In an event yesterday sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) State and Local Officials Initiative, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan emphasized the importance of a global approach to education. Noting that the United States is experiencing both increased competition from and collaboration with other countries, Duncan described education as the great equalizer and connector, not just for students in American schools, but also around the world.

Speaking Other Languages
Recalling President Obama’s speech in Cairo last summer, Duncan said that international education and exchange can better connect us. He acknowledged that we live in a world where the line between the international and the domestic is increasingly blurred and emphasized the need for Americans to learn to speak other languages and to study abroad. He noted that our notion that English is the language of choice in the business world tends to limit us and disconnect us from the world. Quoting Nelson Mandela, he said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” I couldn’t agree more – those of us who work in international education know there’s no substitute for speaking and understanding other languages as a way to truly know and understand our neighbors around the world.

Higher Education Can’t Rest on its Laurels
Notably, Duncan devoted a good portion of his remarks to the importance of international education at the higher education level. He said that deans, provosts, presidents, etc. need to understand the importance of international education and foreign languages and that this isn’t the time to scale back, despite today’s tight budgets. He praised the U.S. higher education system for its strengths in international education, including Fulbright-Hays and Title VI programs, but cautioned about the dangers of resting on our laurels. While he acknowledged that much more work needs to be done at the K-12 level to help students receive the world-class education they deserve, he repeatedly noted that we can’t afford to neglect investments in higher education, in light of increasing competition from abroad. One audience member asked about the connection between our leadership in higher education and immigration policy, noting that visa concerns and our immigration system cause many talented people to study and conduct academic conferences elsewhere. He agreed that these are real concerns and expressed an interest in working with international partners on the issue, and added that he also strongly supports the DREAM Act, as he believes it is vitally important that all students have the chance to go to college. Duncan also emphasized the importance of community colleges in connecting education with workforce development, which he noted the Department is committed to pursuing, particularly in the Muslim world.

Support the Administration’s Efforts to Focus on Global Issues
Listening to Duncan’s remarks, I was struck and encouraged by his refusal to accept the false choice between improving our domestic education system and engaging with the world. When asked by one audience member how he would balance the triage between the dire needs of our domestic education system and diplomacy abroad, he stated emphatically that we must play a role internationally, in coordination with the Department of State and others. “If we want a safer world,” he said, “I can’t think of a better way than making sure students have a way to be educated,” and then noted that veterans from the war in Afghanistan have told him countless times that to improve the situation we must focus on building more schools there – while we’re concerned with how long our lunch hours are, many children around the world, especially girls, don’t even have a school to attend. He said we have to do both – we have to improve the quality of our education here and give students around the world more opportunity for learning.

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