03/31/2015 02:29 pm ET Updated May 31, 2015

Global Challenges Drive Need for International Awareness

With countless international situations dominating the headlines, the year 2014 offered abundant evidence of the need for issues-based global study on our nation's campuses.

From Afghanistan to Yemen, Ukraine to the Islamic State, this year's world headlines are shaping up to be no different.

The shrinking nature of the globe through the interdependence of national economies, the advance of terrorism, and common threats facing the world's environmental systems, among many other factors, makes a compelling case for increasing international studies at our colleges and universities. Often an interdisciplinary model that combines history, economics, sociology, languages, and other fields, the concept of international studies today needs to be much more.

If we expect our budding "citizens of the world" to take their responsible place in an interconnected planet, we also need to make them literate in public policy, international diplomacy and finance, global security, and environmentalism. A wealth of topics exists, captured from the news of the day and enriched by the themes of history.

It's a small world, after all--and a complicated and hazardous one. We foster ignorance of international affairs at our peril. We also have an obligation to introduce our students to the wonders of the world, other cultures, different ways of thinking and behaving. It is difficult to imagine one being truly educated without such understanding.

When I was a college student, I was required along with my classmates to take a two-semester, first-year course simply titled the "Humanities Experience." Rather than follow the conventional timeline and topics of Western civilization, the course sought to introduce us to the touchstones of being human through selected exposure to music, art, literature, film, and the like. The content varied widely, sometimes with mixed results and reactions among us freshmen, but one unit stands out in my memory--the one that invited us, with suggestion and subtlety, to Japan.

During the weeks devoted to the Japanese unit we studied Bunraku, ikebana, haiku, the novels of Mishima and others, and films like "The Naked Island" in which nothing really seemed to transpire, and yet everything did. We were introduced to the traditional tea ceremony, and marveled at the discipline required to master the Japanese alphabet and language.

At the time, it was all a bit underwhelming, I must admit--until years later, as a college president, I traveled to Japan to negotiate educational exchange in Tokyo, and came face to face with Japanese manners, customs, and culture.

Then it all opened up for me, as if my college education and the long-ago Japanese unit suddenly paid me a welcome and reassuring visit. I understood my Tokyo counterparts better, negotiated well and respectfully, and returned to the U.S. grateful for the perspective I now had.

To forge ties with international higher-education institutions, to initiate globalization programs, remains one of the key goals of the colleges I have served. At Bethany, we've established articulation agreements with a number of institutions--Japan College of Foreign Languages, Tokyo; Harlaxton College in England; Regent's College in London; the Sorbonne in Paris, among them--and we have initiated a program to bring some of China's top students to our campus. We also encourage our students to spend their spring breaks abroad. This year, Bethany students traveled to Costa Rica, Ireland, Spain, and Trinidad.

Dr. Anju Ramjee of our business administration program led the tour to Ireland where the focus of the trip was that nation's recovering economy. "One has to understand the cultural, political, legal and financial aspects of a country in order to be successful in business ventures," she has said.

I heartily agree, and beyond the exciting and useful experience of traveling to other nations, I also hope that our colleges and universities will find the financial and intellectual resources to establish more issues-based programs in their curricula. To the popular notion that many American students cannot find Russia on a map of the world might be added the more disturbing idea that a nation that has figured so prominently in the history and policy of our own doesn't really matter to them.

We need to correct such thinking. More to the point, we should rethink how and what we teach about geography, world history, languages, and the origins of cultures. Focusing on topics of paramount importance to our nation's prosperity and security is a good place to begin.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is the president of Bethany College and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies. Now in his 24th year as a college president, he serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards, and edits "Presidential Perspectives" (, a higher education leadership series written by college presidents for college presidents.