March 1, 2016

HABR | Intro to the World

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I walked up the stairs to the sixth floor of Balch carrying a box of my belongings. A shy and anxious freshman on move-in day, I was eagerly awaiting my first human contact at Cornell. I met my first hallmate once I reached my floor and we exchanged nervous smiles and greetings. “Where are you from?” I asked.

“California,” she replied, “what about you?”

“I just moved from Kuwait,” I answered.

“Oh…” she laughed dismissively, “I don’t know what that is.” I was shocked. Gob Bluth’s voice echoed in my head: “I’ve made a huge mistake.” I began to wonder if I had misjudged Cornell. After all, what use is a degree, a great GPA or a perfect test score if it does not bring with it knowledge of the world in which we live?

In a world so connected, structuring educational curriculums around providing international perspectives and promoting multiculturalism is crucial. Students must learn about the world beyond a useless one-week trip to an African country to build a house or a semester abroad in Paris or London. Classes need to engage with international issues and address how the state of the world affects the subjects we learn about in our U.S.-centric studies. It is our responsibility to become more internationally-aware global citizens, not just to gain a competitive advantage in the job market, but also to be able to interact respectfully with those around us and make more informed decisions. Learning to understand others is the essence of being human and imperative to humanizing others in the world.

Due to increasing economic competition, college has become just as much of a job factory as a place of higher learning. Instead of focusing on broadening perspectives and learning about different cultures, college is seen as an opportunity just to advance prospects in the work market.

Learning about different cultures is now just another hurdle to jump through: languages are learned to pad resumes and classes about different countries and cultures are taken begrudgingly to fulfill a single “cultural requirement” that encapsulates the whole non-Western world.  Students learn languages largely without regard for the people who speak them and without respect for the cultures they represent. Students learn to conjugate verbs and craft sentences yet they do not humanize what they learn and connect language to the larger heart of a population. They learn Arabic, only to join the military and help fuel Western imperialism; they learn Spanish to gain a skill for their resume or to capture Latinos as customers, yet disregard the experiences of Hispanics and Latinos in America and look down upon those that speak English with an accent.

More internationally focused classes are often seen as burdensome requirements. The Industrial and Labor Relations curriculum, for example, requires one class that fulfills a “cultural perspectives” requirement: three or four credits out of 120 to learn about a country that is not America. It is fine that classes are U.S.-centric; after all, the United States is where most students will live after graduation. However, there does seem to be a disparity in the weight given to learning about different areas of the world.  American high school curriculums focus only on the United States, failing to provide students with adequate knowledge of other countries around the world. It is no surprise that United States college students are so U.S.-centric — that is all they know how to be. The system reinforces itself, as ignorance breeds indifference and stifles students’ curiosity to learn about the larger world.

Living in the United States, it is easy to dismiss things happening in other countries or to feel like we do not need to learn about the world because we are the center of it. This attitude is evident in the nonchalant mistakes we make. Even professors lecturing about their subjects of specialty are dismissive of geography, providing misinformation or finding humor in not knowing where particular countries are. Not knowing what the modern day equivalent of Rhodesia is or mischaracterizing Christian Assyrians as Muslim may not seem like great offenses, but they are a symptom of the disregard for and othering of diverse people from around the world.

Misinformation and ignorance matter because they spawn dehumanization. Not caring enough to correctly identify the religion of the demographic one is teaching about shows a lack of respect for that group of people. These are small symptoms of underlying issues that manifest themselves in large problems such as large-scale violence and imperialism: all fueled by ignorance and lack of respect.

Students need to embrace the insight being an international citizen can bring. In learning about the world, we access new ways of living and new perspectives that reframe and challenge the ways in which we perceive the world, as well as the notions we take for granted as being normal and true. We are challenged to think more critically and engage with issues more deeply, and along the way we learn respect and understanding. Curriculums (starting before college) should focus more on integrating knowledge of a subject with its global implications and stimulating students to think more broadly and learn more about the world.

Katy Habr is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell. Comments may be sent to kh547@cornell.edu. On the Margin runs alternate Wednesdays  this semester.