The following is a guest post by Victor C. Johnson, senior adviser, public policy, for Nafsa: Association of International Educators.
In America, we like our buzzwords—and “competitiveness” is one of the buzzwords of the day. When we think of this buzzword, certain things are, by now, accepted wisdom: We all know that the United States faces increasing international economic competition; that the economic world is flattening; and that we need to take steps to maintain and enhance our competitiveness if we are to prevail in the competition. Among those steps, our well-worn talking points tell us, are getting more students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (the so-called STEM fields); an immigration policy that is more welcoming to foreign talent skilled in those fields; and robust federal support for advanced scientific research. Virtually every public-policy conversation about competitiveness includes policy recommendations in one or more of these areas, for this is how we’ve defined our buzzword.
All of these elements, which are well-known, are in fact true. The problem is that buzzwords impose blinders, in much the same way that scientific paradigms do. As the American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn argued almost 50 years ago in his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, paradigms structure the way scientists see and interpret reality, and thus preclude other ways of seeing and looking at reality until they are overthrown and replaced by another paradigm.
I would argue that we have a competitiveness paradigm in this country that is not adequate either for describing our reality or for prescribing sufficient policy measures to address that reality. Our competitiveness paradigm guides us to necessary policy measures, but not sufficient ones. We think we have a policy, but we don’t. We just have a way of talking about it that works for us. In short, our nation will not succeed in protecting and enhancing its competitiveness only with the policy measures that our buzzword currently encompasses. If we took the blinders off, this would be readily apparent.
We seek to be competitive in a global arena – in a global economy characterized by such facts as these:
- Most U.S. companies, large and small, have some international aspect to their business.
- Half of the sales and profits of our largest companies come from other countries, according to a Standard & Poor’s analysis. More than half of the sales of U.S.-based multinational companies are accounted for by the companies’ foreign affiliates, according to the Department of Commerce. One-third of their employees are foreign, as are a quarter of their capital expenditures.
- In a July 11 Politico column, former Senator Tom Daschle, a Democrat, and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, a Republican, point out that “over the past 40 years, trade has tripled as a share of our national economy, and nearly half of all U.S. exports now go to the developing world.” They quote U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue as saying, recently: “95 percent of the people we want to sell something to live somewhere other than the United States.”
In short, when we speak of competitiveness, we are talking about international competitiveness. Yet the idea that international competitiveness could depend at all on international knowledge is at best a subtext of the discussion, if it’s there at all. Surely the anomaly must strike us: Our competitiveness depends on success in a world of which most Americans are remarkably ignorant, and on selling things to people whose languages we don’t speak. The competitiveness conversation must shift from “STEM” to “STEM-internationalized”— or STEMi.
This is the province of international education – a phrase commonly used to encompass all of the international aspects of learning that are available to our students today: foreign languages, curricula with global content, study abroad, foreign students on campus, academic partnerships and research collaboration across borders, and more. International education’s goal is–or, properly thought of, should be—to graduate “globally literate” students from our schools and colleges. Most political and opinion leaders can articulate that this is important, but it usually doesn’t make it into the competitiveness conversation. It’s as if international education were something different from competitiveness—something we might get to later once we get the important stuff done. But this is important stuff. It is simply not possible to imagine, in today’s world, a country succeeding in global competitiveness in the absence of a citizenry equipped with global knowledge.
If competitiveness is a goal for our nation, as it certainly must be, then that demands other national goals—the things we have to do to get there from here. One such national goal must be that we will graduate internationally educated citizens from our schools and colleges, through all of the avenues that international education offers. Indeed, we must get to the recognition that in the global age—in which lives are global, the workplace is global, our biggest national problems are global, and indeed knowledge is global—education is international education. It must be central to our competitiveness strategy to ensure that by 2020, all of our college students graduate with basic international knowledge, including knowledge of at least one foreign region, and with the ability to converse in a foreign language.
We must mainstream the international-education conversation and make it part of the standard competitiveness talking points. International education is no longer “a nice thing if we can afford it.” There is a road to competitiveness. It is called STEMi, and it is a road we must take.