Today we look at the history and tensions of international education. My guest is Paul Tarc, an Associate professor at Western University. Paul sees certain tensions as inherent in the very idea of international education.

As universities around the world embrace internationalism in an era of limited state funding, some wonder whether those idealists intentions have been clouded by hopes of increased revenue generation.

Click here to read the article discussed in the show.

Citation: Tarc, Paul, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 93, podcast audio, October 30, 2017.

Transcript, translation, and resources:


Will Brehm  1:15
Paul Tarc, welcome to FreshEd.

Paul Tarc  1:16
Hi Will, it’s nice to be talking to you this morning.

Will Brehm  1:20
Tell me a little bit about International Education. When did this idea of international education first appear?

Paul Tarc  1:28
Maybe this is the most difficult question to answer, in a sense. Again, it depends what we what we mean by international education, and part of our conversation is going to maybe talk about some of the interconnected dimensions of international education. And I’m not a historian, but I’ll say that the idea that as citizens or people or individuals that were connected up to a larger world, I think that’s a very old idea. Diogenes in 300 BC was reported to have said that he was a citizen of the world. Comenius, in the 17th century, is often cited as one of the earlier advocates for cosmopolitanism and international education. So, from that perspective, it’s a very old idea. In some sense, to be educated is to be worldly. And ideas and stories were shared across borders and groups, probably for thousands of years. So again, it is a historically contingent term – one that takes meaning and shape and manifestations based on the larger conditions.

Will Brehm  2:42
What about our present moment? I hear “international education” all the time. It’s even in the name of the Comparative and International Education Society, which is a relatively recent phenomenon, especially when you’re thinking about Comenius, for instance.

Paul Tarc  3:00
Yes, absolutely. I guess I would say that right now, international education very much is very salient. You could say it’s on the rise, probably this latest historical moment where international education is thriving begins in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapses and capital is finally global. There’s notions of a new world order. More domains are less afraid of using words like “world citizen” and “global citizen”. And the academic discourses begin to take up again the idea of cosmopolitanism from the mid ’90s forward. And of course, the internet and the increased telecommunications creates the conditions for the intensification of exchanges that cross political borders. And so I would say that we’re experiencing from the ’90s, accelerating into the 21st century, a moment where international education has changed a little bit from its 20th century or from how it was manifest in the late 19th century and up until the point of what we might call the “recent phase of globalization”. And so I can explain a lot more about that.

Will Brehm  4:17
So yes, what does what does it look like? Or what did it look like in the 19th and 20th century?

Paul Tarc  4:23
If you think about international education for most of the 20th century – and I think all of these terms are relational – so international education, we can think of it as something that exists and is sort of essential as in that way, and I don’t think that’s productive. But we can sort of say, what does it do? What is it trying to do? And to think international education, I think you need to think about national schooling, and the project of nation building, and how education was seen as sovereign to the nation that it was about creating little Canadians, or little French men and women. And that was a big notion. And so from that starting point, international education was moving beyond and supplementing that kind of framing – so that this notion that education should be oriented to international understanding, it should be moved beyond nationalism, parochialisms, beyond local understandings. That ideas and knowledge, those things cross, and are enhanced by crossing, political borders. And so in some ways, international education was a little bit in opposition to the normal way of thinking about, say, schooling. And we’ll maybe focus on the 20th century here. So for example, after the First World War, when people were thinking about the devastation and destruction caused by that war, some of the ideas circulating like peace, peace education, solidarity, internationalism, these things then take on great attraction. And so for its time, the League of Nations was created in the 1920s. And that was a very radical expression of internationalism. And still at that time, education wasn’t included as one of the components of that, partly because it was seen as too contentious. Now, if you shift to the next moment. So if we think of the 1920s as a moment, again, where internationalism and international education activities were more pronounced, the next kind of movement or hill, if you like, would be in the post-World War II decades and the creation of the United Nations. And at that point, UNESCO comes into being, which does officially include the domain of education. And in this period though, international education is usually discussed in nation state domains as something that supplements national education. The creators and supporters of international education were typically progressives and internationalists who believed that education was to serve more than just national interests. For most of the 20th century, it was a liberal humanist, progressive, child-centered approach to education that could make a less violent, more egalitarian world. However, in these national domains that were, this internationalist dream was not really pronounced as it is today. So for example, the object that I look at in my doctoral research was the International Baccalaureate. The idea of having a common curriculum that would be recognized by different countries and be focused on international understanding was not a new idea. It was circulating back in the ’20s, when the League of Nations was formed. However, the conditions in the post-World War II decades, with more families, expatriate families, living in Europe and colonial elsewheres, there was this need for an education that could allow students to go back to their home country universities. So the IB really was formed as a practical ….. there was a practical need to have this kind of passport to home country universities. Up until that point, families had to either send their children back in grade 11, or grade 10, back to the home country to prepare for the university. So for example, in the International School of Geneva, which was the epicenter of the creation of the IB, in grade 11, they divided all the students to start preparing for the national exam, so that the French, the Swiss, the British all were pushed into the different groups to start preparing for those examinations. So the IB came to life as an answer to this problem; we’re in this incredibly cosmopolitan environment in this school, pronouncing these values about international understanding, and yet we were dividing ourselves into these little groups. And so if you think about it, that was the conditions that spawned the International Baccalaureate. But if you look at the policy discourse around the “international” of IB in that early period, the internationalism, international understanding is typically muted. And the IB is about education of the whole person; it’s about high academic standards. And when the IB needed to find financial sustainability after this period of funding from donors in the 1960s, when it was taken up in the United States, it really wasn’t taken up for the international component, but for this high academic standards, in a context; a Nation at Risk, where the schools were some reportedly failing, and this was a new academic program that would seek to change that. That’s to say that this period prior to where we are today, internationalism, I guess, in part because of the cold war, and the bipolarity – capitalism, communism – these terms weren’t slung around the way they are today. In some sense that break in the ’90s and then it’s slowly changing to this point where now the international is not something that families of IB, or other international education programs can leave to the side, it actually becomes a kind of value added of the program, where the international experience and international components, second languages, these all become value added things that students can put on their resumes to apply for university and for future career prospects. And so in that way, under globalization, it is this change for international education becomes an expedient.

Will Brehm  11:01
Before we go into the 1990s moment and trying to think about the IB and international education more generally in the current moment, back in the 1960s, when the UNESCO is formed, and the International Baccalaureate takes off and, as you said, solves this problem, I guess it would be embassy workers or foreign aid workers who are stationed around the world and want to make sure their children get a certain quality of education. I want to know what sort of people actually did go? Was this a particular class of people that were able to access international education?

Paul Tarc  11:43
Well, for sure. This was for, as you say, diplomats, families doing international business. And these were fairly elite schools serving these families. And so, international education has been for elites. If you look back before this, it was sons and daughters of royal families that were doing these exchange programs in international schools in the 19th century. Internationalism itself was about the European white nations forming a society of states. The first non-white nation to join the International Society of States in the 1920s was Japan, which probably uncoincidentally, was also an imperial nation. These are the starting points in the foundation of international education that continue; these tensions continue into the present. So IB came to life at a moment of massification and democratization of schools. And yet, in order to find financial sustainability, it was largely used by maybe not the super elite that didn’t need this stamp of IB or whatever, but the next rung below that. And so, while the ideas were, I think, genuine about an education of the whole person and developing international understanding, this question of elitism and access was what I call an originary tension of the IB. I speak about three enduring tensions in my book, Global Dreams, Enduring Tensions: IB in a Changing World. And the third tension is one representation: What do we mean by an international curriculum, which largely is a Western international curriculum, and then in terms of who has access to this? And then, when the IB moves into state systems, it’s maybe moving to an upper middle class, then. So it’s a little bit more accessible, but these now again, are families looking for that edge up to getting into university, as the IB is seen as this kind of gold standard, and something they get to give a leg up. And so this question of who has access is a tension for IB, it’s something that they worry about, because again the story that they want to tell themselves is one around the IB is this project for making a better world, which they can’t leave out part. And so IB has entered, for example, inner city schools. Its been taken up by Ecuador and other countries trying to mainstream it in their systems. And the International Baccalaureate tries to look beyond the delivery of its three programs to think more philanthropically about how it might be a transnational actor for international education in the world. So for sure, this is a kind of tension. And if you think about it, the middle classes now are very much engaged in international education. And so the idea for this starts in the ’60s when higher education becomes massified, but it’s not really until the ’90s and the 21st century that your neighbor and the person across the street is going to do this exchange somewhere and going to do International Service Learning, or these kinds of trips and various places; that’s opened up quite a bit.

Will Brehm  15:26
So would you say that in the ’90s and going forward to the present moment, has the ball swung from this idealist notion of internationalism and the cosmopolitanism to this very sort of instrumentalist,  “Go, do this international exchange program to get a leg up on my college application so I can get into a better university”. Is that how this notion of value added and instrumentalism … has the ball swung all the way into that court in the ’90s and going forward?

Paul Tarc  16:02
Well, maybe we could say that’s the trend, but I would say that the practical, instrumental and the idealist have always been kind of connected for international education. There’s this dream of opening up, but there’s always these practical conditions, financial, that set constraints around how international education and these more idealist visions manifest in the world. So even the ’60s under this kind of idealism, there was still these practical and instrumental realities. So for example, the universities in Britain, the US, France, Germany, Switzerland, they had to agree that the examinations that the IB, that the control mechanism of the whole program, had the standards that would be up to par for their admissions. And so in some respects, the IB Diploma curriculum, the grade 11, 12 curriculum, continues to be very content heavy as a college prep. These are founding kinds of tensions, right? “Oh yeah, we want an education of the whole person, but now we’ve got these contents, subjects that aren’t necessarily transdisciplinary.” Right? And then when the IB tries to think, “Okay, we’ve got to improve on this, so we’re going to offer a new course on Peace and Conflict Studies, or we’re going to create an option where schools can create a local site-based program that is a more idealist take up.” Do the schools take advantage of that, or adopt that? No, they want the higher-level chemistry, mathematics, etc. This is a lot bigger than the IB and the IB policy. But I would say that these practical, instrumental realities have always been a big part of international education. And another good example are the Ford Foundation exchanges between scholars where academics would go and meet with other academics in different countries, and to promote mutual understanding, cooperation. Under the Cold War, the larger conditions of the Cold War, and winning the hearts and minds of the underlying countries, this was politically a strategy, which shaped the ways in which these kinds of interactions and exchanges took place. Albeit, people connected. I think it’s important to understand how the neoliberal economic globalization, and that’s kind of a code word, but this whole marketization, market logics around organizing social spheres like education, putting the onus on the individual through education to lift themselves up, this whole kind of hype competition. Of course, this had an effect on international education. And so for sure, holding on to the idealism, whether it’s in IB, or whether it’s in higher education, where at one level, there’s this practical instrumental desire to find new funding, given the government reduced commitments to funding. So how do we get this money? “Wow, international students in these BRIC economies, there’s a huge pool of them, let’s bring them in.” Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that takes over, because the managers, the leaders of higher education institutions may well hold on to this notion of what a higher education is to do. For example, high quality education should be relevant to the world. So the policy statements around bringing in international students of course are couched in this language of “world class university”, “bringing in the best minds”, you know, not having a parochial approach to faculty and students. So I think these things are come together. And so then when you do bring the international students in, then what happens? “Oh, these students need greater supports. We need to increase our language support center. We need to think about their acculturation and outside of the extracurriculars and finding ways of integrating into the larger community.” And things become an issue that people on the ground are working with. And so intercultural learning, maybe if you’re cynical, then this is kind of a reaction and the intercultural learning is more of a byproduct of this driver of revenue generation. I tend to think that these things have become more tightly integrated and that, indeed, if you look at the top-down drivers here, they’re largely financial and pragmatic. And that’s beyond international education as well, as a higher education as a whole, we could say. International students are now coming into Ontario secondary schools and paying tuition to these boards which are publicly funded and have been pushing back against market kinds of mechanisms for us. These things are getting complicated. Some of my students have done some nice critiques of how internationalization of higher education, it is largely about revenue generation. Sometimes they use the word “profits”, which probably isn’t the right word, because there aren’t yet shareholders and stuff. It’s not that the money’s going elsewhere; it stays within the university. And they make some insightful critiques. However, I say to them, when I get it a moment, telling the university that internationalization is about revenue generation, to the neoliberal managers and in some ways are more radical or progressive than some of the left leaning academics nostalgically looking to the old days, which were complicated for different reasons. I mean, the university was never a bastion of openness towards people of color and different, lower social classes, etc. So, of course it’s about revenue generation, because these neoliberal brands, it’s about revenue generation, because this is how we can offer our world class education of such a high quality and make a difference in the world. And we want our students to be global citizens who are out there, making a difference, coming up with entrepreneurial solutions to help those in need, having these exchanges. Oh, and by the way, who will hopefully be committed future donor alumni to our university. So you can see how the economic and the practical are entangled within this kind of idealism. And so for me, what we really need to do is show how the particular pragmatic, financial, perhaps neoliberal inflected kinds of constraints, or drivers, are doing particular things, or constraining these more idealist goals, like intercultural understanding. And that’s the kind of analysis that will really open this up.

Will Brehm  22:58
Have you found where the practical is constraining some of these idealistic tendencies?

Paul Tarc  23:04
Well, personally, anecdotally, we find it all the time. And you look in the literature, and you can see it in various places. For example, if intercultural competence is about learning how to sell your product in different places, these can lead to very essential notions of other cultures. The danger here, again, is this reinscribing a neocolonial or dependency relation, or thinking that you understand “the other” with these very thin and superficial kinds of desires around connecting for these pragmatic or instrumental reasons. And there’s lots of stories about things like … one of my colleagues shares a nice story about how these students that she interviewed were going down to a country in Central America and putting on this like pre-med. So in their application to get into med school, they were going down and taking video of themselves in these white suits, sort of hovering over some brown bodies, in some makeshift clinic somewhere. We can see these images, and there’s even spoofs of these various kinds of international exchanges and how it changed my life. And one of these on The Red Onion shows this white girl, blonde hair with these little black boys around her and saying, “This experience was phenomenal.” And it’s got this decaying stone wall in the background, so the aesthetic is very recognizable, right? And it’s like, “This experience was so phenomenal, it’s going to change my Facebook profile forever.” And so, we know some of these dangers, but we need serious academic research that illustrates with nuance and detail how some of these kind of branding approaches and rhetoric actually is not sustainable in the long term, because we’re not offering necessarily this high quality product that’s open to people from everywhere, or that is really engaging interculturalism and intercultural learning in substantive kinds of ways. But that goes beyond the anecdotal interpersonal situations. I mean, people choose their avenues for the work that we do and taking a critical approach. But that’s just one of the things we need to do is find strategic openings in this kind of branding. I use the term “progressive” or “radical” branding here because it very much is discourse and approach that is coopting and this does not say “no” to critical thinking or to social justice. It’s incorporating it. “Yeah, we need to be operationalizing and applying social justice, right. We were for social justice.” But again, it’s sort of how that gets reframed or transmuted into this kind of sphere where there are certain unrepresentables or certain things can’t be said or thought that outside the discourse and are difficult to enter in. We live in these difficult times, in international education and beyond.

Will Brehm  26:24
Do you think the international education has been impacted by what we could call the Trump era or a lot of the nationalistic right-wing parties that we see emerging and gaining strength in the US, but also in many countries in Europe? Has this had a noticeable impact on international education?

Paul Tarc  26:50
Well, I’m not sure. I think if you talk to people who collect some of the numbers on international students coming into their various countries across time, you’ll see that. I’m making a claim that international education is come of age in this latest form. It begins in the ’90s, accelerates in the 21st century. There are dips along the way, like I think 9/11 or the “war on terror” and the reaction to that produced a dip in the US context of attracting students. Trump, certainly from what I’ve heard, the numbers are flowing elsewhere from the United States a little bit since Trump came in. And I think we’ll continue to see that. Again, just like the ideas of internationalism and cosmopolitanism are not new, neither are the isolationist, protectionist views. So they gain traction at particular moments because the economy tanks, or a particular government comes into power. These things are all linked up. So on the one hand, Trump and Brexit will affect the number of students coming in and higher education institutions are quite worried about this.

Will Brehm  28:05
But couldn’t that be a strategic opening? As revenue generation from international students is maybe in retreat in some universities, that could be the moment to say, “Well, look, there’s all these other values of international education rather than only revenue generation.”

Paul Tarc  28:24
Yes, the committed supporters and advocates of international education will continue their work and find different avenues to promote that. And I think also, there is a reaction to Trump. This is the second part that I was going to bring up in that, more than ever, we need international education. My students are coming in – and I teach a little course, in teacher education around international education – and they’re quite adamant that we need to learn about the world and pushing back against this kind of idea of building walls as a solution for anything. Also, we see people, individuals, in the United States and elsewhere becoming more political, politicized. So it’s push and pull. No one wants to have to go through Trump in order for some of these more positive reactions. But that’s partly what’s in play, I think.

Will Brehm  29:22
Paul Tarc, thanks so much for joining FreshEd. It was a pleasure to talk today.

Paul Tarc  29:42
OK, Will, thanks so much.

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