What are we doing wrong? It is a question that can be addressed from many points of view, and is a concern for almost all politicians everywhere in democracies – autocrats never ask themselves that question because they believe it is irrelevant. They know best, and are always right……..until they end up in a ditch like Muammar Gaddafi.

     In the context of this blog, I am asking the question about our western educational institutions that, for decades, have hosted foreign students in the hope of spreading western values and democracy throughout the world. They have failed in this endeavor, at least as often as they have succeeded.

     Western democracies are not the only ones to have tried this strategy, and failed. In the early 20th century, thousands of Chinese Communist Party members went to Russia to learn how to stage a revolution, and build a communist state. The Russians, in turn, hoped that those study programs would give them lasting influence over their Chinese comrades, many of whom would rise to positions of great power. But, within a decade of becoming communist, China began squabbling with the Soviet Union. In 1961, leaders in Beijing denounced Soviet communism as the work of “revisionist traitors”.

     That experience is a lesson for the U.S. and other western countries that have instituted similar programs. But it is a lesson that we haven’t learned. Over the past four decades western universities have hosted millions of Chinese students, many of whom have risen to high office on their return. While the universities raked in a lot of cash, and their governments encouraged them, hoping that the experience would endear future Chinese leaders to liberal values, it hasn’t worked any better than the Russian experience decades before. To the American mind, it is a baffling anomaly. “How can they not like, and try to emulate, our superior society,” they think. Europeans tend to be a little more circumspect, probably because of their experiences over a much longer period of time dealing with arrivals from their empires has taught them a little more humility.

     I don’t think anyone involved in these university programs – universities themselves, their country’s government, the students themselves, and the governments of the students’ home country – would deny the value of the technical knowledge acquired. However, the expectation that this gain would include accepting different cultural values, seems to have been a pipe dream. So I will ask again, “What are we doing wrong?”         

     The problem seems universal. I know that one of the ironic boasts of the London School of Economics is that they have trained more dictators in the world than all the other similar institutions put together. Over 20% of the current Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party members have had some foreign education, and eight of the 24-member Politburo have studied in Western countries. Yet, Russian and Chinese relations with the West are at a low ebb, and declining.

     We, in the West, obviously can’t stop the flow of foreign students looking for technical advancement, and maybe we shouldn’t think of trying. However, foreign students learning skills that can be used against us is a problem, paranoia aside. Perhaps one can hope that, even though those students will use their experience against us in the short-term, the long-term results will bring about change in those foreign students’ countries that will bring them closer to us. Wishful thinking, certainly, and there is absolutely no guarantee that it will happen that way.

     It is a dilemma that I would appreciate some comments on from my readers. It may well be that cultural values learned at an early age cannot be changed in any fundamental way by later experiences. And maybe, just maybe, that is the right way of looking at it?

     Food for thought!

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