Ryan Daniels | Close encounters with foreign minds

Daniels, Straight Up | Penn students should encounter the unfamiliar world from beyond our campus

· December 3, 2013, 12:05 am   ·  Updated December 3, 2013, 10:11 pm

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Ryan Daniels
Daniels, Straight Up

When news broke about America’s nuclear arms deal with Iran last week, reactions seemed a little confused.

The deal was so at odds with common perceptions about Iranians that most students didn’t exactly know what to think. How could the hardline, explicitly anti-American country we’ve long feared agree to such a deal? How could our government even negotiate with them?

Our conflicted reaction last week is indicative of a strange irony facing Penn students: We strive toward critical thought and openness to ideas, and we study the world and its cultures to enhance understanding. But, at the same time, we fail to actually engage and experience the world around us.

This is by no means specific to Iran, but it is certainly well illustrated by it.

While certain Iranian government actors are openly hostile to our country — and many citizens are too — our sweeping generalizations are misguided, especially when they’re fearful and untrusting.

In reality, many analysts argued that increasingly unhappy Iranian citizens were the main driver behind this deal, which ended months of economy-strangling sanctions. Iranians are disenchanted with the prospect of nuclear capability when it entails international isolation.

In order to avoid these frequent misconceptions, we need to experience — and not just learn about — foreign cultures.

The good news is that students don’t lack interest in the world’s least familiar peoples and places. Unlike our oft-lamented apathy toward the surrounding Philadelphia community, most students are intellectually tuned in to foreign affairs. The “Penn Bubble” is a local one.

For example, most students will be exposed to at least one foreign culture while fulfilling the College’s General Education requirements. These requirements include “Cross-Cultural Analysis,” “Society” and “History & Tradition” sectors.

Furthermore, most students keep up to date on current events and foreign affairs. We’re hardly uninterested.

But this isn’t enough. If we never actually meet and engage with unfamiliar cultures, they will remain abstract. And this abstraction inhibits us from truly connecting with a foreign culture, stymieing substantive understanding.

A face-to-face encounter with the unfamiliar is the only way to bridge canyons of perceived differences.

The benefits of ameliorating awareness are numerous and large, and there are a few things Penn can do to help.

Our study abroad program is a great start, and the obvious solution to this paradox. But improvements can be made. For example, each year the University sends around 600 students abroad. If we assume that these are mostly juniors, then this is only around 6 percent of students.

Furthermore, it is oftentimes difficult to spend semesters in truly foreign places due to academic requirements; a semester at an established European university probably has a more compatible curriculum than a small college in a third-world country.

If Penn imposed an academic requirement for studying abroad — either during the school year semester or the summer — numbers would definitely be boosted. Penn could also loosen restrictions on studying at less conventional universities. The educational experience from immersion in an alien land rivals any “Cross-Cultural Analysis” course, anyway.

And, as previously implied, students would have far more to gain than education alone.

Enhanced mutual understanding means improved decision-making. The absence of understanding is not just misinformation, but with delicate foreign relations issues, often trepidation or hate. I think spelling out possible complications here is hardly necessary — just look to the war in Iraq, or most wars for that matter.

Also, though perhaps less tangibly, people will be more likely to “think globally” in their endeavors going forward. Instead of calculating the consequences of an action or decision on a local level, people will be more inclined to think about how they are affecting a greater world community.

In an increasingly globalized world, both of these benefits will be amplified.

I’ve written before that it’s important to experience complex issues, international or domestic, with an open mind. This is especially true for topics fraught with unfamiliarity to politicians and Penn students alike (think Iranian public opinion).

Luckily, both Penn students and the University have no shortage of open minds, so together we should strive for firsthand encounters more comprehensive than a classroom can provide.

Ryan Daniels is a College senior from Philadelphia. Email him at ryanjdaniels@gmail.com. “Daniels, Straight Up” appears every Wednesday.

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