John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

As Others See Us

John N. Gardner

I am the founder of an international conference series, the International Conference on The First-Year Experience. Beginning in the summer of 1986, these meetings have continued with the 25th anniversary meeting just concluded in Vancouver. As many of my readers will know, this meeting is part of a larger series hosted by the University of South Carolina, which have drawn over 125,000 higher educators since their founding in 1982. This international meeting is my favorite of the genre.

Why? Because of the richness and diversity of perspectives. The views expressed by educators from countries other than the US always succeed in getting me to take another look at some of our and my own practices and beliefs.

Case in point: yesterday, I received an e-mail from one of the participants at this most recent international conference. It is highly unlikely that any of the Americans, except maybe me, would have written the following, but I assure you I didn’t:

“…I regard my duty for my students as the most serious job because I have great responsibility for them and for the society they belong to.

I have been concerned on the recent trend of the education in US… Somehow the educational goal in the States seems to aim at the maximum superficial pleasure and money. It would be not too wrong if we call the football the god of america. it is sad. I worry that that aim, if it is indeed is the actual appearence in the education, would never last or sustain. The society would be broken sooner or later. The history have been said so, and it will, i believe.

Maybe the talks on education emphasized too much on educational engineering, while too little is mentioned on the goal, or the spirit. We may win a battle or two, while losing the war. Hope we would allocate proper portion to seek the reason why we endeaver for.”

It is highly unlikely the writer of the above observation is a reader of my blog and hence would have seen my recent several pieces about the travesty of institutional priorities at Penn State University where football truly was the ruling “god.” As a person who detests football and everything it has come to stand for in our culture (organized, rationalized, sanctioned male violence; competitiveness exalted at all costs; male values run amok; commercialism trumping all other values encouraged by sports; subordination of women as sex objects as manifested by the “cheerleaders”; the use of Christianity to invoke and bless ritualistic violence—etc, etc) I couldn’t agree more.

The need for outside perspectives to help us better “see” our own culture, in my case especially our higher education culture, is, of course, another argument for the value of foreign travel and study for our students. In my own case, I was fortunate to live in Canada for five years as a child when my father’s employer moved him and his family to live in that wonderful country.

At one of our international FYE conferences, about twenty years ago, I attended a session done by an academic administrator from an institution that used to be known as Arctic College. Built below the tundra line and in topography with coniferous trees, the Canadian government was attempting to bring the modern world through higher education to the Inuit peoples who would be flown, literally, by the government, hundreds of miles south from the vast tundra regions of the Northwest Territory, to this new postsecondary opportunity. But they didn’t stay long. They left in droves, literally sickened by their new settings. As the officials assessed why this educational experiment had been a disaster in terms of retention and completion, they came to realize that the students were not accustomed to having anything obstruct their literal vision, coming from the flat, wide open tundra enabling them to see as far as humanly possible, daylight hours permitting. In their new setting they felt hemmed in and were having panic attacks in this claustrophobia inducing artificially imposed environment. As I thought about this unique educational experiment and the students’ reactions, I realized that unless I had been educated to see those trees through the eyes of those students, that had I visited Arctic College, I would have seen those trees very differently, just as I do the trees surrounding the mountain top in the eastern US where I live and write such musings.

So, the challenge for all of us needs to be to see the trees through eyes other than our own. To do that it helps to be able to interact with higher educators from cultures who can inform us “as others see us.”

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