It's a big world after all
Any year you visit the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall, and the Acropolis constitutes a very good year, and I have had a fortunate year. I do not say this to be boastful. In fact I say it with a sense of disbelief. I am a neophyte world traveler, many on our campus have traveled much more widely, and I had the good fortune to be accompanied by some of them on these trips. Given that the graduate student population at North Dakota State University is more than 25 percent international students, the vast majority from India and China, these trips are probably long overdue. While NDSU is still a wonderful educational institution for people who grow up in North Dakota and western Minnesota (50 percent of our graduate students still come from these states), NDSU has become an international institution. As we look at the world in which our students will live, it is clear India and China will continue to be increasingly greater participants. The impact of these countries on our economy, and the world's economy, is already quite apparent. In the lives of our children, these countries will be major rivals, or maybe, hopefully, partners.
I grew up in a town in central Wisconsin, 100 miles north of Madison, fifteen miles from Stevens Point, home of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Point Special beer (which, prior to the rise of micro- breweries, was one of only four small breweries that survived in the heavily Germanic, beer and cheese-crazed state of Wisconsin). Wisconsin Rapids is dominated by a paper mill, which provided the economic base for the area. The mill employed my grandfather, my father, my uncles, and most of the rest of my extended family, including me, for about six months, after the premature end to my first attempt at higher education. The mill is now owned by a Finnish company, my father and uncles are long since retired. Most of my other extended relations no longer work there either, as downsizing and efficiency have changed the paper industry and the communities where the mills are located.
I am certain most of the people of Wisconsin Rapids did not see it coming, the end to the locally-owned mill, the entry into the world economy, the changing of how people made their living. I think I was fairly typical of my peers in my exposure to the world. The only trips I remember before my teen years were visits to my grandparents farm in Eitzen, Minnesota (I dare you to find it in your atlas). A tiny place on the Iowa border, my grandparents farmed 100 acres of rich land, paying for part of the farm during the Depression years. My grandmother told stories of hearing wolves on the sleigh ride to church one Christmas Eve when she was young. My mother tells a story of taking the same sleigh to church another Christmas Eve when the snow was falling so heavily they wouldn't take the car (only to find the service canceled). My brother, cousins, and I have fond memories of our visits to the farm, stories I was able to rehash recently with my cousin in the Netherlands, where he runs the Amsterdam office of a multinational technology company.
The first real trips we took were to the typical Midwest tourist meccas. The Black Hills via the Corn Palace, Wall Drug, and the South Dakota Badlands (I apologize, we too missed North Dakota. I didn't get to North Dakota until I interviewed at NDSU) and Mackinac Island and the northern peninsula of Michigan.
I don't say this to belittle central Wisconsin, or any other place in small town Midwestern America. There were many good things about the place I grew up. I think I was particularly fortunate to grow up in a family that valued education. My parents, and grandparents, made it clear to my brothers and I that we WOULD do well in school, but they were very encouraging of our success. We also had access to good schools, both parochial (grade school) and public (high school). This environment certainly stimulated an active interest of the world. I started collecting stamps when I was about 7 years old, in part because I thought it was pretty cool to have something from exotic places like Mauritius, Morocco, and Zambia.
My travels began to increase, slowly. My first real adventure occurred between my previously mentioned unsuccessful initial attempt at higher education and my stint in the paper mill. After quitting school, I packed up my 1966 Buick Le Sabre (a car you could pretty much live in) and set off for Florida via Maine. It is humorous now to think what a big adventure this was at the time. Midwestern boy makes first step into the big world alone. I would camp (or sleep in the backseat, I told you it was a big car) for a couple of nights and find a place to take a shower every few days. Indianapolis, Columbus, Cleveland, Boston. Getting completely lost on the streets of Philadelphia -- an experience I can still picture vividly. Hiking in upstate New York, Maine, and North Carolina. Two months of meandering that led me to Orlando where I met an interesting cast of wayward youths sort of like me, a group that, after about a month, I figured I probably should put behind me. I occasionally wonder where my erstwhile companions ended up.
A few months in the paper mill restored my enthusiasm for education. My education resumed at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, a place that has had a great influence on my views of what an institution of higher education should be. While Madison is not a huge city, the UW had a student population twice the size of my hometown. It is an amazingly diverse community, with students from all 50 states and most of the countries of the world. It is the first time I was really challenged as a student. I wish I could say I fully took advantage of the opportunities the UW offered. I wish I could say I immersed myself in the cultural activities available, that I met individuals from all 50 states and dozens of countries. I really wish I could say that I had the determination and self discipline to take up the offer from the coach of the rowing team to try out for the rowing team. Like many students, I was more immersed in the social aspects of the college experience. What I did get was a quality education, enough exposure to the research taking place on the campus to decide that I would like to have a career in science. I believe it was also my experiences in Madison that stoked my interest in working at a public, land-grant institution like NDSU. While I was too naive to fully appreciate it at the time, the UW is still infused with the spirit of the Wisconsin idea that the boundaries of the university should be the boundaries of the state and beyond, an idea that I more fully comprehend and believe now.
I went to graduate school at the State University of New York at Albany, where I was forced to stretch personally and intellectually. It is the first time I lived outside the Midwest. This will be shocking: there are differences between the Midwest and the Northeast. I became a bad driver in Albany. When I moved back, it took me at least five years to stop blasting the horn as soon as the light changed, longer to stop using the single finger salute.
As a clinical psychologist, I was required to complete a clinical internship. This final stage of my formal education occurred at the VA Hospital and the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Jackson is a fascinating city with the biggest overt contrast between rich and poor I have seen in the United States. My impression of Jackson is of a city with more ultra-luxury cars (Rolls Royces, high end Mercedes, Jaguars) per capita than I have seen even in places like New York and Boston. The patient parking lot at the VA hospital had a different look to it. I lived in Jackson at the time the film Mississippi Burning was released, which spurred a very public, soul-searching discussion of whether things had changed in the intervening years. Jackson forced me to think about issues of race and economic class in ways that I was not asked to think about them in Wisconsin Rapids or even in Albany. It was a very positive, and at times troubling, experience for me. Mississippi was my most prominent exposure to cultural, ethnic and racial, and class diversity. It was a great experience for me, and I still crave a big old plate of red beans and rice.
I was unprepared for Delhi. I traveled to India with a group from NDSU to attend a conference on higher education at the Ansal Institute of Technology, known as AIT. NDSU has established a working relationship with AIT that brings students from India to NDSU, and provides an opportunity for NDSU students to study in India. I have many images and perceptions from my first visit to India. Some of my visions of driving I would rather not remember, including the donkey I saw from a couple of feet away as we careened to a stop in an effort to avoiding running over, the woman's scarf that wrapped around our rearview mirror as she dodged traffic in Delhi, and the rearview mirror that popped off, the victim of a bicyclist that cut too close in Pune (the bicyclist just kept riding on his morning commute).
Driving in India is a wonderful (and scary) mix of pedestrians, horse, camel, and bullock carts, bicycles, auto-taxis, cars, trucks, and assorted vehicles of all sizes and vintages. All of these are traveling on the same roadway and it is immediately apparent that things like lanes and traffic signals are merely suggestions. It is a hyper competitive experience; the main focus seems to be advancing forward as fast as possible. (Remarkably, we saw very few accidents, and there are rules that you begin to discern with experience. There is also a high degree of professionalism among the many people who make their living as drivers.) The highway to Agra, site of the Taj Mahal, is a great example. A modern highway, except for where it narrows to pass through communities, a bit like Highway 10 still does on the way to Brainerd. You pass modern trucks, painted in unique and colorful designs, an ox cart that has been hit, killing the oxen and probably leading to financial destruction for the owner, camel carts bringing the crops in from the fields (which are being burned to prepare for the next planting). The second camel is able to reach forward to grab a snack from the cart ahead.
But perhaps my most vivid image from India is the magnitude of construction and development. Gurgaon, site of AIT, is a large construction zone. Dozens of huge, new apartment complexes are visible. Multistory buildings being constructed, without cranes, with massive efforts of physical labor and amazing bamboo scaffolds. In Pune, we visited the new John Deere Technology Center in a bright shiny modern new technology park. Beautiful buildings with the bright blue sky reflecting off the glass facades. Right across the street from the office of John Paulson, a former North Dakotan, is the brick making plant for the new construction that is still occurring at a mind-boggling rate. The brick making plant is a shed, the bricks are handmade and standing in piles waiting for a cart to take them to today's building site. All around land is being prepared for new buildings, the goat herders are moving their charges through while they still can.
India is a fabulous cacophony of traffic and construction. A few days in the country gives you a sense of extremes, in how people move on the roads, in where they live and shop. There is a sense of growth, a current of excitement and possibility, surrounded by abject poverty. The rapid rise of India in the world economy has led to hand-wringing over the loss of jobs in the United States, the rise of outsourcing as a dirty word. All of this has been well documented in the popular press and the hugely popular book The World is Flat, written by Thomas Friedman.
I was better prepared for my trip to China. I did a better job of starting early to prepare for the trip, and, surprisingly, Beijing felt, in many ways, much more like an American or European city than the places I visited in India. We were in Beijing to sign an agreement between NDSU's plant sciences program and the Beijing Forestry University to work cooperatively in the area of turf grass management. Wenhao Dai, a faculty member in plant sciences, completed his graduate education in Beijing and still has connections with the Forestry University. He also worked at and has connections at the Summer Palace, which used to be well outside of Beijing but is now part of the larger metropolitan area. He had been involved in developing grass that would survive in the lushly wooded grounds of the Summer Palace, and his connections allowed us to get a guided tour of the extensive, and very beautiful, grounds. It is perhaps a little ironic that turf grass management is the focus of our initial collaboration. I have been told that although China has 20 percent of the world's population, it has only 5 percent of the arable land. So a program that focuses on golf courses, parks, and other recreational activities may not be the one that seems most pressing, especially when China is faced with expanding desertification as the Gobi expands. However, it appears our collaboration may have the opportunity of expanding into the areas of range sciences and natural resources management in the future.
Beijing is preparing for the 2008 Olympics. This means the production of modern highways and the removal of vast tracts of old housing. People who have been to Beijing multiple times over the past decade commented on the rapid growth, the decline of the use of bicycles, and the explosion of automobile traffic and modern buildings. The visit to the markets was less pressured, although we were quite impressed with the young entrepreneur who pushed her merchandise in our path to slow us down.
I thought I was prepared for the poor air quality in Beijing. Like many cities with air pollution problems, the prevailing winds in Beijing are blocked by a range of mountains. This, along with the rapid expansion of motorized transportation and the general expansion of industry, has made Beijing notorious for air pollution. In addition, the expanding desertification of western and northern China has led to increasing dust storms in the capital. Twice in the weeks preceding my visit the dangerous respiratory combination of severe pollution and huge dust storms in Beijing had made the news. Buildings would become hazy shadows when they were more than a few hundred yards away. As we were driving to the Great Wall, I was surprised to find that we were about to drive into the mountains, having had no warning that we were even approaching mountains until we were within a couple of miles of the range because they were hidden in the smog.
I took a week of vacation after visiting Beijing, the first real vacation I took since I became dean three years ago. My vacation took me to Athens where I was able to stay with some friends fortunate enough to have a home in the suburbs of Athens. I had been to Europe before, but my recent visits to India and China allowed me to make some comparisons I had not had the opportunity to make previously. I do not speak any other languages fluently, at least not anymore. (I once spoke German fairly proficiently, but nearly 30 years of neglect has left me unable to use it in any sort of functional way.) European cities, even if you don't speak the local language, are very comfortable. An ocean and a couple of hundred years of semi-separation have not changed our cultures all that much. The foods, the social norms, the customs, while different in certain ways, are not completely foreign. I have never felt lost or overwhelmed wandering around European cities. In contrast, without people to help me get around, I might have been tempted to turn around and leave Delhi without even departing from the airport.
Athens is an excellent place to think about your place as an American in the 21st century. Athens reeks of history. (I saw two small children walking around museums pointing at exhibits and saying repeatedly "ruined, ruined, ruined.") On my final afternoon in Athens I sat in a sidewalk cafe. Grapes grew on the trellis above me. In spite of the warnings about smog, the air in Athens seemed wonderfully clean after Beijing. Athens allows you to effortlessly immerse yourself in several thousand years of history. Western history. The history and philosophy to which we attribute our ways of thought, our science, and our government. From my table, I was able to look up the hill through the cafes and shops to see perhaps the greatest icon of Western civilization, the Acropolis.
My experiences in Asia compelled me to think about America's future. To say that Europe has become insignificant on the world stage would be an overstatement. The United States is not about to disengage from Europe, although there is increasing talk about whether NATO remains meaningful and it is clear that our policy in Iraq has strained relations with some of our long-standing allies. But it is impossible to ignore the rising significance of Asia. Already, much of our involvement in world affairs is focused on Asia. Iraq, Israel and the Palestinians, nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea. Where is Osama bin Laden?
Current projections are that the world will have 8 billion people by 2050. Nearly half of these people will live in two countries, China and India, and we are already concerned about the impact of these countries on our economy. One does not need to be a prophet to see the impact that Asia will have upon our children and grandchildren.
The psychologist Jerome Kagen has said that "All individuals live in a small space fenced by their historical moment and the associated beliefs of their community." I am a reasonably well educated individual, but my recent experiences traveling to Asia have been humbling. I purchased a travel guide for my trip to India and in reading the first chapter on history I quickly realized I knew next to nothing. I knew the Taj Mahal existed. I knew that Britain dominated the Indian sub-continent for an extended period of time. My experiences during my life, my formal education, the places I have lived and visited, had fenced me into a view of a European American world. My background, coming from a town in Wisconsin, is comparable to that of many of the students at NDSU. My job as an educator is to help these students see over the fence. We can do this by providing class experiences that give our students a wider world view, this may require a rethinking of the core courses to help them better understand Asian culture and history. We can do this by providing more opportunities for students to interact with individuals from different cultures. We have a growing international presence on our campus; we need to look at ways to foster interactions between this international community and our American students. We need to look for more opportunities for our students to have educational experiences abroad in Asia. I believe that it is critically important that we focus on these issues. The Wisconsin idea was that the borders of the university were the borders of the state and beyond. Today, technology has made beyond the whole world. This broadens the scope of those we consider our students, but it also requires that we prepare our students to thrive in that flatter world.
-- David Wittrock