give the lie to any expectations of easy global convergence.

Mthembu's remarks about international education may be aimed at commercial education providers and South African policymakers, not liberal arts colleges, yet they also identify trends that help to shape the perceptions of our potential colleagues abroad. Currently, the openly hegemonic ambitions of the U.S. administration are sharpening the terms of the debate, making it increasingly important to address openly the implicit political and ethical issues involved in any project of international cooperation. Such actions as the U.S. Department of Commerce's proposal to the World Trade Organization to remove all restraints on the marketing of international education do nothing to improve the situation (Altbach 2000; Gillespie 2002.).

At the same time, of course, globalization creates technologies, commonalities, and transitions that are favorable to the expansion of international education. Global standardization simplifies credit exchange and the establishment of dual degree programs. The opening up of markets and academic discourses creates demands for research collaboration, educational reform, and liberalization on a global scale. The increasing use of English as a medium of instruction, by loosening the link between foreign language fluency and international study, allows students from virtually all disciplines to enroll more easily at foreign universities including many located outside the traditional Western European destinations.

Among other things, the globalization of education has fostered the growth of a burgeoning liberal education movement abroad. Over the past ten years, new liberal education programs have emerged in countries as diverse as Belarus and Dubai, Estonia, Germany, and Hong Kong, Hungary and Kazakhstan, South Korea and Kyrgyzstan, Poland and Russia, Tajikistan and Turkey. Many of the new liberal education programs are located in countries that are seeking to democratize their societies. Some of them are described elsewhere in this issue of Liberal Education. As I have argued (Gillespie 2002), the emergence of an international liberal education movement offers an historic opportunity for U.S. liberal arts colleges, as well as universities with liberal arts programs, to enter into partnerships that will enrich and inspire us while providing important assistance to colleagues abroad. That we should take advantage of these new opportunities seems obvious.

Reconceptualizing international liberal education

As Martha Nussbaum (1997) and others have noted, American democratic educational traditions "have been built on ideas of equality and respect." Nussbaum reminds us, if we need reminding, that the American variant of liberal education incorporates civic values including openness to and respect for other cultures. Liberal arts colleges overwhelmingly endorse these values.

We might, then, assume that the same values inform the international exchange and study-abroad programs of liberal arts colleges. But this is not yet the reality. Most study-abroad programs offered by liberal arts colleges are "island programs" in which American students and faculty have little or no interaction with their peers in the host countries. Foreign universities, if they play any role at all, often serve as resource providers. Students often spend most of their time with their own group, either in courses with U.S. faculty or in special classes that are offered only for them. How often have we heard returning students complain that their greatest frustration is not having gotten to know young people from the country where they have studied! Universities have been more inventive than liberal arts colleges when it comes to taking advantage of new opportunities for creating joint degree programs, curricula that require students to spend time abroad, and joint research and teaching programs that enable faculty and staff, as well as students, to transcend the "border logistics" of getting there.1

An ironic result of our own limitations is that liberal arts colleges often end up "outsourcing" students' international education to other college programs or to providers such as the School for International training (SIT) or Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). Many, although not all, of the programs they offer are also essentially tourist or "island" programs--like the Moscow-based Russian "immersion" program populated exclusively by foreigners, mostly Americans. Sending our students abroad with independent providers leaves us without direct influence over the form and content of the students' experience. It leaves the students without an opportunity to contribute to an ongoing community and academic discourse. Last but not least, it deprives us and our institutions of the benefits of genuine collaboration.

The exclusiveness of American college (and many university) programs abroad not only shortchanges students, but also leads to disillusion and disappointment on the part of international colleagues. Observations like that of South African scholar Paul Zeleza (2002) are unfortunately not isolated instances: "To many African university administrators, academic exchanges with American universities reek of patronage rather than reflect partnership. For student and staff [faculty] exchange programmes to be effective and sustainable, genuine reciprocity is imperative."2

Reconceptualizing international education in the era of globalization means recognizing that we can and should learn with and from, not only about people from other cultures. As Grant Cornwell and Eve Stoddard (1999) have argued, "There needs to be a dialectical relationship between learning about diverse cultures and learning to interact with diverse peoples." (Their comments apply equally to learning about diversity within the U.S.) For liberal arts colleges, creating relationships with colleagues abroad that are "built on ideas of equality and respect" means conducting a dialogue and creating a common practice that not only recognize the importance of understanding others, but actively incorporate their presence. It means re-thinking our deep-seated notions of authority and control and inviting partner institutions in on the ground floor, so that they participate in planning and development, as well as the "delivery" of joint programs and projects.

Zeleza (2002, 10), whose negative comments on the South African experience with U.S. partners were cited just above, also offers a positive vision. "It is possible," he argues, "to transform these relations [of dependency between Africa and the United States], to improve the terms of academic discourse and exchange between the North and Africa. This requires the establishment of carefully constructed partnerships that embrace all the key constituencies and components of the academic enterprise, that is, on the one hand, the stakeholders--students, faculty, and administrators--and on the other the services--teaching, research, publishing, and dissemination.

"Getting past "Border Logistics"

Bard College's experience as a partner in joint ventures with universities in Russia and Southern Africa (the latter in a partnership that includes seven African universities and six other U.S. liberal arts colleges) suggests the range of experiential possibilities that are to be explored. Both Smolny College and the International Human Rights Exchange (IHRE; see sidebar) were conceived as partnerships among equals. The fact that principles of mutuality and equality are made explicit seems important, especially when, as is frequently the case, the American partner provides most or all of the financing. As the mission statement of the Institute for International Liberal Education states, "The Institute does not seek to export American models and methods. Rather, our aim is to create dynamic relationships through which we and our partner institutions learn from each others' ideas and experience." Naturally it is also necessary to adhere to these principles in practice, and ultimately to earn the trust of others, in a context in which Americans increasingly have to contend with suspicion and anti-American sentiments.3 This is not always easy, but it is essential, and can also be its own reward.

The goals of Bard's collaborative ventures were established jointly with our partners abroad. In both cases, these goals incorporate the idea of liberal education. At Smolny, the goal is itself the creation of a first-class liberal arts college offering a dual B.A. In South Africa, it is the creation of a multidisciplinary Human Rights program embodying principles of liberal education. These principles are understood to include a commitment to multidisciplinary inquiry and critical thinking, and pedagogical styles that emphasize small classes and dialogical teaching. Agreeing on a principled goal for our collaborative project does not, of course, mean that the institutional partners have the same hopes and ambitions for the project, or that we bring the same strengths or experience to bear. Such differences help to make the partnerships interesting. All our partner institutions are reform-oriented and cosmopolitan in outlook, and place a high value on intercultural dialogue.

The most important factor for the success of our joint ventures has been the participation of a large number of interested and engaged faculty on both sides. Through a combination of face-to-face meetings and long-distance exchanges, the faculty have brought their knowledge, experience, and considerable ingenuity to bear on curriculum and course development, faculty/program governance, and the creation of mechanisms for evaluation. That these discussions have gone smoothly is thanks in no small part to the leadership of committed individuals in Russia and South Africa.

The next challenge was to create mechanisms to ensure faculty ownership and smooth interinstitutional collaboration. Long-term international collaboration may require the invention of new, overlapping forms of organization. Smolny has benefited from the existence of faculty and administrative committees that involve more than fifty faculty and staff on both sides. A joint Bard/Smolny Administrative Council manages day-to-day affairs, and the whole project is governed by an international Board of Overseers. The International Human Rights Exchange (IHRE) has a faculty Steering Committee that is responsible for overall direction and academic decision making. The project is co-administered by secretariats at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Bard, with the support of administrative liaison people at each participating institution. An IHRE Board of Advisors is in formation. It is noteworthy that the administrative headquarters of both these programs are located at Bard's partner institutions abroad.

Authoritative consent has also been essential. Smolny enjoys strong support both from St. Petersburg University's (SPbU) remarkable rector Liudmila A. Verbitskaya and from Bard's president Leon Botstein. IHRE enjoys the support of UCT Vice Rector Njabulo Ndebele. Such support is more than a formality, since it is frequently necessary to secure (and fight for) the broad support of programs that do not fit established ways of doing things. Both programs are anchored in formal agreements that cover such things as the provision of space and specified services without cost, and the granting of credit.

There is a litmus test of whether an academic partnership is sound--mutual credit recognition. Smolny's most amazing accomplishment is surely the fact that it has achieved accreditation for the program both in the U.S. (through Bard) and in Russia (through the Ministry of Higher Education). Smolny's graduates, most of whom have never set foot in the U.S., will receive two B.A. degrees, one from Bard and one from Smolny College of SPbU. IHRE also offers credit to both American and Southern African students who complete the course--no small matter in South Africa and Zimbabwe, where multidisciplinary courses are uncommon and curricula generally more prescriptive. Mutual credit recognition is ultimately the guarantor of the quality of these programs. It enables Bard to cede much day-to-day authority to our partners abroad without lessening our commitment to academic quality.

People frequently ask, "What's in it for Bard?" A dollars-and-cents rationale is elusive. There is, I argue, an intrinsic value in expanding the boundaries of international liberal education. Nevertheless, we can point to tangible and intangible benefits. Involvement in Smolny College has strengthened Bard's Russian program. Participation in IHRE has contributed to a growing momentum and interest in the Human Rights program. The projects have allowed significant numbers of faculty and staff members to visit partner institutions and brought even greater numbers of foreign faculty and staff to Bard. Since 1992, student exchanges in both directions have involved some 200 students and made an indispensable contribution to international awareness on campus. It is possible that by publicizing these innovative programs Bard will strengthen its appeal to young people who seek to become globally aware, thus supporting admissions while further contributing to the internationalization of the campus.

The programs do not make money, but neither do they cost Bard anything except time and energy richly rewarded.4 The most important benefit may be the least tangible. The engagement with our partners abroad enhances our own awareness of the value of liberal education. There are few things more inspiring than an encounter with teachers and students for whom liberal education is intellectually and personally liberating in the strong sense. "The time spent at Smolny College was perhaps the most exhilarating and productive academic and humanistic week I have spent since becoming a literature professor," is how one faculty members put it after a ten-day exchange visit.5

Future outcomes

We are only beginning to understand what happens in the intercultural educational spaces we are creating. We know from students' testimonials that the changes in their perspective can be radical--as study abroad has been in the lives of so many who are engaged in these experiments today. We also know that there are new and important insights to be gained from the entry into our classrooms of other narratives and perspectives--not only as a source of important information, but as a step toward the establishment of what Chinua Achebe (2000) calls a "balance of stories."

What seems most certain about the experience of international education, if it is conducted in such a way as to foster a genuine dialogue among equals, is that it makes all participants more aware of the contingent nature of their identity and of the knowledge they possess. Such reflective self-awareness does not just promote personal growth, although it does that. It also makes us as Americans aware of our own positionality as citizens of the world's only remaining superpower. As Cornwell and Stoddard (1999, 20) have observed, "Most generally, across both U.S. diversity studies and newer forms of international studies, there is recognition that the social location of the knower is an important element of the process of scholarship. The power relations of the knower and the object of knowledge have to be taken into account and the knower must reflect consciously on how his or her location shapes what is seen." This insight applies to the classroom as well as to research in the field, and to the international as well as the domestic context.

Many student testimonials reflect the impact of the experience on their understanding of their positionality. A Bard student who recently returned from a semester at the Central European University stated, "I came back feeling more practical and more grounded in what I want to study, where I want to direct my energy. I also became more reflective about what our country is."6 Insights about other cultures and insights about our own are mutually conditioned on the comparative view that such exchanges make possible. A student from Kansas State University who studied at Smolny described the richness that can result from this productive paradox. "In my classes," he writes, "I received the Russian perspective on American and European contemporary literature, discussed art movements in the U.S. and Russia in the 20th century and non-verbal language in literature, and listened to one of the most recognized scholars--and a living encyclopedia--on Russian literature."

We hope that as time goes on, Bard's engagement with Smolny College and IHRE will become broader and deeper. One means for accomplishing this is the use of the "virtual classroom"; beginning in spring 2003, teams of faculty at Bard and Smolny will offer joint courses, using video conferencing and electronic media. In the virtual classroom, we anticipate that not only the faculty pairs, but also the Russian and American students will bring unique and different levels of knowledge and awareness, as well as contrasting perceptions to bear on the material.

The "virtual classroom" gives symbolic form to an intriguing characteristic of the joint ventures in which we are engaged--they seem to represent a new kind of space. One special characteristic of this space is the equal footing on which participants have agreed to engage each other. Another is the protected quality that results from its location in the interstices of existing power structures, none of which has final authority. Michael Taussig may be referring to something of this kind when he speaks of "a space between," in which self and alterity can mingle and perhaps "lose their polarity." In the context of globalization, such spaces are sites of counter-hegemonic awareness.

As American liberal arts colleges take up the challenge of establishing long-term collaborative projects with these or other potential partners, it will be important for us to remember that even when it comes to liberal education, we do not know it all--nor should we desire to. In a 1992 essay, Felix Guattari called for the preservation of an element of uncertainty at the heart of new political and social constellations--an element of uncertainty "that is, in truth, its most precious capital; on its basis, an authentic hearing of the other could be established."7Luckily, we can draw increasingly on the energy and ideas of a vigorously developing movement of liberal educators abroad. In working with them, we will be creating a counter force to temper and oppose hegemony-whether by our own government or others. We will be negotiating the norms of liberal education in light of the situation in our particular countries and institutions, and teaching our students to do likewise.

Susan Gillespie is director of the Institute for International Liberal Education at Bard College


1. One interesting recent example is the "UWWorldwide" program, offered by the University of Washington (UW) in partnership with Sichuan University in China, in which students engage in joint research projects and spend time studying at partner institutions. The program is described on the Web site of the U.S. Department of Education,

2. Zeleza's article, which is well worth reading, proposes that African diasporic scholars seek to replace notions of “brain drain” and “brain gain” with “brain mobility” as a way of acknowledging their ongoing participation in the development of African-based scholarship. Zaleza also has unflattering things to say about the behavior of American students, whom African universities, in his words, “sometimes find poorly prepared academically and culturally, exhibit intolerable racial and class arrogance, and suffer from the safari syndrome and show more interest in being tourists than students.”

3. As the director of IHRE recently put it, in a confidential communication to a new American staff member, “Your being an American will make people quite cautious and to this end it is quite critical how you position yourself in the city” (Private Communication).

4. Funders include the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Higher Education Support Program (HESP) of the Soros network of foundations, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the Trust for Mutual Understanding, the U.S. State Department (through the NISCUUP program), and private individuals.

5. M. van Zuylen, typewritten report, May 2001.

6. Jared Goodman, personal testimonial.

7. Translation by Sophie Thomas of “Pour une refondation des pratiques sociales,” in Le Monde Diplomatique, October 1992, 26-27. Available at and through the Durban-based listserv For an argument in favor of “disempowering” American students, see David L. Blaney's provocative article, “Global Education, Disempowerment, and Curricula for a World Politics.” In Journal of Studies in International Education, Fall 2002, 6: 3, 268-282.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. 2000. Home and exile. New York: Oxford University Press, 73-105.

Altback, Philip G. 2001. “Higher Education and the WTO: Globalization Run Amok.” In: International Higher Education, no. 23, pp. 2-4.

Cornwell, Grant H. and Eve W. Stoddard. 1999. Globalizing knowledge: Connecting international and intercultural studies. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 26.

Friedman, Thomas L. 2000. The Lexus and the olive tree. New York: Anchor Books.

Gillespie, Susan. 2002. The practice of international education in the context of
globalization: A critique. Journal of Studies in International Education, 6:3, 262-267.

Gillespie, Susan. 2001/2. Opening minds: The international liberal education movement. World Policy Journal, 18:4, 79-84.

Gray, John N. 1998. False Dawn. The delusions of global capitalism. New York: The New Press.

Mthembu, T., P. Soni, and P. Naidoo. 2001. Economic austerity in the South (panel discussion). In Programme and abstracts, Globalization and higher education: Views from the South. London: Society for Research into Higher
Education; Cape Town, South Africa: Educational Policy Unit, University of the
Western Cape, 74.

Nussbaum, Martha. 1997. Cultivating humanity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 295.

Soros, George. 2002. George Soros on globalization. New York: Public Affairs.
Stiglitz, Joseph E. 2002. Globalization and its discontents. New York: W.W. Norton.

Taussig, Michael. 1993. Mimesis and alterity: A particular history of the senses. New York: Routledge, 246.

Zeleza, Paul Tujambe. 2002. African Universities and Globalization. In: Feminist
. University of Cape Town, 7. Available at:

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