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Becoming a True Believer in the Value of International Education

The following is a guest post by Jeffrey S. Lehman, vice chancellor of New York University’s campus in Shanghai. It is adapted from a speech he gave last year at the University of California at Berkeley, entitled “The Goals of Transnational Education: Reflections of a True Believer.”
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A row of 16th century buildings in Tours, France.

A row of 16th-century buildings in Tours, France.

I believe very strongly in the value of a transnational education. Indeed, I would not be surprised if my colleagues use words like “zealot” and “fanatic” when I am out of earshot. My strong belief is, perhaps not surprisingly, rooted in personal experience: my year of study in the Sweet Briar College Junior Year in France.

The year began with a five-week orientation in the city of Tours. I lived with four classmates in the home of a woman whose interest in us was overwhelmingly financial. She plastered her home with signs reminding us that use of electricity was prohibited; all our electronic devices had to run on batteries. Dinners were usually horse meat or blood sausage, barely warmed so as not to waste oven gas.

Luckily, the evening traumas were offset by a set of daytime courses beautifully crafted to prepare us for our imminent move to Paris. Most memorable were the daily hours spent in a language laboratory, working on French grammar and diction. I vividly recall sitting inside clumsy headphones, responding through a clumsy microphone to taped audio phrases. When I least expected it, the melodious voice of Joelle Blot, the instructor, would enter the headphones, offering gentle but firm corrections to my efforts.

Once I arrived in Paris, my housing situation improved drastically. I lived with a wonderful three-generation family, les Abudarham, on the north side of town. The grandmother was an unreconstructed royalist; the daughter and the grandson were proud Gaullists; the daughter’s husband was a full-throated communist. Life was 80 percent politics, so the grandmother and her son-in-law did not speak to one another. At dinners they took turns addressing me, each delineating the failings of the other. Afterward we cheerfully moved together to the living room for a competitive watching of a television game show called “Les Chiffres et les Lettres.”

By day I took courses in the Paris universities. The classes themselves were pretty good, and my French classmates were surprisingly open to me. Sadly, it all ended too soon, as winter brought a mild echo of the student uprisings of 1968. A new set of legal reforms provoked the students to strike for higher wages (studying was hard work), and the universities shut down. Somehow Sweet Briar College was able to assemble some fabulous replacement classes for us, including an art-history class that met at the Louvre and Jeu de Paume. Even though I no longer had French classmates, my French teachers and French family were enough for me to be transformed.

I had entered the 1975-76 academic year endowed with the worldview one might have expected for an American teenager of that era. I had considered myself blessed to have grown up in the land of the free, the nation that had liberated France from the Nazis and put a man on the moon, the great melting pot where the best of human civilization was blended to establish a new and superior way of life. Moreover, I had been well groomed to show humility in my interactions with French people, all of whom I had expected would envy me for my good fortune. My year in France of course shattered that worldview. I came to see that one could interpret the world very differently, and that many French people regarded Americans as objects of bemused pity rather than envy.

The most important element of my education, however, awaited my return home. During my first few months back in the States, the ugly smugness I had carried with me to France returned in full force, only flipped 180 degrees. With my new French eyes, nothing in America was good enough. How could Americans call that inedible garbage “cheese” and that undrinkable sewage “coffee”? Why did Washingtonians drive cars instead of taking the metro like civilized people? Why was there no genuine ideological difference between America’s two dominant political parties?

The great epiphany finally took place after I had been home for a few months. At long last I saw that I did not have to declare one culture superior and the other inferior. I could instead work to incorporate both cultures into my own identity, and allow them both to shape my perceptions and my emotions.

Nothing else I learned in all my years of formal education would matter so much to my adult life as that moment of intellectual rebirth. Ever since, I have held as a core article of faith that life is more fulfilling when one experiences it from several different cultural standpoints. And in the same vein, I have believed that an enormous amount of unnecessary conflict and destruction in the world derives from monocultural ignorance.  We misinterpret others’ motives because we mistakenly assume that their speech and actions are grounded in the same set of normative expectations as our own.

It is somewhat fitting that today, as I serve as the first vice chancellor of NYU-Shanghai, I live in the area of the Chinese city known as the French Concession. When we open our doors this summer, the college will offer a new form of transnational education to a new generation of students—half from China, half from overseas. If NYU-Shanghai students can experience a modern version of the shock to the senses that my Sweet Briar year gave me, we will have done very well indeed.

[Wikimedia photo by Erin Silversmith available under GNU Free Documentation License]

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