Academic journal article Higher Learning Research Communications

Extending the Progressive Tradition to Poor Countries: The Role of Universities and Colleges

Academic journal article Higher Learning Research Communications

Extending the Progressive Tradition to Poor Countries: The Role of Universities and Colleges

Article excerpt


American universities and colleges have always been a bastion of liberalism and progressive thought. Historically, the academic community has supported social justice issues; given a voice to the poor, minorities, and the disadvantaged; and brought to light subjects that are considered taboo elsewhere. Indeed, many social movements have either started in American universities (henceforth referred to as universities) or been energized by the actions of university students and faculty-and often with the support of university administrations. Yet, when it comes to dealing with global issues that affect poor nations, universities have not always acted as change agents. In some cases, universities have to been passive onlookers or been complacent in directly or indirectly participating in maintaining the status quo.

Of course, American universities are characterized by notable differences in resources, political bent, student demographics, and myriad other factors and so it would be unfair to generalize. It is recognized that different universities approach global issues differently. Nevertheless, they all face external challenges and internal constraints in their attempt to internationalize and participate in the global sphere. This essay discusses these challenges and constraints, and ways in which universities might contribute to the global common good. A particular emphasis is given to Africa.

A History of Social Movements Support

Just in the last decades of the 20th century, American universities were actively involved in the social and political movements that defined the times. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was largely launched by the Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. The issue of school integration became front and center not just in schools but in universities in the South (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2004). Paralleling the Civil Rights Movement was the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which was founded in 1960 to campaign for the eradication of apartheid and the release of political prisoners in South Africa by lobbying for boycotts in various fields including academia, sports, and culture as well the military. Even though the movement involved extensive organization networks throughout the world and had the support of prominent public figures, American universities played an important role in making the movement visible. According to the African Activist Archive at Michigan State University, "organizations in the African solidarity movement created newsletters, pamphlets, leaflets, policy and strategy papers, meeting minutes, correspondence, and graphic, audio and visual material such as posters, buttons, T-shirts, photos, slideshows, radio interviews, and videos" (Anti-Apartheid Movement, n.d.). Activism by students from the University of Michigan and Stanford University was instrumental in launching the push for universities to divest from South Africa.

University campuses across America are known for the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era. Schreiber (1973) asserted that

The early stirrings of this opposition to the Vietnam war in America usually are traced to universities where students and faculty were among the first groups to organize and to voice opposition to the war in a way that very soon became highly visible to the news media commentators. (p. 288)

These types of vibrant social efforts, which were often only fueled by student and faculty passion for justice seem to have waned or been redefined in the last few decades. As early as 1992, Arturo Escobar lamented that

For some time now, it has been difficult-at times even impossible-to talk about development, protest or revolution with the same confidence and encompassing scope with which intellectuals and activists spoke about these vital matters in our most recent past. It is as if the elegant discourses of the 1960s - the high decade of both Development and Revolution-had been suspended. …

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