We were globalists at a tender age!

As is evident in the end note to my most recent entry (‘Are we witnessing the denationalization of the higher education media?’), I acknowledged the insightful comments of one of my ‘retired’ colleagues, the venerable (in the best sense of the word) Yi-Fu Tuan. Yi-Fu (pictured below) is always ready to launch a witty or illuminating commentary, no matter what the topic. In this case he had some thoughts about the notion of a ‘world view’; a term coincidentally used for the new weblog The World View (on Inside Higher Ed), and remarkably similar in tone to WorldWise (on the Chronicle of Higher Education).

What follows is Yi-Fu’s initial response to my entry, some additional text (the Preface) from a book he is finishing that is tentatively called Making Sense of Life and World: A Cosmopolitan Humanist Geography, and then some of my own reflections.


Dear Kris,

Thanks for the article on globalized education. Strange to think that I, an undernourished child in a one-room school [in China], had a global education. The years were 1938-1941. In this elementary school, we were taught to read and write, and we were taught to do so through stories. Some of them clearly instilled virtues typical of China, such as hard work and filial piety. But we also read stories drawn from Western sources–for example, the apple that fell on Newton, the kite that Benjamin Franklin flew, and the absent-mindedness of young James Watts, who boiled his mother’s watch instead of the egg. Newton’s apple allowed our teacher to introduce gravity and the solar system; Franklin’s kite opened up the topic of electricity. But of greater importance to us children was that the stories encouraged unconventional thinking and behavior: singed into our young brain was the idea that it might be better to daydream under an apple tree than grind out additions and subtractions in school; that doing science was worth risking electrocution in a storm. As for boiling mother’s watch in a fit of absent-mindedness, what’s wrong with that if the mind of young Watts was occupied with the steam engine?

The funny thing was that though I recognized the names — Newton, Franklin, Watts — to be foreign, I never thought the exploits of these luminaries to be irrelevant to my own ambition. I assumed, as did my school mates, that we were inheritors of world culture. We were globalists at a tender age!



Text from the preface to Yi-Fu Tuan’s Making Sense of Life and World: A Cosmopolitan Humanist Geography (forthcoming)

Thinking about life and world is what one does in a reflective mood. “Here I am, already a third, a half, or three-quarters way through the passage of life, what have I learned? Above all, what have I learned that matters to me, not as a specialist or professional, but as the sort of person I am?” The mood soon passes. Society does not encourage it. Moreover, when I do make an effort to pin down my world-view, it turns out to be very elusive. What I come up with is likely to be a kaleidoscope of worn images and cliches.

Can I–can we–do better? I believe we can by giving a certain body to world-view. To do so, I propose that we introduce a new coinage “cosmopolitan humanist geography.” It, as I shall show, has the advantage of being more concrete and specific. Consider the three parts of that coinage. First, cosmopolitan or cosmos. Like the word “world” in world-view, it tells of the scope of the project. Second, humanist or humanism. It tells of the materials–the sources–it draws on, which are histories, philosophical apercus, personal experience, rather than technical knowledge. Third, geography, a field of study that is heavily factual and furthest from the abstractions of philosophy and theoretical science. Moreover, unlike philosophy or even world-view, geography seldom demands an overarching theme–one master narrative. Rather it consists of congeries of related topics: in physical geography these include climate, land forms, and soils; and in human geography, population, settlements, and economic activities. And what might be the topics of cosmopolitan humanist geography? No standard list and certainly no standard approach can exist, for cosmopolitan humanist geography is a personal statement, an individual’s understanding and appreciation of life and world.

Nevertheless, certain building blocks seem to me essential. What, after all, can a cosmopolitan humanist geography be without some consideration of nature and human nature, society, culture, morality, religion, and human destiny? I prefer the words “building blocks” to topics because “building blocks,” unlike topics, hint at an intended edifice. So, then, there is to be an edifice? And won’t edifice be another word–another metaphor–for a coherent world-view or philosophy? It would, but the word “geography” checks a too ardent striving for coherence, which, in my view is unattainable. Still, although an achieved edifice may be out of reach, having one as a distant goal can provide one with the motivation and the energy to begin and, more importantly, to persevere in the construction of a cosmopolitan humanist geography.

Below [in the book] is a sample of my building blocks. They are made up of my own thoughts and experiences as well as those of other people that I have collected over the years. I like to think that visitors strolling through the construction yard will pause at a site here and there to savor its merit and perhaps even conclude that the incompletion, like an armless Venus de Milo, offers its own kind of reward. Above all, I hope that my effort will stimulate others to make similar efforts. Living in a house that we have built ourselves is highly satisfying. Living in a cosmopolitan humanist geography of our own making will surely afford the same sort of satisfaction. Rather than foggy images, specific images and articulated ideas answer the question “What is my world-view? How do I see life and world? What truly matters to me?”

Yi-Fu Tuan


Now Yi-Fu’s comments above, and those in his book’s preface, flag some interesting issues for consideration when considering the globalization of higher education and research. These include what level(s) of abstraction to work with and prioritize.

Do we hove into view the (as he calls it) technical forms of knowledge, statecraft, and regulation that are undoubtedly driving many of the changes we see in this sphere/sector? Or do we, and this would be his preference, seek out and illuminate situated viewpoints such as those of local and foreign students, and foreign faculty, at Texas A&M’s Qatar campus, as they work through challenging topics in particular courses, at particular times.

This a similar point raised by the The Economist in a gentle critique of Ben Wildavsky’s informative new book The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2010):

This is a fascinating story. But Mr Wildavsky, a former education reporter who now works for both the Kauffman Foundation and the Brookings Institution, is too earnest a writer to make the best of it. He wastes too much ink summarising research papers and quoting “experts” uttering banalities. And he fails to point out the humour of sabbatical man jet-setting hither and thither to discuss such staples of modern academic life as poverty and inequality. Mr Wildavsky should spend less time with his fellow think-tankers (who are mesmerised by the idea of a global knowledge economy) and more talking to students, who experience the disadvantages as well as the advantages of the new cult of globalisation at first hand.

Yet we all, as did Wildavsky, need to make decisions about what to focus on, what to integrate, what to exclude, and so on, as we attempt to make sense of the globalization of higher education and research. I, for one, learn from the situated views of students and faculty as they grapple with the amalgam of forces reshaping higher education and research practices, and from the foundation/think tank/higher ed media views of Wildavsky, and from the experiential reflections of cosmopolitan humanists like Tuan, so long as their respective views are compared within the broader context of competing ‘modes of knowing’.

The bigger question, to me, though, is absence versus presence. Who is not producing important discourses about the globalization of higher education and research? Or if they are producing them, why are they not being circulated, consumed, and debated at broader scales and more diverse fora? What modes of knowing are absent or limited, why is the case, and what can/should be done to bring them out into view so they too can be reviewed by The Economist, by higher education media outlets, and by faculty members, staff and students?

Higher education and research are being globalized, to be sure. In this context we need to think about absence as well as presence, for there are many more ‘dear colleagues’ (an Yi-Fu-ism) on sidewalks, in think tanks, in branch campuses in the Gulf, in NGOs, in universities on Java in Indonesia, in administrative offices in Bascom Hall, etc., etc., whose voices are not being heard. Yet we can all benefit when we pause, engage with, and subsequently reflect about what more of our informed colleagues are learning and saying.

Kris Olds

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