In the official story Yale tells itself — the story that emerges from official statements and development plans — the message is clear: Yale is an international university. With great emphasis and considerable pride, the University’s representatives continually refer to Yale’s global mission.
This should be no surprise: Globalization is a hot topic, and university administrators everywhere have a long tradition of tuning themselves to the zeitgeist. But when it comes to the internationalization of Yale, the governors of our University seem especially gung-ho.
When President Levin hailed “the transformation of Yale from a local to a regional to a national to an international university,” his expansionist cadence gave us a glorious vision of the future, in which Yale students shuck off the archaic limits of place and nationality and, as if stepping out of Plato’s cave, march forward into a realm of unprecedented learning to take up the mantle of global leadership: philosopher-kings for the modern age.
That’s all good stuff, of course, but before we get too caught up in it we should take some time to think about what Yale’s transformation into an international university really means.
I have nothing bad to say about Yale’s international connections, for I have benefited greatly from friendships with international students, from taking courses under foreign professors and from studying abroad on Yale’s dime. There’s no question that Yale has an international orientation, and that it enriches our time here. But if we consider the question from the other side, it is not clear what, apart from our prestige and academic resources, Yale brings to its international relationships. Alongside the University’s international commitments, is there an American character to Yale?
Most of us here would be hard-pressed to give an answer. Whether we rally ’round the flag or cringe at the mention of “Captain Freedom,” none of us could give an easy description of the character of this country. The greatest outbreak of national sentiment at Yale — in fact, one of the only instances of widespread celebration of this country outside DKE and a few other patriotic redoubts — was brought on not by a celebration of history or culture, but by President Obama’s election.
Most of this, to be fair, was not partisan cheering, but ingenuous celebration of the tremendous and happy changes of the past century of our country’s history. In America we enjoy a racial harmony almost without precedent in history. But this tells us little about Yale’s American character, except that, whatever it is, it does not have a racial component.
In Obama’s inaugural address, the president himself gave witness to the difficulty of describing this country’s character. He said much about unity, but little about what, apart from our government and our willingness to get along, unites us. If the American character is “a patchwork heritage … shaped by every language and culture,” to be American means little more than to be in this country.
Americans are not Americans because of their race or religion, because of their allegiance to an ideology, or because of their having been born inside a national border. This is how it should be; the diversity of this country has given us a genuinely wonderful way of life. But is also prevented the formation of a definite national identity.
As an American university, then, Yale has always been an international university. Even at its origins, when the Puritan fathers of the University first taught classes, their subjects were the far-distant histories and ways of the Greeks, Romans and Hebrews. An American university has no choice but to look abroad, and Yale has always welcomed foreign students and foreign ideas.
The shift, then, that allows us to speak of Yale’s internationalization as a recent development is that other nations have begun to look to Yale, and to welcome the leadership and influence of our graduates. And this should make us a little uncomfortable.
Yale, as a place with no strong roots in any one culture or nation, can only represent the international leadership class of the world if that leadership class is similarly deracinated. This is, in fact, more or less what we see. The nations of the world still preserve a few quirks and traditional attitudes, but their leaders’ worldviews, vocabularies and diplomas look increasingly similar. They prove, to use Obama’s words, “that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve,” that we stand on the threshold of an age of global homogeneity, an age in which the whole world watches CNN and wears jeans and eats at McDonald’s.
We have little power to stop this process, but the next time we hear the University announce some international initiative, we would do well to remember globalization’s cultural cost.
Kevin Gallagher is a sophomore in Pierson College.