Countries as Role Models: A Double-Edged Sword (aka Yes, No, It Depends)
In my conversations with young people and colleagues here about overseas study, I frequently emphasize the positive/negative role model dimensions of cross-cultural exchange in general and as they relate to comparative education in particular. Learn from another country’s strengths and weaknesses. Adapt and localize what’s useful, disgard the rest.
In my remarks at the first (and only) alumni conference for all US-educated Vietnamese in July 2009 I made the following point: Young Vietnamese journey to the U.S. as peacemakers, reconcilers, bridges – teaching Americans, including war veterans and Vietnamese-Americans, about the dynamic and forward-looking country of Vietnam as it is today. They come to learn about America as it really is – both a role model and a cautionary tale – not what they may have learned in a textbook or from Hollywood movies.
This is what Sen. J. William Fulbright had in mind when he proposed the creation of what has become the U.S. government’s flagship scholarship program that bears his name and one of its more noble endeavors. Fulbright once said about the objectives of educational exchange: “Its purpose is to acquaint Americans with the world as it is and to acquaint students and scholars from many lands with America as it is–not as we wish it were or as we might wish foreigners to see it… (From the Foreword of The Fulbright Program: A History)
Having lived and worked in three very different countries (U.S., Germany, Vietnam), I can attest to the wisdom of his remarks. When people ask me about my home country (i.e., the US), my answers are generally not black and white; they usually fall into that vast expanse of gray and technicolor.
The message from the U.S. government (e.g., various reports and Wikileaks cables) is that the US has most, if not all, of the answers. This reflects the “city on a hill” mentality that so many Americans internalize and wholeheartedly embrace, including those who should know better. To say otherwise is to become politically irrelevant at best and branded unpatriotic (code for “unnationalistic”), or a traitor, at worst.
Harvard and Vietnam
Harvard University, arguably the finest university in the U.S. and one the best in the world (#2 after Cambridge University, according to the 2011/12 QS World University Rankings), the ultimate “brand” in international higher education, is probably the only U.S. university with nearly 100% name recognition in Vietnam. Harvard, from whence all good things come, right? Uh, not exactly. (Henry Kissinger, alleged war criminal and some of the “best and brightest” from the 1960s come to mind.)
Just ask Neal Koblitz, professor of mathematics at the University of Washington, the creator of hyperelliptic curve cryptography and the independent co-creator of elliptic curve cryptography, who has a longstanding involvement with Vietnam. (Koblitz did his undergraduate work at Harvard and was an instructor there from 1975-79. That, combined with his work in US higher education and his familiarity with Vietnam and Vietnamese higher education, gives him a greater than average measure of credibility.)
Below for your reading pleasure and edification are links to his critiques of a 2009 position paper released by a Harvard University institute and a 2009 binational education task force report, in addition to some other related documents.
Background: Higher Education Controversy in Vietnam
This was written in response to this report (PDF): The Intangibles of Excellence: Governance and the Quest to Build a Vietnamese Apex Research University (June 2009; revised January 2010) This paper was written by Laura Chirot, a New School researcher based at the Fulbright School in HCMC, and Ben Wilkinson of the Vietnam Program at the Harvard Kennedy School‘s Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Funding came from the UNDP.
Bonus: Vietnam Trip Report – March 2010 (PDF)