Bousquet: Global Experience Currency in Today’s Economy [Wisconsin State Journal]

Gilles Bousquet, Wisconsin State Journal 11/19/08

If there’s one thing the current financial crisis has made abundantly clear, it’s that “global economic independence” is no longer just a textbook term.

It’s a headline-generating reality — and not only in the international pages, but in the local business section as well. Wisconsin is home to multinational giants such as SC Johnson, Kohler Company, and Kikkoman Corporation. When they suffer an economic downturn, we all do.

This week, U.S. schools, colleges, and embassies celebrate the benefits of cross-cultural education and exchange during International Education Week.

And while it may have sounded obscurely academic when the U.S. Departments of State and Education designated this program in 2000, even they could not have predicted how dramatically and rapidly our need for language instruction, cultural exchange, and international diplomatic and business education has grown.

But change brings opportunity. And in this case, the success of these interconnected industries depends enormously on communications technologies.

In fact, the production and management of knowledge — whether in the form of business correspondence, blogs, or online news updates — has become a critical economic resource in our post-industrial economy.

Information itself has become a product — a global good, as it were. And our ability to contribute to this “knowledge economy” is the key to our economic security.

One need only reflect on our last presidential election, and the tremendous and simultaneous interest it held around the world, to understand this new infrastructure.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the whole world will watch our next steps — in real time — like never before. This presents fantastic opportunities for us to collaborate, compete, and contribute.

But how are we to react when, in 2006, the Department of Education reported that less than 10 percent of U.S. college students study abroad each year? In that same year, the U.S. Department of State declared Arabic, Farsi, Chinese, Russian, and Hindi as “critical” to the security and prosperity of our country — but fewer than 1 percent of American high school students combined were studying these languages.

This is about more than staying competitive, or even relevant. Beyond our economy, global status, and security, there are other, everyday needs for cross-cultural understanding.

Whether because the world is flatter and smaller or simply because other regions are increasingly prominent on our television and computer screens, Americans now communicate with people across oceans, cultures, and bandwidths like never before. Or they are trying to.

International education is about keeping that dialogue open — indeed, expanding it.

At UWMadison we are committed to training global citizens and professionals by offering, for example, international opportunities, instruction in more than 60 languages, and cutting-edge global research.

Of all the perils that our next generations face — the economy, the environment, global health threats, migration, national security — which of these couldn’t benefit from greater global understanding, cooperation, and communication?

Bousquet is dean of international studies at the UW-Madison.