by Charles Hall, dean of international programs and associate professor of sociology at Seaver College
In the summer of 2010, I went to Kigali, Rwanda, and spent one afternoon at the Nyamata Catholic Church. On April 14, 1994, ten thousand Tutsi squeezed into this church believing that this would be the safest place to hide from the Hutu. In a matter of four days all 10,000 people were brutally killed. In a period of 100 days, 800,000 Tutsi and Huti killed one another; over 20 percent of the population was lost. As I stared at the massive piles of clothes still present in the church, blood stains still visible on the walls and the instruments of genocide still lying on the floor, I asked myself: Why did this happen? How was this possible?
As I reflected on these questions, I remembered the words of Dr. Martin Luther King: “Men hate each other because they fear each other, and they fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they are often separated from each other.” Dr. King’s words would become my marching orders as dean of Pepperdine’s International Programs. Hate is the product of fear, ignorance, and separation. International Programs would be part of the solution.
In my experience, there are two things that are necessary to combat hatred, fear, and misunderstanding between people: 1) We must cross physical boundaries in order to break down social boundaries; 2) We must avoid the tendency to associate with like-minded groups and start interacting with people who are different.
Physical boundaries create social boundaries. When social groups are physically segregated from others, they will not interact with other people. When Americans aren’t interacting with the rest of the world, they become irrelevant to the global conversation. Senator Lee Hamilton, chair of the 9/11 Commission, expressed the urgency of this when he said: “Ignorance of the world is a national liability. The U.S. cannot conduct itself effectively when our most educated citizens lack minimal exposure and understanding of the world. If we don’t send more students abroad, America’s international prestige will continue to decline.”
This is why study abroad programs have become so essential to a university education. At Pepperdine, we want to get as many students off the Malibu campus and over to one of our Pepperdine campuses in Germany, Italy, England, Switzerland, Argentina, or China. And we’re doing a good job. Last year the Institute of International Education ranked Pepperdine’s International Programs number one in the nation for the percentage of students we send overseas. It’s a good, first step toward breaking down social boundaries.
But, we have to do more. Why? Because our students do exactly what most people do when they’re confronted with difference—they stay with each other. It’s a predictable pattern of human behavior. We are more comfortable interacting with those who are most like us. Here’s the problem: What we don’t realize is, by acting this way, we contribute to “group polarization.” When individuals only hang out with people who act, think, and believe like them, they are only exchanging information with people who reinforce their own viewpoints.
In his book, Going to Extremes, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein says that like-minded groups tend to adopt more extreme positions over time. Polarization is a consequence of the company we keep. You join a group of like-minded people. You interact with them, to the exclusion of others. You approve of what they say. And before you know it, your views are even more extreme. Over time, group polarization can go terribly wrong. Sunstein explains that the Rwanda genocide, the Holocaust, terrorism, and Abu Ghraib were all abuses that resulted initially from group polarization.
Diversity of thought is a necessary ingredient for a working democracy like the United States, and the university of today must do all it can to expose students to the people, ideas, and cultures of the world. Yet one of the main criticisms of American study abroad programs is their insular nature. Students live together, eat together, go to class together, travel together. They never really engage the people of the culture. Few could tell you what foreign students care about, what concerns them, how they view Americans, how they view certain political issues, or what gives their life meaning. They could very well live a whole year in another country without really knowing anything about people outside their own group.
Crossing boundaries is not just about crossing oceans. Sure, it’s a necessary step, but crossing boundaries requires that we take the next step, the more uncomfortable step, of crossing those “invisible” boundaries that exist between individuals of different cultures. We want this generation of students to be the change agents for the future. Pepperdine’s International Programs has the ability and reputation to lead the educational community in this endeavor. We want to educate a new generation of students who are comfortable with difference, who are better listeners than talkers, and have the skills to create understanding and peace between polarized groups.
As I left the genocide memorial in Rwanda, I couldn’t help think about our unique responsibility as a Christian university to break down the social boundaries that too often undergird such devastating human tragedies. Can Pepperdine’s International Programs make a difference? Can we create expert listeners? Can we produce healers and peacemakers? Yes, we can. And yes, we will.