A Matter of Perspective

Harvard should work harder to shape global citizens

World Wide Ed

In a recent TV interview, travel show host Anthony Bourdain shared his tips on finding “local flavors” when traveling abroad, suggesting that “drinking with the locals” is always a good way to start. While it is irrelevant whether Bourdain himself, someone known to travel extensively, is a true “global citizen,” it is interesting that the famous host epitomizes a common view of the values of travel and an understanding of other cultures.

Although being a global citizen implies extensive travel and some familiarity with foreign languages and conspicuous aspects of cultures such as food and drink, the concept should really be defined by one’s ability to engage with and adopt different perspectives meaningfully when viewing the world. This cannot be achieved without a thorough and serious engagement, both academic and otherwise, with foreign languages and cultures in a genuine context. Just as travel alone is not enough, I think that reading the Economist cover to cover every week is likewise neither necessary nor sufficient to make a global citizen. One must truly immerse oneself in a different culture in an intellectual and humble manner in order to gain the knowledge and perspective necessary to alter one’s worldview positively and fundamentally.

To this end, there is a need for Harvard to go beyond its existing measures to create global citizens on campus and to adopt further measures to challenge us in our engagement with other perspectives. For example, even though Harvard offers a broad range of foreign language and culture classes, students often decide which ones to learn about based on reasoning that detracts from the value of engaging with other perspectives. For example, the Chinese department at Harvard sees ever-increasing student interest in elementary Chinese courses because of the perceived usefulness of an understanding of the language and culture as China becomes a dominant economic power in the world. With such a pragmatic attitude in undertaking the intellectual endeavor of studying a foreign language and culture, it is easy for students to lose interest altogether in time or acquire knowledge without gaining new perspectives along the way. Even students with relative proficiency in a foreign language who opt to work abroad often take jobs that allow or encourage them either to ignore the vast majority of people in their new places of residence or to engage with them only in culturally homogenized or purely business-related contexts. As a case in point, I worked for an American businessman in Shanghai in the summer of 2010 who, despite speaking relatively fluent Mandarin, made it abundantly clear to me and other Chinese interns that he had no interest in learning about Chinese history and culture beyond the “cultural” knowledge (such as drinking manners in a business meeting) that is advantageous to him as a businessman in China. He thinks and does business in a way that is characteristically American and humors the Chinese way of thinking around him only to serve the practical needs of his business.

In other words, I think the primary issue in global citizenship is not necessarily one of culture, or even language, but one of perspective. It is about understanding—beyond superficial and rather meaningless “understanding” that the Germans are “serious” and the Japanese “polite”—why different people think and act the way that they do. Having lived, studied, and worked in four countries during my time at Harvard, I think that genuine understanding of a culture and language fluency really present perspectives that are not accessible otherwise. It is a meaningful thing to learn from the strengths and values of the developing world, just as it is important and humbling to understand the differences that make certain developed countries excel in areas where America fails.

As such, Harvard should acknowledge that two semesters of a foreign language or a score of 600 on an SAT Subject Test are insufficient requirements for undergraduates. A language citation or proof of true fluency in a language other than English should be necessary. A semester abroad should also be considered mandatory.  If this happens, the structure of study abroad must shift from one of Harvard or American comradeship to one of self-reliance, intellectual engagement, and true immersion. Perhaps most importantly, I think that Harvard should provide greater support for students wishing to work abroad. In the current system, most students who wish to do meaningful work abroad outside the scope of multinational banks and consulting firms find little support and often have to accept unfulfilling jobs as a “sacrificial” first step in their attempts to become true global citizens.

In her Class Day address in 2010, former CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour urged graduates to go abroad to both learn from other people and cultures and to share their own values with others. She said that only by being “fully informed, fully aware, and fully on board” could we both derive and impart the maximum benefit to and from our home countries and the places we choose to work in and visit. Harvard would do well to heed this advice as it considers what future students need and what the world needs from future graduates.

Charlotte C. Chang ’12 is a Germanic languages and literatures concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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