I remember there was a great celebration when the San Pedro Fishermen’s Cooperative1 received its license from the Department of Commerce. They hadn’t asked for a fish and surely didn’t need me to teach them how to fish. They simply needed the small grant I arranged to buy some nets, motors, and refrigeration equipment. Then they could leverage a bank loan and get serious about marketing.
I’ve spent my life studying and lecturing on international development and working with respected international development agencies—from the lofty World Bank to the personable Mennonite Central Committee. Years on the ground in slums and hinterlands have taught me how to help people who are improving their lives and making their societies work better—people like the San Pedro fishermen. I’ve come to understand how society works and become close to so many interesting people from different backgrounds. It’s been a worthwhile and very gratifying career. Many students have asked me how they can prepare for such an occupation.
BYU would seem to be the ideal place to address the gripping challenges of today’s world—grounded in educating the heart with the mind and in applying knowledge to eternal principles. We have students in many fields of study who are interested in working and serving abroad. Our students truly are remarkable—77 percent confidently speak a foreign language and almost half have lived overseas (nearly 15,000 people!). Their exposure to the world has brought awareness of culture, a love of people, and a comfort in moving around the globe that enflames their desire to be out in the world contributing. Students join international study programs in impressive numbers, volunteer in community service, work with NGOs, and pursue international careers. Feeling blessed, BYU students are seeking a good cause in which to be engaged. The question is:
Where do our students learn how to work broadly and effectively in an international context? How well is BYU preparing the future generation to do better than we have done at solving our world’s thorny problems?
“I feel like I’m hiding behind my principles and theories,” Liz told me a couple of weeks ago, with a good bit of feeling. I’ve heard this many times before—often from BYU’s best and brightest.
Liz continued, “I learn principles in class that change my perspective and make me excited to do something good in the world. But I have no idea how to put them into practice. I want to help somebody, but I don’t know how to help.” It’s an earnest, unfulfilled, righteous desire. It’s the kind of desire that ought to motivate our students’ academic pursuit and learning.
“All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded the individual.”
Albert Einstein, England, 15 Sep 1933
I was delighted to hear from another student who wrote that my international development class had helped her decide to serve a mission. She wrote from a struggling Eastern European country that, while sitting in sacrament meeting watching the missionaries conduct the meeting, lead the singing, and then give the sermons, she thought, “I don’t think we’re teaching the people to be self-sufficient.” It reminded her of discussions we had had in class. It was an “aha” moment. I’m confident this sister made a great contribution on her mission because she had learned the correct principle of “. . . teach(ing) them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”2
“It isn’t always serious, the fun side, the personal side of travel never goes away. . . . I can still learn from the individual connection. There isn’t a separation of who I am as a professional and who I am as a person. Those walls are lowered.”
“International Field Studies: A Foundation for a Career in Development,” 16 Nov 2007, Daniel H. Nelson, international program coordinator, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University
A respected senior BYU professor also wrote me while he was on leave serving a humanitarian mission. He was perplexed: “Many humanitarian projects that aim for increased self-reliance (as ours do) often don’t produce real results. The most effective thing we can do is fairly well addressed in the humanitarian guide . . . but there is something paradoxical in the actual practice. We rarely have the cultural, organizational, financial, and political background to determine when community organizations, NGOs, hospitals and clinics, and schools are really effective.” And so I ponder, where do we teach how cultural, organizational, financial, and political forces work together?
International development addresses the pertinent matters of lifting the poor, strengthening emerging nations, achieving peace and justice, and making global society a better place. These broad issues will dominate our students’ world and that of their children. They are real issues—BYU students care about them. I have seen firsthand the disappointing results of decades of development endeavor modeled on popular paradigms of economic, political, and social science. While the paradigms offer good theory, in many applications they haven’t produced great results. Traditional academic theory—what we teach—does not adequately grasp the fullness of complex, evolving socioeconomic problems. To really understand and influence the world, today’s students need both multidisciplinary study and relevant application of its principles.
Each day, 14,000 people become infected with the HIV virus. Half of them are between the ages of 15 and 24.
Great universities, like BYU, provide a strong academic foundation—the “science” and traditions of intellectual fields. However, while faculties see their disciplines in global context and professors apply their teaching to real problems, they usually reach only to the boundary of their profession. By definition, discipline-based education is constrained. In reality, most professions these days, including academic research, are conducted in multidisciplinary teams.
Faculty at BYU carry too heavy a load to spend much time outside their explicit teaching assignments and personalized research priorities. Many would like to reach farther. I see a twofold solution: social science courses that deepen comparative and multidisciplinary investigation, and professors who bring more practical experience into the classroom.
BYU’s curriculum is not structured for multidisciplinary study. With its charge to be an excellent undergraduate university, BYU has taken a classical approach to teaching. This, along with resource limitations, has convinced some that there is no room for multidisciplinary studies. The good foundation we provide in traditional social science prepares our students for top-flight graduate schools—a great benefit for young scholars who go into academic professions. However, most of our graduates in the “soft” sciences won’t be academics. They will be dealing with life’s complex challenges and trying to make their communities better. The world is fast changing and BYU’s mission has always extended beyond the parameters of traditional education. More than a school of knowledge, BYU is a wellspring and foundation for expansive learning—seeking “to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life.”3 That’s a pretty broad and pragmatic course of study.
I am sympathetic to the argument that a multidisciplinary subject like international development may be taught best at the graduate level. And in all honesty, development is quite likely a “practice” more than an academic field, but that is exactly my point! Learning that enhances students’ lives and blesses their righteous pursuits is the objective of a BYU education. It’s what I want to teach. It calls for more than teaching discipline and vocation. Today’s world requires a breadth of knowledge and circumspection that can only come from inter- and intra-disciplinary discourse.
“Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated. . . . And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity.
It is an act of justice. . . .
Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
Nelson Mandela, England, 3 Feb 2005
For example, when the “tragedy of the commons” or “law of unintended consequences”4 is taught in any social field, it becomes obvious that you cannot resolve today’s issues without applying the reason of ethics, philosophy, and jurisprudence to theorems of economics, politics, and sociology.
Without cross-examination of social issues, you can never comprehend why foreign aid and humanitarian efforts consistently fail to produce expected results—nor can you learn how to apply your academic learning. Today it is necessary to relate coursework to media events for students to understand how their learning fits their world. It is necessary for students to study cases of current problems and to experience the application of their learning in real situations. Understanding and acting upon complex realities is essential for each one of us who wishes to make a difference. It is the training sought by upper classmates like Liz, by future missionaries, and by professors who are also leaders.
This leads students and teachers to the test of ideas. The Church Educational System has recently changed its manner of teaching to engage students in deriving principles from scripture stories that they then apply to their personal lives. Their mantra is: “teach people, not lessons.” This is why at BYU, in addition to multi-disciplined instruction, students need experience-based learning. Only then will they gain personal confidence and functional skills.
Some BYU departments sponsor international study programs believing that they make better graduates. They usually do! Some departments require practicum, capstone projects, or internships, but not enough programs and professors provide “field” studies or incorporate what students have already experienced in their missions, volunteer service, and international travel into the academic exercise. This is a vast, rich fount of learning that we need to better integrate into the curriculum and student experience. It is BYU’s unparalleled comparative advantage.
“International experiences provide a unique and powerful opportunity for our personal and spiritual growth. The more I have been abroad, the more I have felt like the questions are big, and the answers need to be locally based. We need to be very careful, as we serve, to not make things worse. I do believe one person can make a difference.”
“Personal Growth through International Experiences,” 9 Nov 2007, Stacey Shaw, MSW
Students want to know how to put learning to practice. In addition to qualifying for a worthwhile career, our young scholars want to feel the gratification of plying their knowledge in their community and world—like I have been able to do. The Church needs them to understand how to lift people into self-reliance so they will be effective elders quorum and Relief Society presidents. BYU is, in many ways, a training ground for the next generation of bishops, as well as for government, civic, and business leaders.
Conversations with 60,000 poor people in 60 countries, as well as our day-to-day work, have taught us that poverty is about more than inadequate income. It is also about lack of fundamental freedom of action, choice, and opportunity.
During my eight years at BYU, I have witnessed a protracted conversation over the place of international development in the formal curriculum. The introduction to international development course sponsored by the Kennedy Center has proven consistently popular and persistently difficult to staff. It is difficult to find professors who are available to teach multidisciplinary courses because of the demands of core curriculum. And we have not, in general, hired professors with experience in international development—the subject doesn’t fit comfortably within our established academic divisions. While there isn’t funding for new programs, this matter is not constrained only by resources. Our current educational structure is bound by the way faculties conceptualize their disciplines and establish degree requirements. There are other ways to organize the instruction. I don’t believe that securing a strong academic foundation—as we should, and do—precludes building contemporary new structures upon that foundation.
We have learned in development practice that the answer to scarcity is sometimes found in counting and distributing the beans more carefully. And we have also discovered that greater results often come from a strategy of growing more beans, or introducing a new variety. BYU will always exercise great responsibility and restraint in managing its blessed resources. But vision, desire, and creativity can lead to “plowing our bean field” differently.
Last semester the BYU curriculum committee approved an international development “minor” to be sponsored by the Kennedy Center. Students draw eighteen credits from forty-two courses offered by fifteen departments. It will take some experience and serious coordination among departments to focus and strengthen this course of study. Nevertheless, there are over fifty students in the introduction to international development course this semester, and others were turned away for lack of seats. Over thirty faculty members comprise the development “committee of the whole.” It is exciting to see strong student and faculty interest in this critical field.
Corruption is the single largest obstacle to development. It increases wealth for the few at the expense of society as a whole, leaving the poor suffering the harshest consequences by taking public resources away from those who need them most.
So it appears to be time to get serious about teaching development. There is so much to learn. We are beginning to engage this topic better, and I see meaningful ways that BYU can do more; that is, offer students greater exposure to vital issues that concern so many of them and broaden their preparation for a worthwhile and gratifying life.
1. Departments and faculty can offer more comparative and multidisciplinary instruction within their courses of study. They can engage faculty from related fields in lecturing, seminars, and forums within their departments. With better planning, they can integrate the outstanding visiting lecturers brought to campus into more departmental seminars, classroom discussions, and course assignments. Departments might collaborate more in sponsoring studies of the nexus where social sciences converge, and where they intersect with the professional arts.
2. University support and funding can increase for faculty mentoring of students in international and multidisciplinary projects. ORCA and other grants should give higher priority to cross-discipline projects and research (since these projects don’t have influential departmental sponsors). It would not be difficult to increase donor contributions to expand this work.
3. I would like to see emphasis placed on hiring professors who have practice in the venues and professions that apply social science. Professors should be encouraged to take students on their travels and involve students in their research. We have a good foundation here.
4. Departments can increase their involvement within the local and broader community, following the example of the College of Education’s work in local schools, Humanities Spanish resource center, MFSS’s Washington, D.C. Seminar, and the Kennedy Center’s Intercultural Outreach program.
5. Increase dialogue among college departments and with the Kennedy Center to create greater synergy in international degree programs, research, lecturers, and outreach.
There is a point in liberal education where the study of man’s meanderings must be grounded. Like electricity, it energizes and illuminates only when it flows to ground. Until you know what to do with knowledge—how it works—you don’t know much. Until our students experiment with applying their talents and skills to the broader reality, they are insecure with their place in the world. In this sense, real learning comes only with cross-fertilization, experimentation, and critique. If I understand correctly, this is why mortality exists.
1. Belize, Central America, 1983.
2. Joseph Smith, Millennial Star, vol. 13, p. 339
3. Brigham Young University Mission Statement
4. Both the Tragedy of the Commons and Law of Unintended Consequences articulate fundamental social dilemmas of our day. The tragedy is that finite resources inherently precipitate conflict between individual interests and the common good (consider national budgetary priorities and the debate over environmental preservation). Unintended consequences observe that any external intervention changes the elements of a situation yielding it impossible to predict all outcomes (thus, well meaning social welfare programs often breed dependency and the “invisible hand” of economics creates both wealth and poverty). These two axioms have deep roots in intellectual thought and are increasingly relevant to the study of social theory.