A Foreign Education

Returning apparently fresh from his overseas travel this year, President Bok has renewed his call for a more "international" Harvard. He wants to bring more foreign students here and send more undergraduates over there, maybe laying the groundwork for the day, long after the end of "the Bok regime," when Harvard will have overseas campuses. But the arguments Bok has put forth so far to defend such moves are not convincing.

Of late, Bok has argued that in addition to expanding a liberal arts education, bringing foreign students here and sending Harvard undergraduates overseas would boost America's competitiveness in international trade.

While sending students overseas will doubtless have some positive influence on American competitiveness, the crux of the competitve gap does not lie with our lack of understanding of foreign cultures. Many economists attribute American industry's poor showing against the Japanese or the Germans in producing consumer and high-tech goods to more business-related problems. American business spends too much capital on mergers and financial games and too little time in modernizing factories and floating innovative ventures. American consumers buy too much and save too little. Robert Reich argues that we fail to translate scientific discovery into products because the Pentagon dominates research in this country. But hardly anyone believes the fault lies with our inability to "understand" Japan or Germany.

Besides, if cultural understanding was the key to increased competitiveness, wouldn't bringing more foreign students here help those nations' businesses? After all, their salesmanship would improve as they became more acquainted with the gullible American consumer.

Such economic considerations aside, Bok has also said that an international push by Harvard is necessary educationally in an ever more interdependent world. How would "internationalizing" the student body and increasing undergraduate exposure to foreign cultures improve the average Harvard student's education? How would such measures help Harvard as a university?

Judging from the foreign students already here, bringing more to Harvard would do little to improve an undergraduate's schooling. Many if not all of the students who enroll from overseas tend to be from their countrys' rich and powerful elite. They are accustomed to Western ways and often do a very good job of assimilating into American culture and Harvard "high society." I fail to see how going to classes or partying with, say, someone from the Middle East or South America, whose father is a rich international banker or a powerful government official, is going to help me understand a foreign culture. The only thing mingling with such foreign nobles may teach me is that the priveleged few have it easy no matter what country they are from.

In fact, such measures could have harmful ramifications for American higher education and the Harvard community. If admissions policy is changed to make space for more foreign students, some other group of students is going to find itself squeezed out. Increasing the proportion of foreign students could very well mean restricting the University's efforts to bring more disadvantaged and minority students here. Will the son of a foreign government minister be given a coveted space in Harvard's freshman class at the expense of a poor Black or Hispanic trying to crawl his way up out of the ghetto?

No, no, no, a Harvard admissions official might say. Another alternative could be enlarging the size of each class. Then both the foreign and the disadvantaged could matriculate in harmony. Tell that to a College administrator, many of whom are rumored to have nightmares about the overcrowding in the Houses and complaints of classes that are too large. While increasing the size of the student body may be the most pleasing answer, it certainly is not practical nor does it really address the question. Someone will have to go, and the notion that the children of wealthy Harvard alumni would be the first is farfetched to say the least.

As President Bok would be the first to admit, affirmative action is a policy that Harvard must be committed to following. By increasing the number of foreign students here, Harvard would be announcing that it believed an international presence to be of greater social importance than rectifying the condition of those groups which have long been underpriveleged or discriminated against. Such a step now, when admissions officials across the country admit that attracting qualified Black and Hispanic students is becoming more and more difficult, would send the wrong signal to these minorities and to the American higher education community, of which Harvard is the primus inter pares.

However, Bok is correct to point out that an American liberal arts education fails to examine meaningfully cultures other than its own. Bok's proposal to send more Harvard students overseas would be a more effective means of addressing this problem. If turned into a graduation requirement that demanded evidence of serious study instead of the lesuirely vacationing that prevails with many semesters abroad, such a move would force undergraduates to acquire the familiarity with another country that comes only through first-hand experience. And as Bok hopes, these students also could act out their roles as undercover agents for American business, secretly conducting market research for IBM and Ford's export divisions.

A program that sends Harvard students overseas would be not only stimulating, but also practical. It would not be difficult to take the $17,000 it costs to go here and use it to pay for a year abroad. One quarter of Harvard's student body spending a year overseas would do much to alleviate the College's chronic overcrowding problems, not to mention the potenially soothing effects a change of environment would have on a junior's short-circuited nerves. And thoughts of economics and competitiveness aside, living abroad for a year would prove to be of great educational value by attacking the cultural ethnocentrism that prevails at Harvard and in American.