Talking Nationalism, Patriotism and Global Citizenship with US Students in Vietnam

Last month, I was invited by a colleague from Augustana College (Illinois) to meet with a group of her students who were in Vietnam on a short-term study abroad program.  The students had spent five weeks at Augustana, followed by another five weeks in southern, central and northern Vietnam.  The website describes the program as follows:  Vietnam is an exciting destination for a U.S. college student. This international learning community draws upon multiple disciplines – political science, literature, economics, business, and history among them – offering students a rich interdisciplinary context in which to study Vietnam.

One of the assigned readings was a co-authored book chapter of mine entitled “Developing Globally Competent Citizens: The Contrasting Cases of the United States and Vietnam” (with Duong Thi Hoanh Oanh) that appeared in The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence (2009).  Frankly, I was surprised and delighted to learn that undergraduates were reading this chapter in a book that is probably read mostly by graduate students and academics.  Here’s a brief description:   

The aim of this chapter is to consider global citizenship and intercultural competence, widely debated and often overlapping concepts, against the backdrop of nationalism and patriotism, “isms” that are rarely discussed in the same context. Yet they are the proverbial elephant in the room, towering issues that profoundly influence the methods and means by which global citizenship and intercultural competence are transformed from theory to practice.

This chapter explores ways in which global citizenship and intercultural competence complement and conflict with the national identity of two diametrically contrasting cultures—the United States of America and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. What U.S. Americans and Vietnamese share, according to anecdotal evidence, the binational experience of both authors, and the results of World Values Surveys, is a deep national pride. Yet as we shall see, this national pride is radically different qualitatively for reasons that are rooted in history. Thus, we examine barriers in both cultures that may inhibit the development of globally competent citizens, as well as factors that may smooth the way.

What are the implications of global citizenship in an interconnected world in which nationalism is still very much a force to be reckoned with? To what extent is global citizenship problematic in countries in which nationalism in its more virulent incarnation forms the mind-set of the majority of citizens? We posit that the path to becoming a global or globally competent citizen may be strewn with more obstacles in some societies than in others as a result of potent historical and cultural forces that have shaped national identity and the dominant ideology, the psychic glue that holds societies together.

Differences Between Patriotism and Nationalism

According to a standard dictionary definition, the distinction between patriotism and nationalism is clear. Patriotism is defined simply as “love for or devotion to one’s country.” This is generally thought of as a benign, sentimental, and inward-looking form of national pride. As such, it does not exclude an openness to and even embrace of other cultures, their values, and the concerns and needs of their members.

In a 2003 essay titled A Kinder, Gentler Patriotism, (the late) U.S. historian Howard Zinn speaks of the need to redefine patriotism and notes that “if national boundaries should not be obstacles to trade—we call it globalization—should they also not be obstacles to compassion and generosity? Should we not begin to consider all children, everywhere, as our own? In that case, war, which in our time is always an assault on children, would be unacceptable as a solution to the problems of the world. Human ingenuity would have to search for other ways.” Patriotism, as defined above, does not preclude the globalization of compassion and generosity.

In contrast, nationalism is described as loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups. It is the second italicized part that distinguishes nationalism from its less strident and bellicose cousin, patriotism. Exaltation of one nation over another automatically assumes a degree of cultural superiority, a lack of openness and objectivity, and the assumption that “others” wish to be like us and, by extension, the desire to mold them in our image (i.e., missionary nationalism).


Most of our discussion in the engaging 1.5 hours that I spent with them and their professors on a rainy February morning in Hanoi revolved around these concepts as they apply to both countries and how to create globally aware and competent citizens, especially given the fact that most young people do not have the opportunity to study overseas.  (Study abroad is no guarantee that this transformation will occur.)  The students asked a range of thoughtful and thought-provoking questions. 

Nationalism is a type of ideology, defined as “a: a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture; b: a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture.”  Irrational and rooted in emotion, it consists of seemingly unchallengeable and commonsensical assumptions, “eternal truths,” believing in something that does not exist or does not reflect reality and empirical facts.  To question the precepts that form that basis of US nationalism, or any nationalism for that matter, is to challenge a very potent ideology, a black/white world view that resists contradictory facts and conflicting views that could begin to dissolve this psychic glue.  In this respect it represents a formidable obstacle to the development of global competence and citizenship.

While I’m well aware that these students are certainly not representative of most US Americans in terms of social class (tuition, fees, housing and meals for the 2012-2013 academic year at Augustana are $43,398), education and world view, I was encouraged by the thought and reflection that many had invested in these important issues. 

As a side note, I noticed that most were women, a trend described in this 19 February 2012 Chronicle article entitled In Study Abroad, Men Are Hard to Find

As a bonus, check out this 19 February 2012 essay entitled The American Century Is Over—Good Riddance by Prof. Andrew Bacevich, who has written extensively about the notion of American exceptionalism and the origins and effects of US nationalism. 


Good Question, Vietnam!

I’m resurrecting a unique people-to-people diplomacy project that I’ve had on the back burner for a few years.   It gives Vietnamese, mostly but not exclusively young people, the opportunity to ask questions about any aspect of U.S. society and culture that interests them.  I then identify  U.S. colleagues and others (e.g., Vietnamese who have studied in the US for at least several years) who are willing and able to provide essay-length answers that are clear, concise, informative, and accurate.  

The purpose of this project is to inform and educate, as well as strengthen relations between the two countries on a grassroots level.  The final product – a book consisting of essays in English and Vietnamese –  will be used in a variety of settings and sectors, including educational, governmental, nonprofit and private, and by individuals who are interested in learning more about the U.S. from an unfiltered source.  Good Question, Vietnam! is slated to be published next year. 

The original working title of this project was FAQ About America, which I later changed to Good Question, Vietnam! based a piece that appeared in Harper’s  in January 2005.  An editor who had heard about the project asked me to send him all of the questions – about 300 at the time – from which he selected 20 for the enlightenment and amusement of his readers.  (Note:  USIEF was a small nonprofit that I founded in 2000.)   I plan to use some of the original questions and collect some new ones. 

While this project is a labor of love, there are certain costs associated with administration, translation of questions from Vietnamese into English and the essays from English into Vietnamese, the creation of glossaries and, possibly, an IT person to assist with the creation of a CD.  Please contact me for a list of sponsorship levels and benefits. 

 To Potential Contributors:  Please contact me at good_question_vn[AT], if you’re interested in writing an essay.  The basic requirements are:  1) passion for the project and its goals; 2) some knowledge about your topic(s); 3) the ability to write reasonably well; and 4) the ability to meet a deadline.  Vietnam-related experience, while helpful for some answers that require a cross-cultural perspective, is not required for most. 

If You Would Like to Submit a Question about US Society and Culture:  Please send  me your question, along with your name, gender,hometown and affiliation (e.g., student at University X in Y city), to the above email address.  Only your first name, gender, status (e.g., student, professional) and hometown will be used.  You may submit this information in either English or Vietnamese. 

For more information, visit the project website


Education in Vietnam

Below is information about a new book, edited by Jonathan D. London and published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.   Dr. London is an Assistant Professor (Sociology) in the Department of Asian & International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong. 

Vietnam is a country on the move. Yet, contemporary Vietnam’s education system is at the crossroads.  Rapid economic growth has permitted rapid increases in the scale and scope of formal schooling, but there is a prevailing sense that the current education system is inadequate to the country’s needs.  Sunny assessments of Vietnam’s “achievements” in the sphere of education have given way to a realization that the country lacks skilled workers. Some have even spoken of an “education crisis”.  These are not abstract concerns. What is occurring in Vietnam’s education system today has broad implications for the country’s social, political, economic, and cultural development.

Featuring contributions from scholars and policy analysts from within and outside Vietnam, Education in Vietnam addresses key issues pertaining to the political economy of education, the provision and payment for primary and secondary education, and the development of vocational and tertiary education. The book marks an important contribution to existing understandings of Vietnam’s education system and contributes to broader understandings of social conditions and change in contemporary Vietnam.

For more information and to order, download this flier or visit the ISEAS website above.  Note:  I have not yet read the book but am planning to.  Once I have, I may have something to say about it.

Science Education Across Borders: Why Academic Globalization Should Be Welcomed, Not Feared

From the conclusion of this essay, excerpted from a forthcoming book The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World by Ben Wildavsky.

The United States should respond to the globalization of higher education not with angst but with a sense of possibility. Neither a gradual erosion in the U.S. market share of students nor the emergence of ambitious new competitors in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East means that American universities are on some inevitable path to decline. There is nothing wrong with nations competing, trying to improve their citizens’ human capital and to reap the economic benefits that come with more and better education. By eliminating protectionist barriers at home, by lobbying for their removal abroad, by continuing to recruit and welcome the best students in the world, by sending more students overseas, by fostering cross-national research collaboration, and by strengthening its own research universities in science, engineering, and other fields, the U.S. will not only sustain its own academic excellence but will continue to expand the sum total of global knowledge and prosperity. 

Thanks, Masaru, for the recommendation.

P.S.:  Here’s a link to a 5 April interview in Inside Higher Ed.

The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence


I co-authored a chapter entitled “Developing Globally Competent Citizens: The Contrasting Cases of the United States and Vietnam.”  The contributors to this book, present company excluded, are some of best scholars/practitioners in this field in the world. 

The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence Edited by Darla K. Deardorff, Duke University

If you would like an English and/or Vietnamese PDF version of our chapter, please e-mail me at markashwill (at)