Last week, I went to Oslo to attend the Fulbright orientation. While there, I learned more about J. William Fulbright, the impetus for the program, and some of the pushback that he received. After hearing some of this information, I began to think about the importance of Fulbright’s vision during my time in Norway. At this juncture, I have been in Bergen for about four weeks, and my thoughts, frequently, keep going back to the goals of the Fulbright Program, goals that seek to foster cultural exchange.
Fulbright saw the program as a way to foster peace and understanding across national and cultural borders. He stated, “The Fulbright Program aims to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.” To accomplish this goal, communication and understanding must occur. This happens through cultural exchange and conversation.
Later, in 1967’s The Price of Empire, Fulbright noted, “The essence of intercultural education is the acquisition of empathy–the ability to see the world as others see it, and to allow for the possibility that others may see something we have failed to see, or may see it more accurately. The simple purpose of the exchange program…is to erode the culturally rooted mistrust that sets nations against one another. The exchange program is not a panacea but an avenue of hope….” Key here, for me, is the idea that the exchange allows us “to see the worlds as others see it,” drawing attention to our cultural and idealogical flaws that may be a detriment to others. Without these exchanges, the world would devolve into constant conflicts.
It must be remembered that the Fulbright Program began after World War II. In fact, 2019 will mark the 70th anniversary of the program. A few months after the end of the war, in November 1945, Senator Fulbright introduced the Surplus Property Act. The act made the State Department the agency that would handle the disposal of surplus war materials left in other countries after World War II. The countries could pay for the disposal through currency or credits. Fulbright used this act to initiate the cultural exchange. As Randall Bennett Woods describes the act,
The secretary of state was empowered to sign agreements with foreign governments to finance educational activities for Americans in other countries and foreign nationals in overseas American institutions, and to pay for transportation of visitors from abroad to study in the United States. Funding for the program would come entirely from foreign currency proceeds from the sale of surplus products abroad.
This was the legal genesis for the Fulbright Program, couched within a piece of legislation that focused on the removal and disposal of war materials. Important to note here as well is the last sentence where Woods points out that the funding would come “from foreign currency proceeds.” Today, for Norway at least, the bulk of the program (70%) is funded by Norway, not the United States.
Everyone did not agree with Fulbright’s goals or the program. Some, such as Tennessee Senator Kenneth McKellar, saw the program as something that would cause individuals to succumb to ideas that would be detrimental to America. McKellar proclaimed, “Young man (Fulbright), that’s a very dangerous piece of legislation. . . . You’re going to take our young boys and girls over there to expose them to those foreign isms.” While, McKellar’s fears arose, as Woods notes, out of America’s history, to that point, of isolationist politics, they did not consider that America could be, in any way, wrong about some of its policies and ideas. Recall that Fulbright wanted the program to allow individuals to see America through the eyes of non-Americans, thus showing us the flaws that are inherent within our society, flaws that we have been blind too because we exist within that society.
Today, these same fears exist. If an idea runs counter to the American ideals of democracy and individualism then it must be, inherently, wrong. That is not the case. When people learned that I was going to Norway, some would be excited but also critical of the socialist aspects. Norway does have socialist spaces, but it is, as someone during the orientation put it, a “social democratic welfare state.” Within this phrase, we see democratic ideals merged with a concern and striving to work for the benefit of all. In this way, Norway is a mixture, not just a singular political idea. (I want to talk about these ideas more. However, I want to wait till I get a firmer grasp on them.)
I want to conclude this post by briefly talking about what I hope to take away from this experience, especially in relation to Fulbright’s goals for the program. I want to learn as much as I can about Norwegian life and culture in hopes that I can apply what I learn to my life and community when I return to America. There are aspects of Norwegian society, especially its goal to benefit the entire community, that would benefit America. However, I find that the deep rooted ideas and myths that exist in America, in part due to its size, history, and other factors, makes this problematic. Yet, I think we need to think about ways to bring things like free education, universal health care, children’s rights, parental rights, and other qualities to our citizens.
Along with the above mentioned items, I hope my children take as much, if not more, away from this experience as I do. They are both in school here in Norway, and through this they are becoming introduced to multiple nationalities and experiences. I am ultimately looking forward to see what they take away from these interactions. How will these interactions shape them? How will these interactions affect the ways that they see the world? How will these interactions lead them to be better citizens? I think it will take a few years to see the answers to these questions, but I look forward, most of all, to see how this journey changes and influences them.
For me, we cannot espouse equality and democracy when we fail to engage in cultural exchange and understanding. The Fulbright Program’s foundation calls for these goals. Ultimately, this exchange occurs through individual relationships that form over the course of the grant period. Without these relationships, there would be no exchange. I could spend my entire eleven months in Norway focused on my work and become insular with my family. However, doing so would negate the whole purpose of the Fulbright Program. I must, along with my family, get involved within the community, meet individuals, listen to individuals, learn from individuals, and live life with individuals. By doing so, I can learn from others and use that knowledge to make the world a better place for everyone.