Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Educational disparities at an international level

For some time now, it has been the case that internationalisation of education cannot be separated from globalisation as a multifaceted phenomenon. This inevitably raises the question of whether such globalisation, especially given its inseparability from advanced (electronic) communicational developments (partly as a means to the sharing of knowledge and, unavoidably, economic prosperity), is judged and/or regulated in light of the normative requirements of what is called ‘distributive justice’. The answer to this question is an unambiguous ‘No’.

The economic disparities between the ‘First’ and the ‘Third World’ are such that, even if thousands of international students are annually accommodated at universities in First World’ countries, those who return to their countries of origin do not seriously challenge the economic (political and cultural) hegemony of the ‘First World’. Moreover, the ostensible international educational openness or hospitality on the part of First World countries is usually a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it empowers international students regarding their chosen disciplines, while on the other, it serves to export (very conveniently) the ideology implicit in the teaching of many of these disciplines, namely a fusion of liberal democracy and late capitalism — something that conveniently serves the purposes of the dominant powers. And as Foucault, following Nietzsche and Machiavelli, has taught us, it is power that usually prevails and not critical-ethical reason. This is no reason to give up on such critical-ethical reason, though there is a more urgent need for its cultivation among students internationally than ever before, lest they become the dupes of the hegemonic neoliberal ideology of their host countries.

What is called ‘cultural justice’ is intimately related to distributive justice in an international educational context. It is well-known in globalisation studies that cultural homogenisation and fragmentation accompany the process of globalisation, as does cultural hybridisation, which draws attention to the creative side of cultural globalisation. There are several consequences of these aspects of the globalising process.

On the one hand, the homogenisation-process goes hand in hand with the threat to linguistic diversity in the world by the ever-increasing internationalisation of (especially American) English via satellite communications, and the global hegemony of (American) English television programming. And with linguistic domination comes cultural domination, to which many of the world’s less powerful, sometimes fragile cultures are simply not resistant. It is true of course that such homogenisation offers the advantage of all cultures being able to avail themselves of the knowledge-dissemination that is occurring by means of the global accessibility of English as a medium. But the threat posed to linguistic diversity by this phenomenon should not be underestimated, especially when one remembers that every extant language represents a system or repository of indigenous knowledge accumulated over centuries. To lose any of these languages is tantamount to losing cultural and epistemological ‘biodiversity’.

On the other hand, the typically postmodern fragmentation of culture is accompanied by a salutary recognition of difference and otherness, so lacking in modernity, where a hierarchical subordination of the cultural (colonised, racial) other was the rule. This should, ethically speaking, be good news for all cultures and genders, if it was not for the fact that new global hierarchies are already in the process of establishing themselves — hierarchies that have consequences for international students as well. By and large, these hierarchies seem to have an economic basis. In his shockingly demystifying book, ‘The Enemy of Nature’ (2007), Joel Kovel pointed out, for instance, that poor nations are still (even increasingly) being exploited by rich ones, and that whatever the international gains of the women’s movement may have been, today the socio-economic position of women in especially those cultures where the effect of gender-sensitive legislation has not been felt (or where such legislation has not even occurred) is worse than ever.

One of the reasons for this is that women in many Third World cultures are more subservient workers than men, and therefore preferred as employees by factory (sweat shop) bosses. The irony is that these factories are often set up in these countries by companies based in First World countries because of the cultural differences involved, according to which exploitation of workers in these Third World countries is easier, and profits higher than in the home countries of such companies. Clearly, then, otherness does not necessarily mean mutual respect; often it means exploitation of the cultural other, today no less than during the heyday of an older imperialism.

In such a situation, it is imperative that international educational authorities constantly test themselves in relation to the question, whether they are providing the educational means for not only the advanced technical training of international students, but also for their critical-intellectual development. In fact, one of the ‘plagues of the present world-order’, to borrow a phrase from Derrida in Specters of Marx, is the neglect of critical-intellectual education in favour of mere technical training — what the young American philosopher, Farhang Erfani aptly, in the course of a lecture in South Africa, called the training of mere ‘labourers’ instead of the education of (responsible and informed) ‘citizens’ by universities.

It is imperative to add another kind of justice here, namely ‘ecological justice’; although (given its tremendous importance) it really deserves a lengthy discussion of its own. Briefly, this entails ethical considerations regarding the increasingly apparent fact of the destruction of natural ecosystems by human development. In the book by Kovel, mentioned earlier, a grim picture of the state of nature emerges, with Kovel inexorably listing all the evidence of nature’s devastation at the hands of human beings under the sway of capitalism, such as the pollution of the oceans to the point where people cannot swim in their waters in many areas (such as the coast of Florida in the US) without risking contamination by noxious bacteria, the accelerating extinction of animal and plant species the world over because of global warming, as well as human destruction of natural habitats, and many other such instances (too many to address here).

His argument, which is carefully and persuasively constructed in the course of the book, is that the main culprit regarding the destruction of nature is the economic system known as (neoliberal) capitalism, mainly because of the fact that it rests on the principle of unrestrained economic growth. In fact, the process known as ‘capital’ implies such unlimited growth. Although there was a call to limit growth during the 1970s (ironically on the part of the capitalist elites themselves, as registered in the report of the ‘Club of Rome’ of 1972), nothing has come of this exhortation. On the contrary, growth-figures have multiplied and actual economic growth has accelerated in advanced capitalist economies worldwide, with the result that it has reached the point where no one even talks of limiting it any longer (perhaps because of a feeling of unlimited power, or conversely, a feeling of helplessness in the face of the ostensibly insurmountable ecological and related social problems facing the world today).

The ethical implications of this state of affairs are obvious, especially in an international educational context. Perhaps this is the best place to start addressing these problems, which bear on the future survival and morally justified continued living of the people of this planet, as well as the survival of all other living creatures on it. It cannot be emphasised too strongly: unless the leading powers of the world take the ecological crisis seriously enough to ‘fast-track’ alternatives to energy-through-oil, for example, and put everything into play to limit economic growth in a judicious manner (which does not threaten livelihoods), it is a real possibility that humanity will have to take responsibility for the utter devastation of all natural life on this planet, as well as of the human cultures that have developed in dependence on nature.

The rate at which forests are being destroyed for economic gain, for example, simply ignores the fact that these forests are the ‘lungs’ of the planet, and no financial profit could ever replace their indispensable function for our survival. Would not it be the greatest irony if the very (human) beings capable of taking responsibility for nature, as its guardians, turned out to be its (and their own) destroyers? And does this not point to the greatest international ethical (educational) priority of all — a truly holistic ecological one?

Anyone interested in a more comprehensive account of these problems, could read my paper, ‘Ethical challenges regarding the globalisation of higher education’, US-China Education Review B 6, Vol. 1 (6), November 2011, pp. 816-823, available at ResearchGate.

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