VIEWPOINT: Foreign study deserves government support

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The goal of “crosscultural understanding” is now practically a mantra at every university, and the federal government has joined the chorus. President Bush has proclaimed, “America’s leadership and national security rest on our commitment to educate and pre
pare our youth for active engagement in the international community.” And in November, the U.S. Senate designated 2006 as the “Year of Study Abroad.”

The Senate resolution maintains that education abroad promotes the nation’s “security, stability and economic vitality.” It notes with concern that while 79 percent of Americans agree that it’s important to study abroad, only 1 percent of U.S. students currently do so.

But talk is cheap, and so far neither Congress nor the White House seems prepared to make the needed investment, as evidenced by the inadequate plan published by the Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Program, a federally appointed bipartisan group cited in the Senate resolution.

Conceived by the late visionary Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, the Lincoln Commission-named to recognize the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in 2009-claims to promote “a conscious act of national renewal, driven by interna
tional education … ”

Simon sketched a bold, 10-year plan that would invest $3.5 billion annually to send 500,000 young Americans to study abroad each year. Before his untimely death in 2003, the senator persuaded Congress and the Bush administration to establish the Lincoln Commission, which would flesh out specific recommendations.

But fear of failure enervated the commission, turning the late senator’s dynamic vision into a pale ghost. In a public briefing last year, the commission’s executive director commented that, “We’d be laughed off the Hill” if commission members were to seek Simon’s suggested funding.

Accordingly, the group proposes to launch the program not with $3.5 billion but with $50 million-about what the government spent just to secure the perimeter of the Pentagon, let alone what is needed for what the commission grandly calls “a conscious act of national renewal.”

To be fair, the commission conducted substantive discussions about program structure for study abroad. But the commission’s reluctance to seek the needed funds makes their work seem like the product of talented engineers who have designed the cockpit of a wingless plane. In its present form, the Lincoln Commission’s program might roll a few yards down the runway, but it will never get far off the ground.

Two developments could salvage the commission’s efforts. First, as Geoffrey Bannister, executive director of the Forum on Education Abroad, has urged,
the commission needs to secure corporate support, since American business has a competitive stake in developing a globally aware work force.

Second, and more critically, President Bush and congressional leaders need to match their rhetoric with real numbers. The president’s just-announced intention to request $114 million for a new National Security Language Initiative is a welcome move, but far more is needed to prepare Americans for “active engagement in the international community.”

If the president truly believes the nation’s security and leadership “rest” on Americans’ international education, then surely education abroad deserves the equivalent of at least one-quarter of 1 percent of the nation’s security investment. The Defense Department budget is more than $400 billion. One-quarter of 1 percent would yield $1 billion for education abroad-far less than the cost of one Navy DD(X) destroyer, or a week of war in Iraq.

What ultimately is required is for the Lincoln Commission, its congressional sponsors and all supporters of international education to overcome the fear of ridicule in proposing bold initiatives, as Sen. Simon did. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that all truth passes through three stages: first it is ridiculed; then it is violently opposed; finally it is accepted as self-evident. Being laughed at on the Hill is a giant step in the right direction.

Gervasi is president of the localy based Institute for Study Abroad.

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