editorial (2006-16)

Get in the World!

UT is taking that timeworn command seriously, thank goodness

Get in the World!

There was once a sort of inbred insularity among the peoples of this mountainous region of East Tennessee that was masked only by their hospitality, their willingness to help others and the legendary Volunteer spirit, which took many of their sons off to wars in other parts of the nation and world.

That attitude has faded with the ease and speed of travel to distant points, the in-migration of people from other regions and other countries, the advent of radio and television, and most recently the surging power of that great communications equalizer and Earth-shrinking tool, the Internet.

So, it is gratifying to see the University of Tennessee introduce a great new set of international and intercultural facets to its curriculum in the form of its “Ready for the World” program. UT has been devoting this week to discussion of global issues, and its faculty is on notice to present students with materials that will enhance their ability to understand and interact with people of other cultures now and, more importantly, in their future careers. The initiatives will affect courses in arts & sciences, business and technical fields.

A part of that program, engineered by Chancellor Loren Crabtree and his close associates and assistants, will be to stimulate more UT undergraduates to study or spend time abroad. The stated goal is to double the number of UT students doing academic work abroad, from about 500 to 600 this year to well over 1,000 by 2010.

The Internet is a wondrous way to communicate instantly and economically with people in nations and cultures all across the planet, but it has its limitations. There is no good substitute for spending time on the ground in another culture, where another language is dominant, and other customs prevail, in order to see that there are many approaches to life other than those one is raised and educated around.

The 21st century will be a test of whether people from those widely varying cultures and national climates can interact in cooperation. Interact they will, because the shrinking globe and the leveling of the playing field, if you will, in economic, political and environmental concerns will dictate that interaction. Tolerance is not enough. Understanding and acceptance are required, and they form a two-way street on which Americans too often try to enforce a one-way rule.

If disparate cultures meet one another, as we have in the past, with what has been more a confrontational than cooperative attitude, the result will be more of the same kinds of conflicts that marked and marred the 20th century and the aeons of human experience that went before it.

Language study, for instance, is a major factor in influencing people abroad to look favorably on one’s motives. The language of world business today may be English, but that can change as rapidly as other factors in the business world have changed in the last century.

So long as India, with its rising technocracy, continues to train its young people in English and manages to compete with the other ascending and populous world power, China, the language we grew up with should serve us well around the world. But being the lone English speaker in a room full of people who understand you perfectly but converse with one another in a tongue you do not know can be both frustrating and threatening.

There is no better way to learn another language than to study its basics and its forms, and then to spend time immersed in it among its primary users, picking up vocabulary, idiom and nuances that allow for true fluency. UT students are being encouraged now, as never before, to undertake such a route to foreign language fluency.

An appreciation of other lifestyles goes along with that language learning in a “face time” approach to other cultures in their home environments.

There is no factor in global understanding and participation so limiting as the failure to see clearly how others are viewing and responding to issues before them. The tendency for Americans, not just Tennesseans, to see their own way of handling such issues as the only way has got to be trimmed away by education and direct contact if we are to deal with other nations and cultures in a peaceful, productive way.

“The world is changing every day in complexity,” Crabtree said in describing the international initiatives program at UT, and “this effort is not just a lofty academic goal; it is an absolute necessity to provide our students the education and experience they need to thrive.”

Indeed. As one of America’s most astute comic/cynics, the inimitable Mort Sahl, has said in response to a particularly naïve suggestion: “Get in the world.” He started saying that 50 years ago, and it still applies.

In the 21st century and beyond, that instruction is going to become more and more meaningful, and following up on it is going to be evermore necessary and rewarding to Americans.

You can go to school on that maxim. And you can be thankful that the state university is bringing it home to Knoxville’s campus with an element of academic and social dynamism.