Global Infections

Jul 1, 2020 9:23:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf dives into current issues including the global pandemic and the impact of globalization.

The Spread 

We are doubly infected: firstly, a literal virus disrupts our professional and personal lives; secondly, intolerance of difference, given legitimacy by political leaders, spreads across many parts of the worldThe symptoms of this metaphorical infection are several:  Hungarian radical nationalism, Brexit, America First, to name just a prominent few. This is not, of course, anything new but part of a cycle of infection that has proved impenetrable to prevention or cure. By way of example, “America First” had an earlier manifestation. Charles Lindbergh (1902 – 1974), the first aviator to complete a solo transatlantic flight, was a spokesman for the America First Committee (1940 – 41), an anti-Semitic organization sympathetic to the Nazis.

The causes of COVID-19 remain something of a mystery. The pandemic demonstrates very clearly that, like it or not, national boundaries are porous, regardless of how high walls are built. The problem is transnational; the solution will be found by scientists working collaboratively across frontiers. Xenophobia and prejudice are less easy to cure.


In the current situationthe contested question of globalization is the focus of much attentionIt is clearly not a simple concept. At one level, it demonstrates the limitations of nation, community, or individual to control events. Dimly understood dynamics constrain the power of humans to act upon the environment or radically to alter their circumstances.  

We may deduce that globalization is neither good nor bad or, more precisely, it may be both bad and good.  For that reason, CAPA is not in the business of promoting globalization. It is, instead, something that we feel that students need to engage with because it shapes the realities we all inhabit; exploring and analyzing the impact is a critical element in educating ourselves and our students.  

If you need a simple example, just look at the labels on the clothes we wear. We are dressed in the world.   

Image 1_Made In China

Image 2_Made in Indonesia

That simple fact raises complex questions that transcend disciplines. Spanish leather was sent to Vietnam to make the new shoes I bought in London. International business studies will consider supply chain management and trade barriers to be of particular relevance in this example. The economic historian might note the shift away from manufacturing in much of the developed world. Social scientists might wonder how, given the cost of raw materials and shipping, stores can sell pretty dresses and fancy shirts for $15. Inexpensive clothing in the developed world may be dependent upon exploitation of workers in low-wage economies elsewhere. 

This is not a new concern. Benjamin Harrison (1833 – March 1901), 23rd president of the United States from 1889 to 1893, raised precisely this issue in a speech in Rutland, Vermont28 August 1891:  

Things may be too cheap. They are too cheap when the man or woman who produces them does not get out of them living wages with a margin for old age and for a dowry for the incidents that are to follow. I pity the man who wants a coat so cheap that the man or woman who produces the cloth or shapes it into a garment will starve in the process. 

Image 3_Benjamin HarrisonBenjamin Harrison.

There are also demographic implications. In the developed world, we have fewer children, ironically because we can afford smaller families after centuries of struggle to secure, at least in theory, workers’ rights to a living wage. There are other parts of the world in which a large family may be an economic imperative as subsistence of the whole depends on the labor of many. Economies and their functions are changing across the globe but who wins and who loses from these alterations?  Power relations between and within nations shift to enforce current discriminations, and to create new inequalities.  

There is another way of reading those labels though. In international education they may symbolize the impact of globalization as an agent of beneficial change. Geographical distance has shrunk. Communities are no longer defined by proximity; there are no strangers anymore. We are at the center of a paradox: globalization sustains inequality and creates intimacy. In either case, the impact cannot be ignored. 

At CAPA we were recently asked if we were in favor of globalizationIn one sense the question is pointless. It is akin to asking if you are in favor of the tides, the moon, or the seasons. These things simply are. It makes no sense to oppose the weather. 

That is not, of course, what our well-meaning inquisitor really meant. We experience globalization as a force that impacts upon us all, something beyond our control or agency, but it is not only that. It may also be a critical element in an educational agenda, as it is for CAPA. Forced and voluntary mobilityas a consequence of globalization, has led to a huge expansion of urban environments. Those cities are laboratories of social dynamics: poverty and wealth inequities; religious and political alterations; the movement and flow of people, ideas, art, theatre, crime, capitaland so on create profound areas for investigation. These factors also offer a rich field for comparative studies. CAPA’s Globally Networked Learning was developed precisely to enhance opportunities to make those comparisons across national borders. 

I am being unfair to our inquisitor. They were really asking a political question about ethics and ideology. In adjectival form, global is, among other things, shorthand for a set of values, and, in that sense, it was an entirely reasonable question. Global values are not the same as globalization. We may not be able to benefit from or avoid all the consequences of globalization, but we are able to make ethical choices, to focus beyond parochialism, and then, seek to act upon those choices. 

There will never be complete consensus as to what global values are except in the broadest sense. We may also not easily agree about what to call them: internationalism, cosmopolitanism, transnationalism, civil rights, human rights, egalitarianism, or whatever. We might though agree that, in one way or another, these principles are embedded in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.  

Image 4_Eleanor RooseveltEleanor Roosevelt, Chair of the Human Rights Commission.

A critical concept in that document was that of the “the human family.” The notion implies that what unites us is more important than that which divides us. Any family has its problems though. We may never entirely accept the eccentric foibles of Uncle Max or find our distant cousins entirely lovable. But we will not abuse them in case we are, in return, abused.  

However disagreeable you may find members of your family, you do not create myths of their inferiority, innate lack of intelligence, or their proclivity to violence: all because they do not live in your area, behave in ways you find odd, or look different from yourself.  You would not oppress them or set up prejudicial systems to keep them in their place.  You would not permit humiliation of even your most distant cousins (Floyd or Brooks) or watch them killed without reason.  

Image 5_George FloydGeorge Floyd.

Image 6_Rayshard BrooksRayshard Brooks.

You would not send in the army to shut them up if they complained. 

The idea of the human family is, of course, a metaphor of how we might choose to live with each other; an aspiration not a reality. We are indeed in favor of family values. 

Going Global: Education Abroad and Universities 

The concept of the global may also be used to distinguish areas of interest that are broader than the local. Universities frequently describe themselves as “global” when what they mean is that they have interests beyond the country in which their main center is located. One institution describes itself as “the global university in London”: somewhat of an oxymoron I suggest. Within the USA, universities are also accredited locally, not even nationally, let alone globally. 

It might be argued that every university has an obligation to go beyond the parochial to give their students access to worlds elsewhere. Academic disciplines are, in any case, not constrained by national borders. For example, a course focused, however narrowly, on a single national history would necessarily examine inter-relationships with the rest of the world. In International Business Studies, “international” is essentially redundant in so far as almost no economic activity, as our labels indicate, is contained within local borders. 

The usage of “global” raises other concerns in so far as it is sometimes indistinguishable from “good.” Global is used to indicate approval when combined with words like competence, consciousness, or awareness. Of greater concern is the common collocation with “citizen”: an oxymoron and rhetorical device that disguises a sales pitch, not vastly dissimilar to the inflated claim of the travelling salesmen of nineteenth century America. It is a marketing slogan to suggest to participants that by going somewhere else they will gain the key to an elevated state of quasi-mystic enlightenment, rather similar to the illusion that poor Dorothy pursued on the road to Oz. 

Image 7_ Dorothy_Wizard of Oz

Learning is progressive not a sudden transformative epiphany, acquisition not blessed conversion to the Nirvana of “global citizenship.” We move from less to more knowledge, insight, or awarenessStudents have a opportunityin studies abroad, to acquire wider interests and affinities that extend beyond the narrow boundaries of domestic environments. They may learn more about the interconnection of nations and of themselves with others. They may develop the gift of empathy. However, the acquisition of wisdom is not an inevitable consequence of education abroad. It is possible to learn nothing anywhere.    

Globalization and Colonialism 

Globalization is linked implicitly with the notion of colonization in so far as it undermines the ability of nations, and individuals within them, to be agents of their own destinies. 

Ocourse, countries may choose to limit their sovereignty by joining transnational alliances and agreeing to self-imposed restraints. The European Union is just such an association and, in joining, nations voluntarily restrict their freedom of action. Membership of the EU forbids, for example, capital punishment. It requires countries to open their borders to citizens of other member states. Within European higher education, those who signed the Bologna Declaration agreed broadly to align their degree systems with those of the other signatoriesIn essence, nations may choose voluntarily to limit their sovereignty in return for other perceived benefits. 

Globalizationin contrastimposes involuntary restrictions on the independence of nations. Transnational agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are empowered to determine what countries may or may not do. For the most part, their interventions are directed towards the poorer nations of the world on behalf of the more powerful.  Global inequities reenact dependency that is quasi-colonial; the appearance of national sovereignty and the absence of a physical presence masks an erosion of independence. Globalization and colonization are, in these circumstances, interconnected in so far as they create limitations on the power of nations to determine their own priorities.  

A defining characteristic of colonialism is that one group conceives of themselves to be superior to another and, thus, justified in managing the lives of the inferiorThat superiority may be based on the notion of a higher level of development and “civilization,” inherent racial characteristics, access to a true religion, a right to rule through greater power.  The colonizers may have any number of justifications, but they will likely contain some combination of the dual motivations expressed by the missionary and explorer David Livingstone (1813 – 1873). In 1857 he declared to students at the University of Cambridge that: “I go back to Africa to try and make an open path for Commerce and Christianity. Where Mammon led, the missionary followed.[1]

Our next occasional paper is called Empires of the Mind?  (Post)colonialism and Decolonizing Education Abroad.  After that publication, we will explore race and ethnicity in a global context. As in many of the other volumes in this series, Human Rights in Action and Civil Rights and Inequalities in particular [2], it will seek to examine key questionof prejudice, racial and ethnic stereotyping, and social justice clustered around globalization and literal or metaphorical colonialism. 

Colonialism is a condition and globalization a process. However, the consequences may be comparable. Countries, and people within them, may become victims of the unjust dominance of the powerful over those without sufficient resources or strength to resist effectively. The values of international education necessarily require solidarity with the dispossessed and colonizedwhether they be nations or individuals. Inherent in what we do is the recognition that the stranger is not an enemy, that we learn from each other and enrich each other. We recognize the equality of all, learn from our differences, and embrace our similarities. To do otherwise is to align with demons, metaphorical and real, to support hate, to abandon members of our family.  


[1] Mammon is the personification of greed as in Matthew 6:24 KJV: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

[2] Available without charge at


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: International Education, Diversity Abroad