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…
Did you know that, this summer, some of America’s leading academics taught Ukrainian students over zoom in something called the “Flying University of Ukrainian Students”? The idea, sponsored by Poland’s Kosciuszko Foundation, was a twenty-first century version of the nineteenth-century Polish “Flying Universities.” Between 1882 and 1920, Polish “Flying Universities” were secret underground classes which resisted imperial efforts and allowed Polish students, especially women, to advance their education and keep Polish history and culture alive. The most famous of these students was Marie Curie, then Marie Sklodowska.
Fast forward to the summer of 2022. 11 American humanities scholars taught classes, over zoom, to groups of Ukrainian students, resisting Russian oppression. These professors taught subjects ranging from Western history to the relationship between popular music and political change. The idea was to help Ukrainian students continue their studies as well as practice their critical thinking skills. In The Los Angeles Review of Books, Harvard University English professor Deidre Lynch wrote about her experiences teaching her “Flying University of Ukrainian Students” course: a critical and contemporary investigation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Teaching Frankenstein to displaced Ukrainian students over zoom may seem far-fetched, but the idea gets at the heart of the paradoxes of global education. The novel’s setting begins in imperial Russia — a fact, as Lynch says, most American students or Western readers miss. The novel itself can be read as a parable of modern imperialism and autocratic aggression, as well as an interrogation of the meaning of “Europe” and “civilization” — invariably meant, then or now, to refer to Western civilization. In effect, then, the effort by American academics to teach Frankenstein and other humanities subjects to Ukrainian students can be seen as a kind of knowledge diplomacy — an effort to link Ukraine and its young minds to the West and Western ideas by exploring and interrogating them. Indeed, these ideas of altruism, connection, exchange, and critique of foundations are central to the Western project itself, as Lynch herself observes.
The paradoxes of global education are thus the following: Is global education really possible in the form of an exchange of ideas, when it is naturally impossible to construct an even playing field or “state of nature”?
Is global education always Westernization, even in the form of seemingly benevolent and altruistic attempts to foster critical thinking and idea exchange?
Who really has agency in these programs — receivers, such as the Ukrainian students, or the “givers,” the American academics?
Many global education programs begin from the basic premise that a neutral playing field can be created. The “humanities” are sometimes the vehicles for such creations, with the assumption being that books and texts can speak both contextually and broadly about the human experience. In many exchange or global education programs, texts are used to suggest thematic entry points or parables for contemporary events. Yet, while admirable, I wonder if these efforts passively assume that textual knowledge is a vehicle for action and community.
What if, instead, global education programs had a foundation in truth-seeking or questioning, in finding diverse pathways to “truth”? In Lynch’s “Flying University” zoom classroom, the Ukrainian students seemingly attempted to challenge her textual approach, but Lynch sandpapers the edges of that debate. The students seem to want to assign “evil” and power to their oppressors (the Russian government and military), but Lynch is keen to instead find textual shades of grey and nuance. She claims, wholeheartedly, that in their classroom of humanities and the life of the mind, she and her students found “community.” She might as well have said “Europe” or “humanism.” Instead of this textual approach — which despite efforts to include multicultural texts always seems to revert to Western classics — what if global education programs interrogated the nature and making of knowledge?
Global education programs and exchanges have so far shied away from direct decolonization or interrogation of the curriculum. Tied to curriculum internationalization paradigms, they tend instead to foster dialogue around global citizenship, intercultural communication or “development” broadly construed. While many programs in this vein are well designed, we as a field also need to make room for more critical approaches that deconstruct paradigms rather than reinforce them.
Indeed, recent scholarship has suggested that Western power relies on texts and textual frameworks. I review some of this recent scholarship in my essay for the 70th year anniversary of the International Association of Universities. In that essay, called “The Beginning of History and the University,” I explored how universities have carefully conditioned narratives of truth and power, often relying on texts to convey supposedly “universal” ideas. The Western project relies on carrying forth its ideas through texts, often ones that seemingly critique Western origins or ideas. I argued:
A new history of truth would also wrestle honestly with the ways in which universities have sacrificed truth-seeking to ideology. Previous histories of universities have too often lauded their autonomy and freedom from the world and society. A mystique and aura dominate these gilded narratives. Adopting a more radically empirical lens, university leaders and scholars should investigate the ways in which truth has been corrupted by powerful forces of religion, nationalism, and colonial forces disguised as “internationalism.”
By “radically empirical lens,” I mean a new approach — a de-colonial, critical and humanistic approach, to how truth is constructed. The Western project relies on narratives: narratives of heroes found and lost, narratives of paradise and dystopia, narratives of gods and monsters, narratives of knowledge seekers like social scientists and researchers who forge new paths to truth. Yet, the entire story has always sought to serve the West and Western survival or expansion. A new approach to global education would challenge that paradigm directly.