Thursday, October 29, 2009

Does America have American-style education?

In these dreary economic times where unemployment and underemployment make daily headlines along with seemingly unsolvable quagmires in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, more and more literature is predicting the eventual and perhaps already apace economic and political descent of the American global juggernaut. The American dream that impelled countless immigrants to depart their homelands in the pursuit of a freer, richer, and more just lifestyle is becoming harder and more cumbersome to attain. Education, specifically higher education, is now widely acknowledged as a prerequisite to enter the gates of the middle class. American universities, despite billions in losses from the ongoing recession, remain extraordinarily prominent in international rankings and in the minds of students and parents from Cairo, Egypt to Canton, China.

An American-style education is a highly sought-after commodity – as demonstrated by the recent explosion of overseas campuses in the Middle East and Singapore that publicly tout their American-style curriculum, faculty, facilities, classroom environment, and modes of operation. However, scant discussion is paid toward exploring the exact and perhaps inexact definition of an American-style university.

In other words, what is an American-style university and why is it so popular around the world?
Modern scholars often describe an American-style education as liberal, pluralistic, conducive to differences of opinion, and student-centered – all of which allows pupils to develop not only complex critical thinking skills but a spirit of innovation, entrepreneurship, and bottomless confidence and aptitude in writing, reading, and speaking the language of instruction. An American-style education regularly operates in English but may be adopted in non-English speaking societies if administrators recognize the merits of implementation (Ghabra and Arnold, 2007).

The esteemed reputation of the American-style university cannot be disentangled from the international brand of universities such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale – otherwise known as the “Big Three.” Consistently perching atop international university rankings, America’s elite institutions of higher education have produced several generations of world leaders in a multitude of professions. These rankings have a near-obsessive following in developing nations and contribute to the glamour and prestige of an American-style university. From Beijing to Beirut, American-style campuses are dotting the educational landscape and attempting to recreate culturally-differentiated conceptions of an American-style education.

If an American-style education may fluctuate according to cultural idiosyncrasies, perhaps the glorified notion of an American education is more idealistic than realistic. Take this country for example: American classrooms are far from universally student-centered and proficient in generating solid readers, writers, and speakers of English. Classrooms in many inner-city communities are less breeding grounds for tolerance than laboratories for discrimination, prejudice, and marginalization. With a newfound focus on standardization and quantitative measurements of student achievement, memorization and repetitive exercises take precedence over creative writing and exploratory brainstorming. Therefore, the essence of an American-style university is regrettably absent from many American classrooms and campuses today.

Historically, the oldest and most prestigious American universities served only the white, male, Protestant elite who came from families of dignity and notable lineage. Pluralistic was certainty not a word used to characterize universities in the 1800s or early 1900s. Moreover, students at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale in the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th century were far from academically ambitious and sufficiently challenged. Students at the time concentrated their energies not on hitting the books and libraries but on hitting the football field and maneuvering to enter the most coveted final clubs, eating clubs, and senior societies (Karabel, 2005). Since students spent minimal time studying and were preoccupied with extracurricular activities, the college experience at the most selective institutions remarkably contrasts with the rigorous, student-centered notion of an American education today.

Given the immense changes that have occurred within American higher education, no consistent conception of American-style education exists. From the two-year community college to the elite corridors of the Ivy League, American colleges and universities employ a multitude of teaching strategies and operate in such diverse environments that preclude simplistic generalizations. Indeed, the next time an American-style university opens around the world, one ought to question its methodological origins instead of blindly accepting claims of American-style authenticity, which frequently escapes easy description, even in America.


1. Ghabra, Shafeeq., Arnold, Margreet (2007). Studying the American Way: An Assessment of American-Style Higher Education in Arab Countries. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus #71.

2. Karabel, Jerome. (2005). The Chosen: the Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Word from the Vice President

The University-Wide Global Initiative

Why Now? Universities have a unique responsibility. We expect from them deep thinking and fresh understanding at critical junctures in world history. Globalization – where it is coming from, what its consequences are, who is benefiting and who not – needs to be explained, and shaped in ways that serve not just private interests but the public good, and not just for a few places but across the planet.

The Challenge. No observer of research universities can fail to be impressed by their determination to “internationalize” or “globalize.” But has this not already happened? Columbia, University is already deeply internationalized. There are hundreds of research collaborations, dual-degree programs, internships, and related programs spread across every professional school and discipline—there are regional institutes; the Mailman School of Public Health, present in 102 countries; the Earth Institute; and so on.

What is Missing? Columbia’s leadership believes that this growing faculty energy and student demand can reach new levels of scholarship and teaching through a network of integrated global centers.  In the 19th century, there was an explosion of scholarly specialization—in response, Columbia helped invent the now familiar disciplinary departments. In the early 20th century, there was a need for institutions to house research and teaching spilling across departmental boundaries—in response, Columbia helped invent the now familiar interdisciplinary centers and functional Institutes. In the mid-20th century, there was need for strengthened language instruction and area expertise—in response, Columbia helped invent the now familiar regional institutes. The history of universities is spelled out in institutional re-invention when current structures inadequately service expanding scholarly ambitions and courses relevant to new careers. The faculty demand for global scholarship and student demand for global careers is not being adequately met today, especially in ways that do not require a lifetime commitment to regional expertise. What structure can provide these opportunities?

What are Global Centers? 

They are not satellite campuses, overseas profit centers, or operations under the umbrella of a partner institution. Each will be independently chartered. Two exist: Middle-East (Amman) and East Asia (Beijing ); next in line are Europe (Paris) and South Asia (Mumbai), with Russia/Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America to follow. Directed by resident faculty members, and guided by university-wide faculty steering committees, centers individually and the network collectively will favor teaching and research that coordinates across two or more world regions, that connects multiple departments and schools; and, that involves scientists and scholars from those regions. Activities that combine research and teaching with service opportunities – as is the case for many professional school and Earth Institute initiatives – will receive valued logistic support from the Centers.

Ken Prewitt is the Vice President for Global Centers and Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia . 

Map created with Bing Maps (

The Brian Lehrer Show: Wild Life on the 7 Line

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Columbia Spectator on Global Centers

Check out the Spec to see a round-up of articles on current activities and new developments:  "As the University develops its recently launched centers abroad and plans to build new ones in Europe and South Asia, Columbia must manage an increasingly complex set of interactions among the University’s international institutions."

Monday, October 19, 2009

Our Big Backyard: Safari 7 at Studio-X

Chihuahuas and chicken coops are just two of the topics broached at the new Studio-X Safari 7 Reading Room exhibit, which explores the spectrum of flora and fauna that call New York home.

Studio-X, an interdisciplinary arts space located at 180 Varick Street, is an ongoing project of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation with ambitions to give Columbia's thriving uptown scene a second home in downtown Manhattan.

The Safari 7 Reading Room exhibit, on free display at Studio-X from now until December 31, offers an in-depth ecological analysis of the neighborhoods surrounding the 7 train that cuts across New York's boroughs. Purple-hued printed panels detail each slice of the biosphere, from Flushing Meadows to Bryant Park, while a scale wooden model of the line and its environs occupies the main space of the studio. Attendees of the show can listen to a guided audio-tour and peruse a selection of books on the subject of urban design and ecology in New York City.

Studio-X program director Gavin Browning says that Safari 7 Reading Room is made to travel. While the exact time frame is still in the works, the exhibit will stop by Studio-X in Beijing in the near future. From there, the portable show will likely appear in Mumbai and Amman, two more Columbia Global Centers sites, as well as possibly Moscow and Sao Paolo. Browning notes that one of the best features of the show is that its content is so universal--the urban ecology of Beijing would be just as compelling a study as that of New York.

But for now, exploring New York is sufficiently fascinating. Safari 7's engaging study of the intricate urban landscape makes squirrels, maples, and weedy empty lots seem far from mundane.

Photo Credit: Ho Kyung Lee

Friday, October 9, 2009

Chinese Higher Education

August 8th, 2008 at 8:08pm marked not only the start of the Beijing Olympics, it heralded a new era of prosperity, openness, and entrepreneurial drive that had begun in 1978 under Premier Deng’s open-door policies. Since the decision to welcome foreign investment and shift China’s economy from a centrally planned apparatus to a more market-oriented one, the international community has closely observed the seemingly limitless potential that the world’s most populous nation has to offer. Although the G-8, WTO, and other influential organizations often concentrate on China’s manufacturing prowess and sizable market for just about all types of products and services, the under-reported strength of Beijing’s now three-decade long economic surge is predicated on concerted government efforts to overhaul and invigorate the system of higher education that once, in centuries past, was the envy of the world.

From its Confucian-rooted curriculum to its current emphasis on decentralization and internationalization, Chinese higher education has undergone considerable changes. From 1978 to 1992, educational authorities enacted and encouraged policies that sent students, faculty, and visiting scholars to Western nations, in particular the United States, for advanced studies and in-depth research. Scholars and faculty members from predominately Western nations were also invited to teach and conduct research in China. The objective of this period was to absorb as much as possible from more advanced, industrialized nations in the fields of science, technology, information systems, management, engineering, and other more quantitative-based disciplines (Huang, 2003).

From 1993 to the present, the State Education Commission, now referred to as the Ministry of Education, began adopting policies to compel overseas Chinese students, scholars, and professionals to return to the mainland. Officials touted the need to nurture domestic businesses, industries, and talent to compete with the industrialized world (Huang, 2003). Efforts were also made to internationalize the curricula by forming partnerships with foreign institutions and by promoting China as an attractive destination for undergraduate and graduate education. The internationalization of higher education in China is an integral part of Beijing’s desire to elevate the world rankings and reputation of its universities.

In 1993, a central government initiative entitled Project 211 aimed to provide vigorous financial and political support to the nation’s top 100 higher education institutions. Once that list was conceived, those universities were expected to spearhead the nation and eventually the world in groundbreaking research and advancement in an assortment of disciplines (Agelasto and Adamson, 1998). Today, premier Chinese universities such as Tsinghua University and East China Normal University are actively engaged not only in strengthening their capacity for research and effective pedagogy as it relates to teaching and learning, but in establishing partnerships with American universities such as Columbia.

Columbia University shares a long and distinguished history with China. As the home of countless former and current Chinese scholars and educators, Columbia University, and in particular, the renowned philosopher and educator John Dewey, had and continues to have an impact on the development of contemporary Chinese society.

The recently signed Memorandum of Understanding between East China Normal University and Columbia University’s Teachers College in 2009 illustrates the sustainability of the Chinese-Columbia connection. For instance, this past summer, 30 aspiring middle and high school teachers from East China Normal University were sent to Teachers College to participate in the first annual “Taste of Teaching” program that provided students with an opportunity to broaden their knowledge of what it means to teach and learn from a comparative perspective. The program included school visits, faculty lectures, and cultural excursions that were designed to widen the educational lens of the next generation of Chinese educators.

The recent collaboration between Teachers College and East China Normal University coincides with China’s push to internationalize its universities in more ways than one. From the increasing adoption of English-based textbooks to the active recruitment of foreign faculty and students, elite Chinese universities, with the unyielding support of a nation that places immeasurable value on higher education, have begun the climb to, once again, position themselves among the very best of higher education providers.


1. Huang, Futao (2003). Policy and Practice of the Internationalization of Higher Education in China. Journal of Studies in International Education, 7(3), 225-240.

2. Agelasto, Michael., Adamson, Bob. (1998). Higher Education in Post-Mao China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Researcher Report: HIV Related Stigma among Health Care Providers in Jordan

HIV-related stigma is a multidimensional concept that has pervasive effects on the lives of HIV-infected people as well as serious consequences for the management of HIV/AIDS. The stigma surrounding HIV in the Middle East is thought to hinder testing and risk reduction efforts (Obermeyer, 2006). In turn, this facilitates the spread of HIV because people do not know they are infected, and access to knowledge on how a person can be infected is limited. The growing prevalence of HIV in the Middle East (WHO, 2008) and the role of stigma in this population is a recently suggested research area by the National Institute of Health (NIH, 2008). My research area is HIV risk reduction in the Muslim World. CUMERC was my base to conduct research on HIV related stigma held by health care providers in Jordan during summer 2009.

Despite having both a low prevalence of HIV and Islamic social norms that tend to limit HIV risk behavior, Jordan has been a regional leader in addressing and implementing HIV risk reduction programs. In collaboration with Jordanian researchers, I refined a survey that will be administered to physicians, nurses, and lab technicians. Through assessing the stigma that health care providers hold toward people with HIV, I seek to measure whether an intervention is needed to address HIV related stigma.

Through first hand exposure to the ideas and challenges pertaining to HIV risk reduction in Jordan, I gained not only invaluable experience in my research area but also a more global understanding of the HIV epidemic. Moreover, mutual understanding and cultural exchange are leading goals in my project. As epidemics like HIV have no borders, the development of new research collaborations with Jordanian researchers is vital to the cross-fertilization of ideas. I expect my research to benefit the global knowledge bank of HIV prevention. Specifically, I intend for my research to expand the adaptation of existing HIV prevention strategies to international populations.

Alex Smolak is a doctoral student at the Columbia University School of Social Work and a pre-doctoral fellow at the Global Health Research Center of Central Asia. His research in Jordan was funded by a Middle East Institute of Columbia University Regional Travel Research Fellowship.

Obermeyer, C. M. (2006). HIV in the Middle East. BMJ, 333, 851-854.
NIH. (2008). PAR-08-153: Collaborative HIV/AIDS Studies in the Middle East and North Africa. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Health.
WHO. (2008). Epidemiological Fact Sheets on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections. Geneva: WHO.