“America First.” “Brexit.” “One Belt, One Road.” The names may change from place to place, and your views may differ depending on where you lay your head at night. The result, however, remains the same: nationalism is on the rise the world over. With its singular emphasis on promoting the political, social, and economic sovereignty of a given nation, nationalism clashes quite severely with the late-20th century ideals of globalism and international cooperation. Unsurprisingly, this collision of wills has sown confusion and uncertainty in institutions of all shapes and sizes — including academia.
The modern university finds itself uniquely situated in the crossfire. With the fall of communism in the 1990s and the concurrent growth of the internet, academics found unparalleled opportunities to cross and communicate across national boundaries — and they did not hesitate to take advantage of it. Today, nearly five million students study outside of their home country each year, over one million in the U.S. alone. The largest research projects include researchers from dozens of institutions and countries.
So how, then, should universities respond to the waves of nationalist rhetoric sweeping the globe? Should they double down on their promises of a global education, remembering now though to pay careful attention to those left behind by globalization? Or should they set aside lofty-yet-vague notions of global citizenship in favor of promoting civic engagement within the nation-state?
I argue: why can’t they do both? We already see such a system at play in the United States in the form of federalism. States work together with the federal government, dividing power in a more-or-less equal fashion. Conflict arises between the two levels of government, of course, but well-defined pathways to resolution exist and are for the most part respected.
Likewise, universities can promote ideals of globalism and international cooperation while instilling values of national pride and service. The reality, regardless of how much we sometimes wish otherwise, is that cultural and social differences exist between (heck, even within) different nation-states. And yet all cultures and societies share common beliefs — universities must foster this understanding.
In short, I believe universities have a responsibility — and an opportunity — to teach both sides of the equation. Indeed, these institutions may be the only chance to avoid the kind of nationalist thought that took root in the early twentieth century. We all know how that ended.