Peter Morris, known as the "business shrink" was the plenary speaker for the event. Morris, with 40 years of experience the disciplines of law, psychology, and business, challenges Friedman's idea that the world is becoming flat by stating that cultural and linguistic difference continues to create barriers to effective collaborative communication. He states that "the need to develop ways to cross the barriers grows by the day--the stakes have never been greater." Morris leads us to consider psychology and other interdisciplinary skills to promote more successful cross-cultural communication. Emotional intelligence, social intelligence, moral development, cultural IQ, are important matters to consider when considering global education.
I took these thoughts and numerous new contacts from embassies around the world to the Education USA Forum held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center Wednesday through Friday afternoon, June 22-24. And what a lively group of American educators, international recruiters, college administrators! Hosted by the Department of State, this event presented educational updates from EDU USA representatives from all over the world. Regional and thematic sessions were offered that covered topics from the use of social media in international recruiting to recruiting for community colleges. One of the most lively sessions was on Wednesday afternoon titled, "EducationUSA's Policy on Incentive-Based Recruitment". The room was packed and the energy high. And of course, the spotlight was on China. The intense debate was focused on the use of agents compensated by US colleges and universities to recruit international students. The panelists were articulate and passionate--David Hawkins, Barmak Nassirian, Fanta Aw, and Diane Weisz Young. The audience listened patiently. Then at the Q&A time, the pros and cons flew across the room, as if someone had opened a pressure valve. The energy was palpable. The debate was exciting!
As any good debate, many points presented by the audience made sense for each side. Those who were in agreement with paying Chinese agents for student recruitment spoke of the competition for students, decreased budgets in higher education, the costs of American education, the increased tuition rates, the decrease in full paying American students, the free market principle in American higher education of supply and demand, and on and on. Those voices who spoke against warned against creeping unethical practices, elitist education where education is available only for those with money, of promoting admissions counseling like a car salesman more interested in profit than the benefit of the customer, of moving toward seeing college admissions simply a business transaction.
As I sat there finding "dau-li" (Chinese for reason) in almost every point, I recalled Peter Morris admonition to use an interdisciplinary way of understanding across cultures. Yes, Chinese culture depends on agency. In Chinese history, as well as some rural settings today, the Chinese matchmaker is an agent who finds the best match for each family and is compensated for this transaction of matching a bride and groom. In our culture, E-Harmony.com functions in a similar manner--with on-line transactions rather than personal family visits. In Chinese culture, business transactions are usually conducted by an intermediary, so that the primary CEO does not lose face or honor, an important element of Chinese culture, should the transaction appear unsuccessful. One could also propose that the American lawyer (or religious priest for that matter) functions in the same manner. An advocate, or agent, stands in the middle of two parties who are both trying to be successful but need someone to negotiate the terms and to represent the other in the case of failure. This idea of agency prevails in both cultures--Chinese and American.
But this is where the fork in the road occurs for me! Even with a matchmaker, online or ancient, there is personal connection. Even with a lawyer, priest or business intermediary, there is some intimate knowledge of both parties--some sense of accountability and awareness of the transaction not simply a financial transaction based on volume and delivery. American history has never seen education in this fashion, as a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. American education has historically been seen as a sacred trust, an honored privilege, and a social responsibility.
American education is the best right now in the world for some particular reason. At this moment in time, we have the coveted spot of having the best schools in the world. I ask why? Was it because we really believed, even at the birthing of our republic, that everyone needed access to education in order to create a more equitable and successful country? Was it because at the base of our understanding we realized that education was truly a humanitarian enterprise, grounded in religious values of personal and community transformation, a promise that served the good of the individual as well as the promise of the young nation? Was education rooted in the belief that a person's knowledge about themselves, their community, their nation, their world was truly beyond a price---perhaps even priceless? So priceless that the young republic considered education a social responsibility and not a commodity to be sold on the market place, like sneakers and furniture, widgets and microchips! Public education at primary and secondary levels, land-grant colleges and universities, state educational systems with low tuition and high-level resources became the hallmark of higher education in the United States of America.
Why would we want to lower our standards, initiated at the beginning of our republic, simply to meet some market expectation? Why would we want to create an inferior process, American-compensated Chinese agents, for a superior product that currently stands as our number one offering to ourselves and the world, American higher education? Can we not hold the tide on this one, just for a little while longer? Can we not take the high road? Can we find a way to honor the sacred gift of learning, the exchange of knowledge between a student and teacher, as a priceless, honorable transaction even when exchanged around the world?
Naive I am not. I understand the costs of education, the tremendous financial pressures in the current economy--especially that of private education without state funding. I also understand that some of our greatness of education in this country is directly related to the free market system, competition and growth, of higher education. We have good schools because we can compete with one another. We have no central government organizing our institutions. Without a central authority, able to freely compete on the market has created some of these financial pressures. But that same constraint is also a powerful benefit.
To those who say we must pay agents to recruit students from China so that we can support our budgets, I understand these market pressures. I am not against recruiting international students--absolutely not! We need international students in our American classrooms for a host of reasons, including financial ones. I, however, cannot support the idea that the strong ideals of higher education, the holy act of learning and individual transformation, can be determined only by the buying and selling of the marketplace. I cannot support the idea that international students are a commodity to be selected by the most aggressive and highly compensated agent and institution. I believe that people matter--that learning is priceless. The United States of America believed this in the early hours of our republic. And that has made us strong and the best--right now--in the world. Of course, we continue to struggle with the social responsibility of education in this country as we allocate budget cuts and reconsider more effective strategies for teaching and learning. Yet we are not willing to give in to the market pressures and say that education should be left entirely to the marketplace--at least not yet! That idea goes against the historic grain of our entire nation.
Placing recruitment solely in the hands of a Chinese agent, who may or may not have any affiliation with the institution, preys upon vulnerable Chinese parents, who want the best for their only child and may have the financial resources but lack international experience and have no facility in English language. And that is simply not right! No matter how tight the market! This process does not match our ideals. We have a unique opportunity to consider aligning our process with our ideals--our historic ones. I hope that we have, as Peter Morris admonished, the cultural IQ, the emotional intelligence, the psychological awareness, and the ethical fortitude to stand up and do the right thing on this one!