On Sept. 19, an article appeared on the front page of The Sun about the significant increase in Chinese international students at Cornell. The number has more than doubled in four years, rising from 401 to 835. The article was widely read and discussed. Nonetheless, not a single opinion columnist touched the issue.
The reasons to avoid talking about this should be instantly clear. A discussion in the comments section of The Sun website features all the predictable xenophobia and the reciprocal accusations of racism. The arguments are familiar: the hypocrisy of any non-Native American being anti-immigration, criticisms against enabling “the enemy,” analogues with earlier anti-Jewish schemes in the Ivy League, etc. Certainly only a moron of an opinion columnist would carry his good name onto such explosive ground.
Well, let me be that moron.
If opinion columnists are good for anything, it’s organizing and legitimizing discourse on campus. We’re meant to articulate the thoughts of Cornellians and craft a basis from which others can agree, disagree or develop their own ideas. I see here an opportunity to sift a discussion from the current grist of half-formed grumblings.
The arguments seem always to swing around two questions. The first: What serves Cornell’s interests? The second has two parts: (a) Is Cornell obliged to serve American interests? (b) If so, what serves American interests?
As for the first, Cornell should always take the most able students, whatever their springs. Cornell admissions sometimes fails in other respects here, such as favoring legacy applicants, a practice which will always confuse me. Nonetheless, I know for a fact that the students admitted from China bring immense dedication and talent. Cornell’s great pride is its diversity — and I don’t mean the contrived, affirmative-action type of diversity, but the diverse excellence that results from hosting only the best students.
Still, Cornell is a community of scholars as much as a place of scholarship, and so the concerns over the assimilation of international students into the University community are legitimate. I’ll draw a parallel from ancient history. Notwithstanding the abhorrent white-normativity of Anglo-Saxon classical scholarship, imperial Roman culture itself was profoundly cosmopolitan. A number of the greatest poets and emperors were from Spain, North Africa and the Near East, and the empire was no worse for it. But they all learned Latin when they came to Rome; they were, properly speaking, Romans.
With that in mind, the self-segregation of the Chinese community is an unfortunate “con” of their waxing presence. (In calling it a “con,” I’m using the terminology of the president of the Chinese Students and Scholars association.) However, because the “pros” of having internationals at Cornell are so many, I urge the University and any relevant organizations to assist international students in integrating into the student body, especially those from such broadly different cultures as the Chinese. The more mutual exposure, the better.
Now for the second question: Is Cornell obliged to serve American interests? Yes, it is — that’s simple enough. We accept American tax dollars; we are on American soil; we are, moreover, a traditionally American institution. This naturally raises questions about whether the paths of these Chinese students after graduation indeed serve American interests.
In the first place, we are having a hard time discerning clearly what “American interests” are. We must take the monumental and disagreeable first step of understanding that American interests don’t consist of “keeping ahead of China.” China will, in terms of GDP, surpass us. This much is past doubt, and it will probably happen in the late twenty-twenties. I’m saying less that this is not worth fighting than that there is no fighting it.
The next step, equally monumental and disagreeable, is to realize that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not least because the Chinese people are people, too — many more people than we are, actually, and so their prosperity should be a banquet to us, being that we are empathetic human beings and we naturally take pleasure in so vast a reduction of suffering and poverty. Moreover, Chinese and American fortunes are not inversely related. We need not be the best to do well.
Nor is this reality particularly frightening. Fareed Zakaria argues, “the Chinese are by nature a pragmatic people” who know “it is in their interest to be embedded in the liberal global order.” (Chinese students, really sorry to talk about you like you’re not in the room for a moment.) At this time, it’s reasonable to say that American interests lie in continuing a healthy relationship with the Chinese and providing them a comfortable and profitable place in the international community. American universities, with Cornell at the fore, can be a major part of this.
Suppose then that after graduation Chinese internationals stay on this side of the Pacific. America gains a number of talented, highly educated American citizens. Say, on the other hand, that they go back to China. They contribute to an understanding between our nations, and they fill the upper ranks of Chinese society with talented, highly educated Chinese citizens who are sympathetic to positive Sino-American relations.
During and after their careers at Cornell, Chinese internationals benefit our University and our country. Cornell admissions gets a lot wrong, but enriching our campus with international students is laudable. If you’d like to discuss anything I’ve said, here’s my information:
Elias Wynshaw is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . Imperfect, Tense appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.