The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race" -- the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
–David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College Commencement Speech, (2005)
After forty years of pioneering border crossings through his scholarship and global engagement, Craig Lockard has offered readers of the inaugural issue of the Middle Ground Journal compelling reasons as to why the current regression toward parochialism within the United States must be stemmed. As Lockard describes, to the extent that global interconnectedness increases—as evidenced by border-crossing patterns of consumption and mass culture—the United States retrenches its commitment to global engagement. As evidence of U.S. retrenchment, Lockard points to an extreme deficit of global knowledge, the decreasing presence of mainstream media correspondents in other regions of the world, and to the lessening desire (as well as lessoning economic capacity) of youth to travel abroad and experience foreign cultures and environments in empathic and meaningful ways.
The cost of such parochialism, according to Lockard, is devastating for the United States not only in terms of national security, but also in terms of economic and social progress. Failure to take stock of and fully understand the complex global environment leaves the United States fundamentally unprepared for an uncertain global future. In terms of national security, failure to fully engage with a complex global environment leaves Americans vulnerable to misapprehending military conflicts, both from within the White House, and tactically from on the ground when fighting in foreign countries. Finally, failure to engage with and understand more developed countries outside of the United States will lead to delayed development within the U.S. in terms of social policy, further weakening its position as a leading power in the world.
In order to forestall the consequences of global disengagement and develop a knowledge of the world that will guide the U.S. as it navigates the future, Lockard invites students, educators, and academics to cross borders in three fundamental ways: 1.) through breaking down intellectual disciplinary boundaries in order to be "flexible and multi-dimensional" which then becomes a model of how the United States should approach global awareness—i.e., flexibly and multi-dimensionally; 2.) through "understanding and connecting with other cultures and the diverse world that shapes our own lives directly or indirectly"; and 3.) through "widening our horizon from the cultural, national, and regional to the global." As a student, educator, and academic who is committed to not only crossing, but ideally eliminating borders (my field of specialization is nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Japan, but I now teach east Asian and occasionally world history at the undergraduate level), I would like to respond to several areas of Dr. Lockard's essay that I think deserve further discussion before providing a few thoughts on the necessity of developing and practicing imagination and empathy as the foundational core of crossing and transcending borders. Since a critique can only be the starting point of dialogue, I hope that my perspective will help further a conversation about these vital issues.
Lockard is correct to point out that the entrenched disciplinary boundaries which academics so fiercely protect often lead to a divided academic community and the stagnation of knowledge within the university. As a solution, he suggests interdisciplinarity as a way of dissolving such divisions to create a free flow of ideas, presumably in regard to knowledge that will in particular facilitate intercultural understanding and global awareness. In the context of Lockard's discussion, the vision of interdisciplinarity is based upon the UW-Green Bay model of departments organized around specific academic problems or questions, rather than that of nineteenth- and twentieth-century disciplinary divisions. Certainly, the cross-pollination of scholars from different disciplines within one department may lead to exciting exchanges of knowledge and creative research and teaching. At the same time, given the history of area studies in the United States—and the way in which area studies have flowed and ebbed with the tide of national interests—I think it is important to first ask whether dissolving disciplinary boundaries is in fact more beneficial to freeing up academics to pursue global studies in an unfettered manner. I am excited to consider new structures for exchanging ideas within academia, yet fearful that scholars will be placed in the service of problem solving certain problems rather than in the service of free intellectual inquiry—inquiry which has been traditionally defended as a disciplinary imperative. Therefore, while disciplinary-based departments fall prey to territoriality, thus stifling the interchange of knowledge, does creating new thematically based, problem-based, or regionally based departments (such as the area studies programs of the 1960s and 70s) leave academic scholarship even more vulnerable to the interests of academic administration, industry, and governmental demands, and as a result even more constrained?
In order to encourage interdisciplinary interactions, Lockard also suggests that universities might alter tenure policies to reward scholars who pursue an interdisciplinary approach. Again, this may be very successful in promoting scholars who are either trained in or choose to shift their focus to world history or other types of global studies; yet again I would like to know more. Once outside of disciplinary boundaries, how should the tenure assessment of such scholars look? Does altering tenure policies as an incentive imply that tenure-track academics should retrain? If so, how should this training take place: through self-education or within an external program funded by the university? Will scholars who adopt a region or regions of the world and incorporate it into their work be able to produce a more substantial knowledge of the world than those trained in a global region within a specific graduate discipline? Thus, while Lockard's proposals regarding interdisciplinarity should be pursued, considering the entrenchment of disciplines at the graduate level and also the conflicted past of "area studies," the notion of interdisciplinarity should be discussed and articulated more fully within colleges and universities before changes in institutional structure and policy are made.
In regard to the connection between crossing disciplinary borders and creating global awareness, Lockard seems to suggest that by breaking down disciplinary boundaries, academics could provide a model for disrupting nationally defined borders at the global level. If this is the case, for Lockard, the academic community remains firmly at the forefront of fostering global awareness within the United States. However, given the political disputatiousness within academia, the reluctance of many universities to commit funds to support fully the retraining of existing scholars or the staffing of fully trained scholars specializing in global studies (especially those outside the boundaries of immediate national interest) within the social sciences and humanities, not to mention the cynicism toward the academy that pervades mainstream culture in the U.S., I am not optimistic about the ability of the academic community to serve as a force in reinvigorating global awareness at the national level. More significantly, to highlight academia's primacy in this task raises the question of what role K-12 educators should have in fostering global knowledge during the most formative years of childhood and adolescent development, and whether a move toward interdisciplinarity is also appropriate for educators in the K-12 system.
In short, if The Middle Ground community were to embark on further dialogue about the relationship between interdisciplinarity and global knowledge within the academy, new ideas may emerge that enhance Lockard's valuable suggestions. For example, I found Lockard's call to hire more foreign scholars compelling as a means to foster knowledge of global perspectives within the university. A similar argument has also been made here at Wittenberg for bringing large numbers of international students to our small community in the Midwest. I myself have experienced the way in which students from other parts of the world can open up discussions within a classroom and lead our largely Midwestern, white, middle-to-upper-middle class student body into much more thoughtful conversations regarding self and other. Yet, although this is one extremely valuable means to introducing diverse cultural perspectives into the academy, there is a certain danger in assuming that importing scholars from outside the United States will create formative transformations in intercultural and global awareness. And, the burden on such scholars and international students is great. More often than not, particularly on smaller campuses in the Midwest, scholars from outside the United State risk being continually essentialized by their less globally aware colleagues and students as the authentic representatives of their cultures (or in some cases essentialize themselves), leading to reductive notions of other societies and their cultural practices that reinforce cultural cleavages rather than transcend them. Such risks aside, bringing diverse voices into the academy is absolutely necessary; but a clearer awareness and dialogue about the potential benefits and drawbacks is an essential part of the process if new strategies are to succeed.
Lockard points to the concrete dangers of American ignorance about the world as a rationale for crossing borders, not merely in regard to national security and foreign policy, but also in regard to the ways in which such ignorance has led to devastating consequences for those Americans caught up in such policies and also for those individuals living in countries thrown in the path of misguided U.S. foreign policy such as the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Sunni Iraqis, and Shia Iraqis. Yet, does not promoting global knowledge in the service of national interest leave the United States vulnerable to reproducing the same types of conflicts that have occurred in the past? In other words, insofar as nation-states only interact in the world according their own interests, will not conflict continue to dominate the foreseeable future?
One concern that I have about Lockard's vision of crossing cultural borders is that it may be construed as instrumentalist in the sense that the accumulation of global knowledge often appears to be placed in the service of American national interests: military, geopolitical, and economic, rather than as a way of developing an empathic understanding of differing cultural practices that facilitates the genuine flexibility, fluidity, and change that Lockard holds to be essential to charting a secure global future. Certainly, the nation-state will not disappear in our lifetime, and an appeal to national interests and illustrating the use of global knowledge to address pragmatic national concerns has been one effective way to advocate for global awareness; yet although Lockard calls on American students to cross cultural borders and achieve intercultural understanding in order to prepare for the future, I think we must still ask, for whose future? Is it possible to both secure global knowledge in the service of American interests, and still truly achieve an intercultural understanding which allows the perspectives and interests of other global regions to be weighed equally with those of the United States?
Citing the acclaimed novelist, Carlos Fuentes, Lockard states that "what Americans do best is understand themselves, what they do worst is understand any other countries." Yet I wonder if it's not more complex than this. My experience of leaving rural Minnesota for the first time and living in Japan at the age of eighteen taught me at the personal level that my assumptions about my national identity were deeply distorted. As a white middle-class American from the Midwest, I was unable to begin a critical reflection of my position in the world until I was exposed to Japanese perspectives of American history and foreign policy (as well as those perspectives of Chinese, German, African, Australian, French, Brazilian, Iranian, and British laborers and teachers I briefly exchanged ideas with while on buses and trains in Japan). The notion that self-understanding and transformation results from a dynamic exchange between self and other can only strengthen Lockard's appeal for broader intercultural understanding as a part of an ever-changing world, but can this be achieved while still clinging firmly to national or meta-national categories such as "American" or "Western" and continuing to assert a historically suspect dualism of "west" [America/W. Europe] and "non-west" [all other regions]?
For example, when Lockard goes on to describe how Americans may understand themselves but are mystified by immigrant communities in their midst, with their ethnic restaurants, supermarkets, cultural styles of clothing, music, and art, which Americans does he mean? Is he rather not referring to certain segments of the American population such as white middle and upper classes? Moreover, if the mystified white middle and upper classes are categorized as "Americans," where does this leave all the others in terms of their position within the United States? Let's consider this: if we substitute "white middle and upper class" in Fuentes' statement (as paraphrased by Lockard) it could be read as something like this: "what white middle- and upper-class Americans do best is understand themselves, what they do worst is understand any other [classes, ethnic groups] countries." Moreover, if such mystification is occurring, who is mystifying whom, how, and why? The lived experience within much of the United States reveals the ongoing presence of a fluid, interactive multi-class, multi-cultural environment among many segments of the population, yet ideologies that reassert and fix racial, ethnic, and class divides continue to exist. As educators and scholars should we not feel compelled to examine whether these fixed representations displayed in the media and entertainment culture truly match the experience of everyday individuals within the United States? In other words, when educators and scholars blindly use a category such as "Americans" or "Japanese" in our scholarship and teaching as convenient shorthand without precision and qualification, we reinforce those parochial values that Lockard seeks to avoid. Fixing and juxtaposing "Americans" with the "other" (i.e., immigrant communities) as Lockard does in his address is at odds with his own desire to highlight the notion of change and fluidity at the local and global level as the basis of flexibly responding to changing conditions as a means to a peaceful global future.
In a now famous 1992 U.N. speech Canadian, Severn Suzuki, then twelve years old, expressed a youthful righteous indignation, despair, and fear over global environmental devastation, war, and social inequity, and implored world leaders from the perspective of a child to think and act globally to solve such problems globally rather than nationally. In light of the recent BP disaster her statement is still powerful not only in articulating the necessity of a more unified global vision, but also in revealing the empathy required to carry out such a vision. Suzuki stated:
All this is happening before our eyes, yet we act if we have all the time and all the solutions. I'm only a child and I don't have all the solutions, but I want you to realize, neither do you. You don't know how to fix the holes in our ozone layer, you don't know how to bring the salmon back up a dead stream, you don't know how to bring back an animal now extinct and you can't bring back the forest that once grew where there is now a desert. If you don't know how to fix it please stop breaking it. . . . I'm only a child yet I know we are all part of a family five billion strong, in fact, 30 million species strong, and borders and governments will never change that. I'm only a child yet I know we're all in this together and should act as one single world towards one single goal. In my anger I am not blind and in my fear I am not afraid of the telling the world how I feel. In my country we make so much waste: we buy and throw away, buy and throw away, buy and throw away; yet northern countries will not share with the needy; even when we have more than enough, we are afraid to share, we are afraid to let go of our wealth. . . . In Canada we live the privileged life with plenty of food, water, and shelter. . . . Two days ago here in Brazil we were shocked when we spent time with some children living on the streets. This is what one child told us: "I wish I was rich, and if I were I would give all the street children food, clothes, medicines, shelter and love and affection. If a child on the streets who has nothing is willing to share, why are we who have everything still so greedy? I can't stop thinking that these are children my own age, that it makes a tremendous difference where you are born, that I could be one of those children living in the favelas of Rio, that I could be a child starving in Somalia or a victim of war in the middle east or a beggar in India. . . . My dad always says you are what you do and not what you say, well what you do makes me cry at night. You grownups say you love us, but I challenge you, please make your actions reflect your words.
For educators and scholars, especially those of us who may be of the more cynical variety, Suzuki's statement may appear naïve and cliché. At the same time, however, I have included her words because she reveals the desire to step outside her social and national position in order to empathize and act for others. In a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College outside of Columbus, Ohio, David Foster Wallace—himself white, upper-middle class, raised in the Midwest (Urbana, Illinois), and the son of two academics—stated that the freedom to pursue one's personal desires without concern for others was not, in fact, freedom but an animalistic, unconscious drive; an indication of developmental immaturity. Real freedom, Wallace told Kenyon graduating seniors, "involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day." According to Wallace, only by looking outside oneself to the other through empathic caring could Americans be liberated from permanent enslavement to individual desire. Thus, both Suzuki and Wallace point to a spiritual or psychological anomie and despair that has taken hold as a result of constant immersion in what they hold to be a spiritually or psychologically toxic environment dominated by self-interest, and both reiterate in their own way Lockard's concern over whether "northern countries" will be able to sacrifice short-term material desires for the health of future generations.
Yet, if we agree with Suzuki and Wallace's position, namely that empathy and caring may take us closer to a more developed state of human awareness at the local and global levels, as educators how do we motivate ourselves and our students to continually engage in such "unsexy acts" of caring and sacrifice for others who are viewed as different, and even alien to us? Since this is a question I struggle with at the core of my scholarship and teaching, I would be inspired to learn about some of the intellectual and pedagogical tactics used by educators and academics in the Midwest. However, I also think it's essential for us as educators to realize that studying regions of the world or going out into the world does not necessarily imply that American citizens will return home transformed by their knowledge. In many cases, by the time students reach adulthood and begin to travel, experiences abroad may often confirm American-centric assumptions about a superior value system and position in the world to the extent that many university students may feel no compulsion to deepen or transform their understanding further. Therefore, to me, the source of the failure of many of us who live within the United States to truly engage with the global community is not merely an ignorance of the world, but more essentially, a failure to develop the imagination and empathy that will allow us to look beyond our own individual values, class, and ethnicity and understand the perspective of another at the local or global level. Viewed in this way, the question becomes how can we as educators and academics help each other and our students to imagine, to the extent possible, a reality outside of our own economic class, ethnicity, and worldview, in order not only to cross, but also eliminate borders that confine our ability to understand difference.
If empathy and imagination are the building blocks to creating a more caring and transformative understanding of the inter-relationship between self and other, then pedagogically, what is required to develop these qualities to their maximum capacity? Moreover, is an imagination- and empathy-centered focus merely the concern of academia? Certainly, I would argue that educators from the kindergarten to the graduate level share equally in the responsibility of actively challenging themselves and their students to place diverse forms of knowledge in the service of empathy, i.e., entertaining the perspective of others at the personal, local, and global levels. Experiential learning that takes young students out into their local community at all levels of their education starting from kindergarten and that creates reciprocal, cross-class, cross-ethnic relationships is one way to practice such knowledge. Examining the ethical dangers of empathy and the limits of social tolerance is certainly a fundamental question for undergraduate and graduate students. If educators and students are able to recognize the diversity and value of alternative viewpoints and practices within their own communities, they will be far more prepared to comprehend that difference is fundamental to all human society at the local and global level, and that learning to effectively engage, tolerate, and resolve conflict with neighbors, laborers, the indigent, and ethnically unfamiliar (as well as to make oneself tolerable to others, to risk caring and being cared for by others) in the midst of difference at the local level, is essential to comprehending difference at the global level. Accepting and valuing difference as a core constituent of fluidity and change in local and global spaces, of understanding both self and other-rather than erasing or denying it, will reinvigorate a climate of local and global awareness and help us to move toward a more globally equitable and unified future.
Edited by Jeanne E. Grant