Doing International Education at the time of Nationalism

A particular tension defines how I think. 

Growing up in a poor country that lacked self-confidence in the aftermath of a devastating colonial rule, I learnt to distrust the wise White men who claimed to know better.  

But, having lived a life, at least most of it, surrounded by people who would keep their heads buried in the sand and reject any new ideas outright for being foreign, I have also aspired to openness.

In fact, over time, I came to see the two as linked phenomena: Being closed to new ideas, I came to believe, was the weakness that created the condition of foreign domination. I accepted that human ideas are global and they can arise anywhere in the world; either you embrace it and thrive with it, or it's forced on you by those who get their power from these new ideas.

Yet the tension looms over everything I do, and especially on my work in international education. In the initial years of my career, I had great success and joy in promoting advanced technology training, with all its global connotations, all over Asia. Of the many thousand students whose paths crossed with mine then, that training had been a liberating force, opening up not just jobs and careers but also ways of seeing, connecting and making sense of the world. In my work in small-town India, Bangladesh or the Philippines, the IT training centres that I set up were not merely vocational schools; those transformed the local communities and how some people thought. Today, when I bump into one of those students on Oxford Street or on Facebook, as I do with surprising regularity, the many redeeming possibilities of international education are reaffirmed again and again.

On the other hand, though, I am older. My own journey brought me to universities in England and allowed me to look at the world from a different vantage point. From this vantage point of immense privilege, International Education looks different. The cleavage between the liberating ideals of education and its neo-imperial reality and the uniformity of cultural standards that the latter seeks to impose emerges in view only gradually, but no less distressingly. Being a colonial, I received the most patronising of educational experience, where my name was carefully pronounced and I was called upon to provide, when, for the sake of diversity, the class needed a 'different perspective'. However, regardless of how 'interesting' was my perspective was, there was never any interest in the background that I had to invariably present to explain why I am saying what I am saying. It became clear, living through the system, that as a Colonial, I am supposed to be history-free. 

Yet, as one looks deep into any education, it is always grounded in what came before. Regardless of Boris Johnson's rhetoric, there is no British education without Rome. The trouble for us, Asians, though is that we are not expected to have any historical ground of our own: We are expected to come to 'International Education' as a recipient, carrying our exoticism but not our traditions; not to expand our views of the world but rather to create new identities of ourselves. 'International Education' is, for us, a game of privilege - our brief forays into it are designed to make us 'preferred' and take our place in the centuries-old hierarchy of the world: We get to sit at the bottom, no doubt, but at least higher than our less fortunate compatriots.

For me, this appeared to be just the opposite of all the ideas of redemption and freedom that the globalising information technology training gave me. No longer a game of possibilities, foreign travel and degrees, along with elaborate rankings and temptations of uninhibited life, are really about limiting the possibilities, of ourselves as well as of others; because deep in the idea of 'international education' there is an inherent acceptance of an ethnically pre-determined position that defines on what we should or should not have an opinion. My old tension is back with vengeance: The question I face is whether I should abandon my judgement and embrace the relative advantages on offer, or, seek the freedom of ideas that I took to be the true promise of education.

At this point, I discovered history. Unmoored, of course, from what is taught as academic history in the schools, but rather the historical context of who I am and how I think. I may as well call this 'culture', but this was my way of finding my roots in the context of the wider world, a connection with roots through time. This is like Eliot's 'knowing the place for the first time' - my place! The penny belatedly dropped: Making sense of oneself should precede making sense of the world.

A friend told me that I am catching that nationalist cold that afflicts most of today's world, but I think it's rather an existential moment, out of the culture-free void of self-absolution, that made me see in context and look for new solidarities. My connections with the past appeared severed beyond redemption and my place in the world, as a receiver of culture, appeared pre-destined. Suddenly, the ghost of 'international education' appeared as a way of remaining a forever colonial.

But my friend is right: My views, just at the point of nativist turn in my home country, are rather confusing. But I am not looking to row back to the parochialism that I had enough of and with which most of my life is still engulfed: My act of finding my feet was not to be reduced to closing my eyes.

It's rather, as I think now, time to shed my fear of those know-better foreigners and accepting a knowing-no-better paradigm, that all of us are trying to find our ways, no one knowing any better than the other. It's accepting that not knowledge, but curiosity matters more: The power of the world, history will bear this out, remains with the curious. 

So, here I am, not in a journey of escape, but of discovery; not for the privilege, but a possibility. This is not nativism, the pointless boast of knowing better and having closed minds; but this is a rejection of unquestioned acceptance, of presumed inferiority, of authority and of received ideas.

I am embracing a new idea of Education: Not of institutions, degrees and whatever comes after, but rather unceasing labour of finding myself as a historical being, freeing myself through the acceptance and realisation of my obligations. It's a strange way to relieving my tensions, but at least I am not running away from it.

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