Humphrey TonkinComments on the Occasion of Receipt of the Cassandra Pyle Award
Annual Conference of NAFSA: Association of International Educators
Montréal, Québec, Canada

May 23, 2006

Humphrey Tonkin
University of Hartford

[email protected]

I am most grateful to the NAFSA board and to CEO Marlene Johnson for bestowing on me the Cassandra Pyle Award. I am merely representative of the kind of work that many NAFSA members do, and there are many others who might be standing here today instead of me. It is important to stop and consider from time to time the dedication and commitment that allow the work of international education to go on, and awards like this give us an opportunity to do so.

And what an honor it is to be in the presence today of the great internationalist, democrat, and environmentalist Wangari Maathai—and fellow member of the board of World Learning. Above all, what an honor it is to receive an award named for Cassie Pyle, whom I knew well over many years, both with the Council for International Exchange of Scholars and with the Canadian Fulbright Commission—and also with NAFSA. Cassie was one of the greatest internationalists of them all—a superb administrator and leader, a person who combined flexibility and dignity with rock-solid values, but one who, sadly, left us far too early.

Although my subject is the United States, I am also glad to receive this award in Canada. Take the opportunity of this conference to discover more about higher education in Canada. It has much to teach us in the United States.

It is a truism to point out that thousands of leaders in other countries have studied in the United States and that the academic and scientific world is near dominated by the products of American graduate schools. American higher education has done more to promote the open exchange of ideas and productive intellectual cooperation across the world than perhaps any other sector in American life. We are in many respects the architects of the peaceful international intellectual community that has come to dominate so much of serious international discourse.

It is likewise a truism to point out that more and more younger Americans are choosing to study abroad. The senior ranks of our corporations, the membership of the United States Congress, thousands of professionals, and business people have studied abroad over the past 30 years or so under our auspices. Today, more and more of them are venturing to unusual parts of the world, to engage in hands-on studies that are a far cry from looking at paintings in the Louvre or visiting the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, admirable as those activities may be. Increasingly our young people are engaged in service-learning in Asia and Africa, research projects in Latin America, or internships in Europe or East Asia. Indeed, it is not enough to study abroad: studying abroad must be accompanied by understanding abroad, by learning to look at oneself in the mirror held up by one’s fellow human beings in other countries.

None of this would happen without the work of NAFSA members, who facilitate such exchanges, take care of the increasingly complex regulations governing them, help to assure their quality, and design programs to assist visitors from abroad and to place our young people in study abroad experiences.

One might reasonably expect that this increase in traffic would lead to increased understanding of the rest of the world, and greater tolerance of its differences. But such is not the case—or, more specifically, the reaction of the less well-informed, or less confident, has been powerful and corrosive. Too often, political decisions are made today not on the basis of cultural understanding but on the basis of domestic political calculation, not on the basis of fact but on the basis of naive wishful thinking, not on the basis of mutual respect but on the assumption that other people are somehow inferior to Americans, that other religions are less worthy of respect than ours, that the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in our constitution can only be defended by denying those rights and freedoms to others, that English and English only entitles one to such rights, that knowledge of the world is a sign of weakness rather than strength because it causes us to think twice before moving to confrontation.

The truth is that it is not enough to take a trip or two abroad, to learn a smattering of a foreign language, to know just enough about the world to be able to cite statistics showing that the United States leads the world in this or that category of achievement. Nor is it enough to listen only to people in other countries who echo what we say to them. We must find ways of communicating with others on the basis of equality; we must learn to ask questions as well as deliver answers; we must learn flexibility as well as firmness; we must learn to listen as well as to speak.

That is why, over the years, I have to serve as an advocate for foreign language learning. It is why, when I was 15 or so, I learned Esperanto and traveled the world using it to talk with people who did not speak the American or the British language. It is why I have always encouraged people to think of languages not as rigid systems but as modes of human behavior. It is why I have always advocated the learning of anthropology as well as economics. It is why I have worked for the Fulbright program, why I have supported study abroad that goes beyond the conventional, as the programs of SIT go beyond the conventional or those of the International Partnership for Service-Learning go beyond the conventional. It is why I have worked to promote the United Nations and the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But you too have done many of these things, or things like them. There is so much to be done. And that is why we must work together.

My thanks, again, to the NAFSA board. I wish all NAFSAns the energy, the strength, and the courage to work for what they believe in. There was never a time when international education and international exchange mattered more than today, never a time when the work of NAFSA was more important.