GlobalEd Founder & Director Bryan McAllister-Grande is the founder and director of GlobalEd. He has over 20 years of experience in global higher education strategy, program design, intercultural teaching and coaching, assessment, and curriculum development. He is Director of Academic Integration and Planning at Northeastern University’s Global Experience Office. Bryan has twice served on the…
With the publication in July of the new edited volume, Mestenhauser and the Possibilities of International Education (2022), we in the field have a unique opportunity to reflect on one of the “founding fathers” of global education. Josef A. Mestenhauser (1925-2015) was a professor, administrator, Fulbright scholar, former international student, and mentor to many international educators — including myself. I am lucky to consider the late Dr. Mestenhauser my friend and mentor. I wrote this long essay as a potential contribution to the book, but I am actually happy I get to revive it here, since GlobalEd owes much in its conception to Dr. Mestenhauser.
Josef A. Mestenhauser had a unique and lasting career in the field. His own “global education” as a young man and student was enough for a single biography. A citizen of the Czech Republic and a young student leader, Mestenhauser escaped Nazi Germany during World War II, fleeing worn-torn Europe on a skiing scholarship and found home as a ski instructor in the U.S. He went on to become a trusted international student advisor, administrative director, President of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, and co-founder and professor in the University of Minnesota’s Comparative and International Development Education department, among many other awards and positions.
Although a prolific writer with more than 120 publications to his credit, Mestenhauser had difficulty articulating the multiple dimensions and full scope of his international education philosophy. Historical context about the rise of the American research university and its model intellectual paradigm – pragmatic positivism – is needed to fully grasp Mestenhauser’s vision. Otherwise, we have fragments of ideas without the intellectual background to the philosophy. A “history of ideas” approach is useful to comprehend what Mestenhauser was trying to achieve. This essay explores Mestenhauser’s work through a history of ideas lens and analyzes aspects of the philosophy.
Mestenhauser’s philosophy of international education was far broader than exchanges, study abroad, and the intercultural education of students. He was ultimately interested in knowledge, and specifically the creation of a knowledge system that would be global in scope and mission. This knowledge system was essentially a humanist philosophy of life: a belief in a global world made peaceful and united by human relations. To accomplish this task, he borrowed from systems theory – but not the systems theory of recent decades. Instead, Mestenhauser’s systems theory was essentially the systems theory of philosophical Idealism. In philosophy, Idealism is the belief that reality is mind-based; that what we perceive constitutes our reality. This philosophy often entails the corresponding belief that all knowledge is related; that the different branches of knowledge (sociology, science, humanities, arts, etc.) are not separate but interconnected and unified. Since Idealists believe that all knowledge is ultimately a product of the mind, it is also true that all knowledge must be unified in some form or fashion.
Thus, for Mestenhauser, international education could be reduced, in a way, to a single, rational equation: International + Education, divided by the “common denominator,” Culture (see the latest book for his final manuscript). If knowledge of the world could be abstracted from culture, history, psychology, and other fields, one would have an “international education” that acted like an applied sociology: it could give us direction on how to act, think, and behave. For Mestenhauser, international education was both descriptive and prescriptive; a way of understanding the world and a way of living in it.
Yet, when Mestenhauser wrote of “International” and “Education” (divided by “Culture”) as an equation, we have the problem of connecting this equation to actual, lived reality. Whose view of “International” does Mestenhauser mean? Whose view of “Education”? Whose view of “Culture”? Mestenhauser was bucking several trends on the academy and in popular culture. First and foremost, he was bucking the trend of fragmentation and specialization. Knowledge is exploding rapidly and expert knowledge has become more and more highly specialized. Second, Mestenhauser was bucking the trend of subjectivity and postmodernism. Few scholars today would argue that there is a single thing called “Culture” or a single thing called “International.” Instead, scholars typically refer to contextual knowledge that is useful in one particular domain, but perhaps not in another. Third, Mestenhauser was bucking the trend of pragmatic positivism – the central philosophy of the American research university and, by extension, many universities worldwide. Pragmatic positivism, as I describe below, stands in opposition to Idealism.
Pragmatic Positivism: The Rise of the American Research University
The idea that “pragmatism” is the heart of American knowledge is not new. Mestenhauser himself acknowledges this orientation when he spoke of “our love affair with pragmatism.” Pragmatism is the belief that what works best is ultimately right. It is a grounded theory of knowledge, based in experience and context. Revolutionized by William James and John Dewey, pragmatism became the central American theory of knowledge after the Civil War.
Positivism is more of an important from Europe. Although it existed throughout Western history, the nineteenth century French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte gave positivism its modern formulation. Positivism asserts that all statements and all “truth” must be scientifically verifiable. It privileges empiricism, analysis, and small units of thought and action over large-scale theories, idealisms, or religious truths. When put together, as they were by nineteenth and twentieth century thinkers, pragmatic positivism promotes the idea that knowledge is separated, experiential, grounded, and piecemeal.
The American research university emerged from several unique sources, or streams, of intellectual thought. At its heart was a Puritanism inherited from the English Revolution (1640-1660). This Puritanism carried over the Scholasticism of the Medieval period but shed its concern for higher order. Instead, the Puritanism of the early New England colleges was useful, pragmatic, and positivist. Although grounded in the Protestant churches, it privileged the natural sciences as a way to really know and discover God’s kingdom through nature.
Other streams were German and French in origin. In the 1800s, the small American colleges, still at that point largely based in the Classics and the study of the Christian Bible, transformed into research universities with many branches and departments. The idea of the research university can be traced to Wilhelm von Humboldt, the Prussian reformer who founded the University of Berlin. Humboldt was an Enlightenment liberal who believed that the nation (and the Western world) would advance through individual betterment, science, and empiricism. He created a university philosophy in which all studies, including the arts and humanities, would be strengthened through autonomy and secular research. Although Humboldt imagined philosophy as the great unifier among the “free” fields of knowledge, in reality his system created autonomous units and faculties that pursued their own rules and their own epistemologies; it also further divorced natural science from the rest of the arts and sciences.
The French stream emphasized usefulness and national service, especially around the applied sciences such as engineering, architecture, biology, chemistry, and mathematics. The French formally introduced the term “positivism” as an ontological and epistemological framework. Positivism, as devised by Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, was both a political and an academic philosophy. It posited that knowledge could be reduced to the empirical here-and-now; that there was no given “higher order”; that the methods of science could be applied to all things, including the state, the arts, and philosophy; and that knowledge should serve the industrial classes and industrial arts as much as it should serve the aristocracy, upper classes, or government. This philosophy produced the modern term “sociology” and marked the birth of the many, various, applied social sciences especially political science, administration, and policy work.
All of these streams were present as the American research university took shape in the mid-nineteenth century and began to dominate Western life. After the 1850s, American university leaders such as Charles Eliot (Harvard), Leland Stanford (Stanford), Daniel Coit Gilman (Johns Hopkins), and William Rainey Harper (University of Chicago) built massive institutions that spread their influence across the globe and created the now-famous American model of higher education. In the American model, all knowledge is separated out into isolated departments and faculties, each with their own methods, histories, and rules. Yet, at the same time, each department/faculty is judged by a uniform standard, which is the standard of the scientific method and scientific production (peer review, research, production, citations, etc.). In the early nineteenth century, the Harvard president John T. Kirkland announced that every school at Harvard should be independent and autonomous, yet prove itself equal in a competitive landscape. “It is our rule here for every tub to stand on its own bottom,” he said, referring to a famous phrase of Puritan John Bunyan’s in Pilgrim’s Progress. Although Kirkland was thinking mostly in financial and managerial terms, his phrase easily applied to the general American philosophy of pragmatic positivism: whatever works is, obviously, “best.”
The effects of this pragmatic positivism on global higher education today cannot be overstated. They are present most clearly in the American system of “General Education,” or those fields of knowledge that every student must touch in order to consider himself or herself educated. In most American colleges and universities, students must have some exposure to the various departments and disciplines, often organized around the three major divisions of knowledge: humanities, social sciences, and sciences.
The philosophy behind General Education, however, is not really synthesis of cultural frames or an international education. The goal is not to understand different cultural interpretations of knowledge, to understand the world, or to make connections across areas of knowledge, but rather the goal is exposure to the disciplines of the university and to the student’s own individual career and life. The goal remains a consistent, pragmatic positivism. Here I slightly differ from Mestenhauser’s own historiography and interpretation of General Education. Even the method of calling these “requirements” but only demanding a single course to fulfill them speaks to the foundational American philosophy of pragmatic positivism. Students can easily “test out” of general education or fulfill a requirement simply by taking a single class.
Pragmatic Positivism and Analytic Philosophy
The rise of analytic philosophy in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s onward made a profound contribution to the pragmatic positivism of the American university. As Mestenhauser notes, the “Western intellectual analytical tradition…studies the smallest units of analysis on the most detailed level.” Analytic philosophy and its sister paradigm, logical positivism, separated out truth statements into two kinds: scientific/analytical and moral/value-based (typically categorized as “linguistic” or “emotive”). Most analytic philosophers discarded the latter as “emotional” and the former as the true subject matter of philosophy. The idea of analytic philosophy spread from philosophy departments to other departments around universities in the latter part of the twentieth century. Its stunning rise led the notion that values are not penetrable by research and scientific knowledge, but rather are the province of specific cultural contexts, religions, popular opinion, and morality.
Movements in anthropology, for example, reflect this bifurcation of fact and value. Although leading American anthropologists Clyde Kluckhohn and Clifford Geertz were not logical positivists, their “cultural” or “linguistic” turn in anthropology mirrored the analytical turn in philosophy. Kluckhohn, a teacher of Geertz, was one of the first anthropologists to argue that each cultural system was unique to itself; it had its own rules, languages and contexts, he argued. Rejecting the strict logical nature of his teacher, Geertz nonetheless doubled down on Kluckhohn’s idea (also one sometimes promoted by Claude Levi-Strauss) that cultures were unique and almost solely “emic,” and therefore almost impenetrable except from inside the cultural system. Sometimes unintentionally, these anthropologists promoted a further divide between the “emic” and the “etic.”
This stark separation between “fact” and “value,” and between “emic” and “etic,” had tremendous ramifications for international education. First, it led to the erroneous idea that cultures and their moral systems (religion, values, morality) are wholly unique and contextual to the knower while scientific “facts” (historical events, politics, sociology, science, mathematics, engineering) are more categorical and universal. This is why Mestenhauser’s conception of international education as having culture at the core is so unsatisfying and, perhaps, frustrating: in the modern university, culture is simply not the “common denominator” or “one commonality” that Mestenhauser wanted it to be. Rather, thanks to pragmatic positivism, culture is considered by most academics and the general public to be a variable or factor, and a confusing or tentative one at that.
Third, pragmatic positivism has made single superordinate fields almost impossible to imagine. Mestenhauser views international education as “designed to be the conscience of all other fields of knowledge and experiences” and a “super discipline.” He imagines international education fulfilling the role that religion and then philosophy once played in the ancient and medieval universities: that of a super-field that comments and organizes all other fields. This, too, seems challenging today, both because of the fragmentation of knowledge and because of the organization and capitalist nature of the modern university. Having any field – never mind international education – be the superdiscipline to all others feels like a considerable challenge, although I have argued elsewhere that international education could instead become a new multidiscipline that could tie several others together.
Finally, Mestenhauser’s theory of international education is the kind of “rational idealist” master plan of the kind emphatically rejected by Western scholars in the twentieth century. Part of the reason that pragmatic positivism advanced so rapidly and so securely in the West was due to its opposite challenger, the rational idealism of Marxist philosophy. Not only was analytic philosophy a rejection of classical European and British Idealism (which conflated fact and value into a universal, Christian system), but it was also an emphatic rejection of the “God that Failed” – Marxism. While many Western scholars – especially on the political and social left – embraced Marxist approaches to knowledge in their own work and activism, their universities and departments largely rejected it, and along with it any grand “master philosophy” of life. During the Cold War, movements like analytic philosophy, logical positivism, and the linguistic and cultural turns in the social sciences seemed safe, neutral, and freedom-loving in comparison to the supposed rigid specter of a “Marxist University.”
Unpacking Mestenhauser’s Philosophy and its Rational Idealism
For Mestenhauser, “culture” is “more than just values and behavior and more than just one of many variables of a multivariable puzzle.” Culture is, for him, “the ‘operating system’ of our brain.” This is a theory that Mestenhauser learned from Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, two pioneering Western anthropologists-linguists of the early twentieth century who were popular idealist alternatives to both Kluckhohn and Geertz. Even earlier than this, Wilhelm von Humboldt (the same Humboldt who influenced the American research university) had put forward a similar theory. The so-called “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” or “Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis” asserts that language (and by extension, culture) influences or structures the way we think and act. According to Mestenhauser, following this theory means recognizing that culture and language are codes imprinted in our brains. Yet, unlike the positivists or Kluckhohn and Geertz, this does not mean that cultures are impenetrable from the outside. Because cultures all draw from the same set of symbols and linguistic possibilities (the human language, the disciplines), it is possible, in this view, to have a complete system of knowledge – an “international education.”
International education, for Mestenhauser, is the process of “de-coding” or, at least, recognizing that the cultural and linguistic codes exist. In this sense, Mestenhauser actually differs in important ways from the intercultural competence movement advocated by Bennett, Hammer, and Deardorff. If intercultural competence is about recognizing one’s own ethnocentrism and moving to enthnorelativism, largely through experience and behavior, Mestenhauser’s philosophy is more intellectual: learners learn the codes of their culture, the “operating system,” and then move towards understanding other codes. This work, in effect, creates a new language, or, a comprehensive understanding of all cultural codes and philosophies. This work entails understanding each cultural code – for example, in Mestenhauser’s view, understanding Japanese language and philosophy is far more important than understanding Japanese behavior or identity.
Mestenhauser’s philosophy is, essentially, a rational idealist one. It largely discards emotion, feelings, and passions to argue, instead, that the mind’s perceptions of reality are what condition that reality. In this view, cultures are fixed entities with their own philosophies, sciences, structures, codes, and languages. There is little room for practical nuance or emotional pull in this theory. To advance his theory, Mestenhauser relies largely on the contemporary work of the Vanderbilt University anthropologist Norbert Ross, whose 2004 book Culture and Cognition explored the intersections of psychology and anthropology. Ross used empirical evidence from his studies of contemporary Mayan culture to argue, with Sapir and Whorf, that language and culture literally create novel ontological realities in the cultural communities of contemporary Mayan people (Ross, 2004). These ontological realities create a world not of “self” and “other,” but rather a mosaic of cultural codes and realities. What Mestenhauser grappled for was a truly pluralistic world.
The next step in Mestenhauser’s vision of international education was a kind of de-coding process of the academic disciplines and the university. For Mestenhauser, each field needed to “internationalize” not just for its own sake, but also to contribute to international education. This meant taking some of the core fields – history, philosophy, political science, for instance – and de-coding their contributions to international education. In this sense, the histories and political philosophies of various cultures needed to be joined together into a common unity.
What Mestenhauser ultimately was striving for is a unity of knowledge and a unity of the university, or, in other words, an end to bifurcation of fact and value – and an end to pragmatic positivism.
The Problems with Rational Idealism
As alluded to above, there are several problems with Mestenhauser’s rational idealist philosophy. Each speak to its absoluteness or determinism. First, it did not age with the times. Although Mestenhauser added material to his philosophy, especially from cognitive science, his philosophy did not substantially evolve over the last few decades. His writings on the theory of international education, beginning with 1998’s Reframing the Higher Education Curriculum and continuing to his latest writings in the new book, did not change substantially. Mestenhauser repeated many of the same arguments and never fully elaborated on his concept of “culture” or connected it to its origins in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Nor did Mestenhauser elaborate, at least in print, on his systems theory. He repeatedly stressed that international education needed a systems perspective but did not write extensively on the theory itself.
Second, as mentioned above, Mestenhauser did not adequately address postmodernism. The postmodernist worldview is not the same as either the pragmatic positivist one or the neoliberal one, although there are important overlaps. Rather, I use “postmodernist” here simply to refer to the prevalent, post-modern idea that there are no longer any universals or static knowledge. In postmodernism, all knowledge is contextual, situated, differentiated, and conditional. In a postmodernist world, there is not one “International Education” but myriad, not one vision but many realities. There is also not one “Culture” but many cultural variations and perspectives, formed – as many postmodernists would argue – in concert with individual agency and identity, as well as structural forces that transcend culture (i.e. “intersectionality”). How would Mestenhauser defend (or extend, perhaps?) his philosophy against or with postmodernism? How would he deal with the idea that knowledge is purely conditional? How would he make sense of and integrate intersectionality and DEI into his thinking? Besides attacking analytical thinking – which postmodernism is partly against – Mestenhauser did not address the postmodern worldview. To my knowledge, he never directly addressed race or gender – at least not in print.
Third, Mestenhauser did not write much about how to internationalize curricula or disciplines. Clearly, however, he inspired many, including Betty Leask, a leading expert on curriculum internationalization. What inspired them? What did they take from his limited writings on the subject? I believe it was mostly Mestenhauser’s recognition that the academic disciplines were in fact limited frameworks from which to understand the world. By seeing the disciplines themselves as systems or part of systems, academics and practitioners can better view them as malleable and culturally conditioned.
Yet, this view of disciplinary internationalization also seems strangely superficial or unfinished. Mestenhauser did not quite acknowledge the deep and detailed work done by several disciplines, from history to science, to internationalize or globalize its content, methodology, and scope. Nor did he specify how one would move from internationalization to incorporation of that material into “international education” as a theory. What pieces of the discipline would move into the master field? What would stay behind? What would be integrated into the overall philosophy? Who would decide such things? Again, Mestenhauser’s view of disciplinary or curriculum internationalization seems limited or deterministic. The path he started, however, needs to be taken.
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