Emory Report
April 25, 2005
Volume 58, Number 28


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April 25, 2005
Learning to be global citizens

Thomas Remington is professor and chair of political science

We at Emory face a challenge in understanding our multiple roles as academics in an American university situated in a large metropolitan community, in the American South, in a country possessing unimaginable military and political power, in a world driven by starkly contradictory processes—on one hand, the accumulation of wealth and spread of prosperity; on the other the deepening inequality and perpetuation of sometimes nearly inconceivable poverty, and today especially accompanied by global movements of virulent hatred and fanaticism.

These multiple and overlapping roles generate multiple responsiblities for us, posing continual choices over how best to use our collective resources. My question is: What does global learning mean for an American university such as Emory?

Sometimes, in our eagerness to “internationalize” the horizons of teaching and learning, we make the simplistic assumption that the “international” is anywhere “out there”—anywhere but the United States. That idea is, when we stop to think about it, quite odd. It overlooks the fact that the United States has extended its influence everywhere, and that our society is penetrated by contact of all sorts with the rest of the world.

It is true that we and our students often imagine the social world we inhabit is the only possible one. Because of our extraordinary national power and wealth, we in the United States are particularly subject to overlooking our impact on other countries. Exposing students to times and places larger than themselves, helping them appreciate differences in living standards, cultural values and political arrangements, and enabling them to see themselves as others see us—which, these days, is pretty frightening—is our goal. So the real question is the content of the learning, not where it happens to take place.

But I want to push further. The international is not “out there.” The centuries-old processes of interaction across societies through commerce, conquest and conversion occur in all manner of locales across the world. Globalization, in other words, happens locally, especially in Atlanta, thanks to institutions like Coca-Cola, CNN—and Emory.

The imperative of global learning, then, arises from what today we call globalization, and what in earlier periods was considered to be the progress of civilization, and more recently as modernization. Over and over, in studying globalization, we confront the problem of governance: Who governs the global marketplace?

Today there is growing agreement that simply opening up economies to global investment and trade does not automatically improve welfare. Actually, it is likely to deepen inequality and poverty. But when countries establish sturdy political and legal regimes that can mitigate inequalities, manage conflicts through redistributive policies, provide honest, fair and open public administration and legal enforcement, those countries on balance benefit from international trade and investment.

Sadly, however, this is too seldom the case. By blocking the potential of a market to raise the well-being of all participants, economic inequality—the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few rather than the many—now threatens to overwhelm the fragile mechanisms for checking it that exist in U.S. society. In those still more fragile international institutions that must balance interests between wealthy and powerful states and those riven by poverty, illness, war and despair, the danger is even greater.

The evidence on inequality is clear: It is growing in the United States; it is growing in many of the countries most deeply affected by globalization; and it is growing across national societies. This is a pernicious, dangerous trend.

Why does this matter? Is inequality more important than poverty, war or epidemic disease? What about the economic argument that some inequality produces socially beneficial incentives? I would argue that inequality on the scale we’re witnessing is at least as important as poverty, war and disease. We know inequality is linked to a number of problems that might not, at first glance, appear to be its direct result, such as lower levels of public health. If you take two countries with equal real incomes among their poor—even controlling for differences in education, medical system and fertility—the country with higher inequality between rich and poor is likely to have higher infant mortality.

Inequality is strongly linked with resistance to democratization and is an obstacle to the formation of social capital and cooperation. It often is tied to ethnic group cleavages and thus with ethnic conflict. Democracy can be a mechanism for reducing inequality, both through redistribution and through the provision of public goods and infrastructure, but the problem is that where inequality grows too high, democratization is blocked. This is one reason for the backsliding to dictatorship and “hollowed-out democracy” in so many of the newer, “third wave” democratic nations.

The surest route to reducing disparities in income, wealth and well-being is not revolution, but the public provision of collective goods (particularly education), as well as health and public infrastructure such as roads, electric power, water and sanitation. These are the tasks of government, but good government requires, as we have learned, the cooperation of rulers, market actors and civil society.

Here at Emory, we have many examples of mutually reinforced priority-balancing that allow us to pool our resources and help build institutional capacity, both here in Atlanta and “out there” in the world. For starters, we are located in an intensely globalized county; around 15 percent of DeKalb’s inhabitants were born in other countries. Some six miles from the University campus is the community of Clarkston, which has a particularly high concentration of immigrants and refugees.

One striking example of an institution in which government and civil society—including Emory—are cooperating to help create collective capacity for people to address common needs is the new International Community School (ICS) in Clarkston. This is a charter school founded in 2002 by families, teachers and community leaders. ICS’ 180 children represent more than 30 nationalities, and Emory faculty, staff and students are helping the school in many ways: by studying its birth and early development (which could help later in replicating the school elsewhere) as well as actively participating in fund-raising and tutoring.

Our own Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing is helping provide health care for ICS, and Goizueta Business School MBA students are working with students’ parents to help them use the skills they brought with them to this country to improve opportunities in the job market. ICS is a fine example of an institutional partnership that helps people meet the challenges of globalization—by forging a new community with new collective capacity, while giving Emory an opportunity to bring our tremendous, diverse resources to bear for a public good.

To be sure, there are other, similarly collaborative projects benefitting from the efforts of many people in Emory’s schools; they teach us that, by pooling our academic resources and joining with colleagues outside the University to work as catalysts for the provision of collective resources such as schooling and health care, we can make our own modest contribution to overcoming inequality, poverty and despair.

This, for me, is the link between global learning and global citizenship: Helping the communities of which we are a part serve their common needs.

This essay was adapted from Remington’s remarks upon receiving the 2004 Marion V. Creekmore Award for Internationalization. It first appeared in the spring 2005 issue of International Emory and is reprinted with permission.