Editor’s Note: This article was written by a professor who wishes to remain anonymous.
I am a Latin American professor teaching at a university in the Gulf region. Many universities in Gulf countries are affiliated with institutions in the United States, and even those of us who teach in non-affiliated institutions strive hard to reproduce the American model of higher education overseas. We are at the forefront of so-called “transnational education,” an emerging trend that is overtaking much of Asia, from Singapore and Shanghai to Doha and Abu Dhabi.
In a recent op-ed published by The Hill, Dr. Fernando León García explains that while transnational education was already taking hold, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated its development. As the academic world was forced to embrace online platforms for teaching, students all over the world had greater opportunities to enroll in American academic programs, with no need to travel.
As Dr. León García sees it, this trend should continue because “supporting transnational education would serve America’s interests in diplomacy and foreign affairs since it can be a form of exercising soft power and soft diplomacy.” He is correct, but I wish we were spared the euphemisms. Transnational education is not just about America exercising “soft power” and “soft diplomacy”; it is actually about reshaping the world in America’s image. In other words, it is sheer cultural imperialism.
Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with cultural imperialism. In this age of wokeness and frantic efforts to decolonize everything (not least of which, the curriculum), imperialism gets a bad name. And sure enough, when you think about the Congo Free State or the Amritsar massacre, your only reasonable option is to acknowledge the crimes of imperialism. But when it comes to education and culture, an honest assessment would indicate that imperialism was not so bad.
In his famous (or infamous, depending on how woke you are) 1835 article Minute on Education, Thomas Macaulay proposed to articulate an educational system that would produce “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” Macaulay is perceived today as a brutal imperialist who swept away Indian’s cultural legacy in order to impose an educational system that would favor British colonial interests. To be sure, Macaulay was a tad insensitive toward India’s culture, but make no mistake: the education system that he envisioned (and that ultimately prevailed) is largely responsible for India’s current positioning as an emerging world power.
So, it is tempting to argue that just as Macaulay is to be praised for his educational vision in the 19th century, in the 21st century we ought to sing praises to the transnational education project that is shaping world culture in America’s image. To which I reply: not so fast.
I, for one, am delighted to see my students in the Middle East being exposed to exciting movements of secularization, women empowerment, entrepreneurship, detribalization, academic discussion, and so on. Of course, in this area of the world, there are always remnants of people who believe the Sun orbits around the Earth, and occasionally adulteresses are stoned to death. But I am optimistic that, as young people are increasingly more interested in pursuing degrees in branches of NYU in some Gulf city, instead of enrolling in the local madrassa, those kinds of barbarities will eventually disappear. And when that happens, we will need to thank transnational education.
However, the problem is that the American model of higher education is no longer what it used to be. I am afraid that over the last couple of decades, it has come to resemble a fast food restaurant. Quite a few academics have expressed concern over the so-called “McDonaldization” of the university. As per George Ritzer—the sociologist who coined the term—societal McDonaldization consists of four basic features: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control. This has certainly made society more productive in many areas, but when it comes to the university, it has shortcomings. In striving for efficiency, universities measure success by counting the number of students getting a degree, regardless of the extent to which those students have learned to maturely reflect about issues in the world. In striving for predictability, much creativity is lost, as standardized modules and credits erode the dynamic interactions with students that Socrates would have found essential. In striving for calculability, students are far more concerned with grades than with actually learning something; professors become obsessed with their H-Index, to the detriment of making a difference in their students’ world. In striving for control, universities disincentivize students and lecturers from thinking outside the box.
In the Middle East, I have seen this pattern repeated over and over again. Sure, being exposed to American education, students are less likely to approve of the public execution of homosexuals. But they are also more likely to become mindless bureaucrats who approach education and professional development primarily as box-tickers.
Furthermore, I have an additional concern with the McDonaldization of the international university. When Ritzer developed his famous thesis in 1993, McDonald’s was just a huge profit-making business. Today, corporations are much more than that, as they have been swallowed up by so-called “woke capitalism.” Efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control alone will not generate profits. In our age, corporations need to reframe their image to the tune of virtue-signaling. In so doing, they export to the rest of the world the obsessions of woke ideology.
Cultural imperialism is shaping the rest of the world in America’s image. But that image is now increasingly woke. Consequently, transnational education ends up forming students into progressive activists with little insight as to how the world truly works, thus reproducing American campus politics. This pattern is beginning to develop in Asia. Say what you want about China’s atrocious record on human rights, but at least the Chinese can be praised for their dismissal of woke ideology—to the extent that they have even come up with a word (baizou, 白左) to mock naïve Western liberals. But as transnational education increasingly takes over, wokeness may end up reigning supreme in campuses all over China and other emerging nations.
Transnational education is thus a double-edged sword. It has much potential to fulfill the modernization of nations that were highly dysfunctional places only a few decades ago. But it also has the potential to turn students into mindless bureaucrats who try to ape every aspect of American education, without duly assimilating the elevated academic spirit that has made the United States the world leader. And even worse, this mindless imitation may actually end up reproducing the disturbing pattern of campus wokeness that is overtaking American academia. This should be a wake-up call for overseas university administrators to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to embrace truly productive transnational education.