A Learning Experience

It is truly mind-expanding for this 65-year old American man to sit in a class with 23 other students from 13 countries, all but three of whom are under 30. Most of my colleagues are either undergraduates or just beginning graduate school. They hail from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mainland China, Denmark, Austria, The Netherlands, Romania, South Korea, Belgium, Portugal, Brazil, Canada and the United States.

We spent last week examining international relations from early 1900 through the Iraq War, exploring why the post-World War I League of Nations and the hoped-for lasting peace failed; the formation of the United Nations after World War II, the 50-year Cold War, and the advent of regional associations such as NATO and the Warsaw Pact; the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the USSR; “wars of choice”, such as Viet Nam and Iraq; peace-keeping interventions and what the professor labeled “militarized humanitarian intervention”; stateless terrorism; and the search to find a new balance between the traditional large powers and the emerging nations such as India and China. 

On Monday we switch gears to discuss the effects of climate change on international relationships, then spend three days focused on Islam. The books I am reading for these classes include Islam: The Straight Path; The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict between Iran and America; Engaging the Muslim World; God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad; The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe.

I’ll share some of what I am learning in my next post, but here are a few tidbits.

A young European suggested that given the “hard-power” character of the United States, one could draw a logical conclusion that America’s first instinct when faced with a crisis would be to use military force. He talked with a surprising depth of knowledge about what he labeled the “worshipful posture” of many Americans toward the constitutional guarantee to keep and bear arms, arbitrary sentencing of criminals to long terms for relatively minor crimes, and the use of capital punishment. While one could argue with his conclusions, I think that it is more important to seek an understanding of how we are viewed by others and how they have reached their conclusions. 

In listening to these young people from across the globe talk about world events, I couldn’t help but reflect that my education in history was primarily focused on memorizing dates and places. Their history classes taught them to climb into events and examine causes, results and lessons learned. For example, one person asked, “How could anyone who knows history have thought that Iraq could be democratized?” And he backed up his position by talking about the British experience in Iraq during and after the setting of the country’s boundaries. 

Every morning at 10:30 we gather with those who are studying other subjects (students form 35 nations, ages 18-80) for a general-topic lecture. The first was on “Major World Changes in the Next 50 years”.  The lecturer began his presentation by looking back at a New York Times article written in 1950 that made predictions for what the US would be like in 2000. The author of the article suggested that steel would be a thing of the past, replaced by light metals and plastic. However, since 1950 the production of steel has increased many times. He predicted that most American homes would have carpets and furniture and walls made of plastic, and vacuum cleaners and dusters would be replaced by a garden hose; that cooking would be “only a memory in the minds of the elderly”, with food being made mostly from wood pulp and sawdust and sold in bricks to be dissolved in water; that hurricanes would be diverted and would no longer be a danger; and that each family in the US would have a roof-top landing pad for their helicopter.  He reminded us that making predictions about the future is not an exact science and we too often are so blinded by our own biases that we miss important clues. For instance, the current financial meltdown was not predicted by most experts even a year before the crisis.

The lectures are superb, the faculty is challenging, my fellow students are engaging, and my room at Westcott House (the seminary at Cambridge) is comfortable.  More later… Bill