“Losing Hearts & Minds” Say What?


(US) American-Iranian Relations & International Education during the Cold War

The question remains about how institutions of higher education can thrive economically and promote responsible internationalization. On the one hand, educational exchange can help generate change around the world and enhance American influence and prestige. On the other hand, schools, like nations, should not compromise principles such as academic freedom to acquire financial gain or a global reach. American schools today should work to internationalize, but they should avoid getting involved with authoritarian states in a way that would damage, rather than bolster, long-term interests and the prospects for future dialogue.  (Matthew K. Shannon)

  There is nothing obscure 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, but exactly as it is…  (J. William Fulbright)

NOTE:  No, this is obviously not a post about Viet Nam, at least not directly, but it is about overseas study as an integral part of international education.  (It is most definitely is true to the blog’s subtitle of Information, Insights & (Occasionally) Intrigue.)  I haven’t read the book with the above title only this Inside Higher Ed interview with the author of the book.  Since I’m not one to shoot from the hip and review books without having read them, this is only some reflections about some of the answers.

Iranian Students Against the Shah

When I was an undergraduate back in the mid-70s, I had some friends from Iran, who were against the Shah.  I remember some of the discussions we had, including about the CIA-engineered coup d’état in 1953 and the overthrow of a democratically elected prime minister.  (Stephen Kinzer, among others, has documented this centerpiece of US foreign policy since the late 19th century in Overthrow:  America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.)

I also remembered an on-campus demonstration of masked Iranian students shouting “Down with the Shah” and “US advisers, CIA agents out of Iran”.  It was of course the CIA and the Israeli MOSSAD that helped to establish SAVAK, the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s much-hated and feared secret police, domestic security and intelligence service.  That was months before the overthrow of the Shah.

I was studying in Germany when the hostage crisis began at the US Embassy in Tehran.  All my friends were either German or other international students, including one from Iran.  We talked about that incident not as representatives of the countries whose passports we carried but as human beings.

The Purpose of International Educational Exchange

I’ve always viewed overseas study as an opportunity to learn about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the host country not for that country, in the case of the US, to “generate change around the world and enhance American influence and prestige.”  What kind of change is Mr. Shannon referring to, I wonder?  The kind that only serves US political, economic, and military interests?  The kind that spreads more “democracy and freedom,” at least on paper and, in reality, code for US domination, economic and otherwise, at the barrel of a gun?

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Courtesy of Cornell University Press

I hold this view because I’m a one-time patriot and a longtime global citizen not a US nationalist.  The US has done some good in the world but it also has a long, bloodstained track record in many countries, including Iran and the country I have called home since 2005.  Its leaders and a majority of its citizens have yet to overcome their country’s past in the spirit  of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a “struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past.” I wonder if Mr. Shannon, the author of Losing Hearts and Minds, is a patriot or a nationalist?  Like anyone, his world view, and the values system in which it’s rooted, clearly informs his work. 

I also wonder about his statement that the US should avoid getting involved with authoritarian states in a way that would damage, rather than bolster, long-term interests and the prospects for future dialogue.  That would eliminate the majority of current international student enrollment in the US, which is currently in steady decline, the result of a variety of factors that include, but also transcend, the current administration. 

Of Hearts, Minds, & US Nationalism

As someone who has lived and worked in Viet Nam for nearly 13 years and whose first-hand experience with the country dates to 1996, I’m not sure if Mr. Shannon chose the best title for his book.  I wonder if he’s also aware of its rather nasty connotation, given how it was used during the American War in Viet Nam, where not many “hearts and minds” were won by the foreign invader du jour and its client state.   

Finally, this whole notion of “winning hearts and minds” is not a justification for real international educational exchange, unless you represent the US government, the US Chamber of Commerce, or you’re a red, white, and blue true believer aka nationalist.  (We’re #1!  We’re the greatest!  USA, USA, USA!  You get my drift.) 

fulbrightMr. Shannon may want to learn more about J. William Fulbright’s views on this subject, including the one contained in the quotes above and below about the Fulbright Program, taken from this page of Selected quotations by J. William Fulbright on international educational exchange on the US State Department website, no less.  (Obviously, no one from the Trump administration has gotten around to deleting it yet.)   

The essence of intercultural education is the acquisition of empathy–the ability to see the world as others see it, and to allow for the possibility that others may see something we have failed to see, or may see it more accurately. The simple purpose of the exchange program…is to erode the culturally rooted mistrust that sets nations against one another. The exchange program is not a panacea but an avenue of hope…. [From The Price of Empire]

Peace, MAA

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