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On campus, we still school the world

"Education power" may be the best long-term hope for dealing with America's troubles abroad.

By DAVID IGNATIUS Washington Post Writers Group
Published March 12, 2007


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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - When people think about American power in the world, they usually list the country's forbidding arsenal of bombers, aircraft carriers and troops. Yet America's greatest strategic asset these days might not be its guns, but its universities.

America's great universities are the brand names for excellence - drawing in the brightest students and faculty and giving them unparalleled opportunities. This is where the openness and freewheeling diversity of American life provide us a huge advantage over tighter, more homogeneous cultures.

This "education power" may be the best long-term hope for dealing with America's troubles abroad. Global polls show that after the Iraq debacle, the rest of the world mistrusts America and its values. But there is one striking exception to this anti-Americanism, and that is education. American-style universities, colleges and schools are sprouting up around the world.

I got to thinking about American education during a visit to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where I listened to two prominent Iranian-born scholars, Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh, try to explain what's happening in Tehran. From its founding in 1978, the Kennedy School has seen itself as a resource for the world. The new U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki Moon, was a student here in the 1980s. When he arrived, he announced that his nickname was "JFK," which stood for "Just from Korea."

Graham Allison, the school's founding dean, says, "I can't go to any country and not find some Kennedy School graduates in the Cabinet." This academic year, Harvard has 3,821 foreign students from 131 countries in its various schools, with 403 from China, 269 from South Korea and 193 from India.

America's other great universities are pursuing a similar vision of internationalization. Yale's president, Rick Levin, has more than quadrupled the percentage of foreign undergraduates since he took charge in 1993, and he has created an extensive exchange program with China's top university.

"If we do one thing to change the political direction of America, it will be to create leaders with an understanding that we have an interdependent planet," says Levin.

Columbia has embarked on its own effort to create a truly global university. It has 4,634 foreign students, or 18.6 percent of its total enrollment. Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, is drafting a new outreach plan to create research centers in Jordan, Tanzania, India, China, France and in Latin America. The first such center, in Jordan, will work with the Jordanian government on reforming the country's educational system, creating what could be a model for the Muslim world.

What worries these university presidents is that at a time when the world's best and brightest are still hungry for a U.S. education, immigration regulations are making it too hard for students to come here.

Pentagon generals are always bragging about their "smart bombs," which sometimes go wide of the target. American education is a smart bomb that actually works. When we think about the foreign outreach efforts by these university presidents and dozens of others, we should recognize that they are a national security asset - making the world safer, as well as wiser.

David Ignatius' e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

2007, Washington Post Writers Group

By the numbers At Harvard

3,821 foreign students from 131 countries 403 are from China 269 from South Korea 193 from India

[Last modified March 12, 2007, 01:10:04]


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