Alister McIntyre

A Different Approach to Education

VTR Date: September 26, 1995

Guest: McIntyre, Alister


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Alister McIntyre
Title: A Different Approach to Education
VTR: 9/26/1995

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And today’s guest provides a wonderful opportunity for us together to view the world of education from a perspective quite unfamiliar to most Americans. Born in the British West Indies, Sir Alister McIntyre earned degrees at the London School of Economics and Oxford University. Once Secretary General of Caribbean Community; now Sir Alister as its Vice Chancellor, is the administrative head of the University of the West Indies. And I would ask my guest today what new views on the educational process his unique perspective can provide Americans so concerned with our schools and our young people’s education. Sir Alister?

MCINTYRE: Well, I believe that Americans have to increasingly think in global terms as the world becomes more interdependent.

HEFFNER: I gather as the University has, under your leadership, that you have taken a number of nations and brought them together, served by a common university.

MCINTYRE: Yes, from the outset we have served fourteen Caribbean countries. And so we have always had to think of ourselves in a much larger setting than would a university in a single country. And the second thing about it is this; that we’ve always had an explicit mandate to train leadership. That is not a usual condition laid down for the establishment of a university. And we, in that process, have done rather well. Seven of the Caribbean heads of government today are alumni. Most of the Cabinets are full of our graduates. The CEOs of many of the major companies, the banks, and the professions, medicine, engineering, law, teaching; large proportions of the people working in those areas are our graduates. So we have built a community of leadership which has been very valuable, not only in national terms in each island, but also in the regional setting.

HEFFNER: But we couldn’t do that, could we? Could we use our schools in this country in the same way?

MCINTYRE: I would suggest to you that you will have to progressively do that.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

MCINTYRE: Well, simply because the economy is globalizing, and so is higher education. Today, what does one find? One finds small schools merging to achieve a larger critical mass. One finds institutions developing consortia to deliver particular programs or to engage in research. One finds partnerships and networks of all kinds, because institutions are reaching across countries. It is very important in an interdependent world that one develops, much more forcefully than before, a culture of cosmopolitanism. International understanding has always been a remit of the University’s, and we’ve had study-abroad schemes, we’ve had student exchanges for a long time. We are now musing to the phase of program integration, where universities together across countries produce programs of common benefit to students in their localities.

Let me give you two examples of what we are doing. We are putting on, at the moment, an executive master’s degree in public sector management, team-taught by a university in Australia, two universities in Britain, some faculty from the Kennedy School, and ourselves. We are team-teaching this in Jamaica. And we hope that after several years we will develop it into a distance program that could be provided all over the world. At the moment we have students from Africa, from the Pacific, and one or two from Asia. So I do believe that in the interdependent world that’s emerging, that more and more universities have to set the pace by producing people with a cosmopolitan outlook and a much firmer grip of the diverse cultures and traditions and practices that exist in this world of ours.

HEFFNER: Well, this cosmopolitan outlook that you suggest; how easy do you think it is for us in the United States to embrace that posture?

MCINTYRE: Well first of all, I think you have to give more emphasis to language teaching. I don’t want to give you gratuitous advice of course.

HEFFNER: I don’t think it would be gratuitous, please do.

MCINTYRE: But I do think you have to give greater emphasis to language teaching. As I said before, we are English-speaking. But the Caribbean is increasingly becoming a borderless area. All of the linguistic groupings in the Caribbean that have been traditionally been divided by language and politics and so on, are removing those barriers. And we are preparing for it. At the present time, we are developing eight master’s degrees jointly with three universities in the Dominican Republic. And the model is that we would start it by sending off students for emersion courses in Spanish. They will send theirs for English. And then after that, each student has to do half of his or her program in each language. And then we combine that with an internship in a private company, government ministry, or similar organization.

HEFFNER: You said you didn’t want to offer gratuitous advice. But of course you’re dealing with a subject now that is very touchy here. We do not like to study languages. We are not very good at it. How does one make up for, or overcome that hurdle?

MCINTYRE: Well, one has to start with one’s children. I am decidedly monolingual. But I’ve made sure that all of my children speak three languages. And it hasn’t been all that difficult to do, once one understands the importance of it. And I think it has to start in the schools, and it has to start by developing an interest in young people in the cultures and societies of other countries. And after all, if the Miami Program of Action is to become a meaningful activity, then it is essential that both in Latin America and the Caribbean we understand the United States, Canada as thoroughly as we can, and equally that there is greater understanding here about Latin America and the Caribbean.

HEFFNER: Sir Alister, when I was a young man, when I was in college, and this goes back a half century ago, there was an assumption thanks to the fact the war was just coming, the Second World War, that there was going to be a much closer connection between the United States and the rest of the Americas. That has, in a very real sense, never developed has it?

MCINTYRE: No, because I think we got off track somewhere in the sixties, in the seventies; in the eighties we began to come back in a rather modest way. Somehow or the other, that promise was not fulfilled. But I think with a renewed effort, characterized by the Miami Plan of Action and the growing realities of interdependence, that it is very essential that that takes place. And I believe, and my colleagues believe, that because of the way in which we have approached education at the University of the West Indies, we have something to say to other institutions in the hemisphere and hopefully that this could have some influence, however small, on the approaches in the future.

HEFFNER: It seems from what I have read about and learned about your form of education, what you are doing, that an enormous emphasis is placed upon occupation, is placed upon economic activity, is placed upon preparation for making a living. That has not been as true in this country. Do you think that it will become truer and truer here?

MCINTYRE: I assume that it will because otherwise there is going to a dichotomy between the world of scholarship and the world of work. That dichotomy cannot be sustained in this century that we are going in towards.

HEFFNER: But as someone who studied at Oxford, certainly the tradition of separation of the world of work from the world of the mind is something that comes second-nature to you. Why do you say we must not permit that to be a dominant theme in our educational structure?

MCINTYRE: Well, I reflect on my own experience and how long it took me to readjust to the Caribbean after six years in university in Britain. They were wonderful years; I learned a lot, made a number of friendships and so on. But actually adjusting to dealing with the society in which I lived was a very hard thing to do. And I often reflect on this in insisting that our students try and get some exposure to the world of work as they study. We have developed a number of sort of work-study programs targeted towards that. We’ve got a very interesting program at the moment, supported by IBM, developing leadership for the community where students actually undertake projects within the university, within the community, working in teams, interacting with people in the corporate community, interacting with farmers, interacting with government officials and so on. We believe that kind of preparation is absolutely essential today.

And it is for that reason that we have not only done that, but have always had a very substantial program in continuing education, targeted to sectors in the society who would not otherwise have access to university education. Let me give you one example. Two summers ago, we organized a program in business English and the elements of bookkeeping for six-hundred informal commercial importers. These are largely women who travel to the neighboring countries to buy goods, which they then sell back when they get to Kingston. And they’ve developed a very thriving trade. But most of them couldn’t tell you whether they made a profit or not. We decided to put this on, which was very enthusiastically received. And when I pass along some of the markets in Kingston from time to time, I get an inquiry, “Prof, when are you going to put on another course?”, because there is an understanding of the importance of this. Well, we try to target groups in the community who badly need a lift up through some forms of training and education, to give them a sounder and a more secure place in the society.

HEFFNER: Do you see a conflict between the liberating aspect of a liberal arts education and the very practical education that you’re talking about?

MCINTYRE: Not necessarily. The traditional academic doesn’t like it of course, because this sort of disrupts the rather quiet and reflective career that he or she has anticipated. But I think that more and more people are getting a grip of the need to come to terms with the world as it’s changing around them, and feel a need to ensure that their students leave the university with an understanding of those changes and what it requires of them. I keep telling students on the campus when I see them; I said, “In the past you could look towards changing your career about three times. Now you have to think about six or seven times.” So it’s not just about acquiring a degree. It is beginning a course of preparation that would keep you relevant in the workplace for a number of different types of activity.

HEFFNER: Of course you say this at the very time that I, as a university professor, find myself terribly concerned about the fact that more and more of my students go to the university, as using the university as preparation for the world of work rather than for the life of the mind. And I find myself more and more upset by that, but I guess I’m simply going to have to accept the fact, as you suggest, that it’s a new world.

MCINTYRE: No, I make distinction between preparation for the world of work and certification to get a big salary.

HEFFNER: Tell me what you mean by that.

MCINTYRE: Well, I think that one has to develop in students a sense of contributing to their societies. And in that sense, if they are to contribute they have to get more hands-on than has traditionally been the case, rather than with an obsession as to what is the best job they can get in money terms, but also a larger commitment to the community from which they come.

HEFFNER: Well is there any ongoing conflict in the University of the West Indies between the world of work and the more contemplative approach that one used to take, the world of work and the world of Oxford University?

MCINTYRE: It’s a creative tension.

HEFFNER: Now, now, now…

MCINTYRE: Yes, it’s creative because people are continuously examining themselves to see that they get the balance right. And I find this a fascinating thing as I go along the campus talking to my colleagues and so forth. From discipline to discipline, of course the situation is different. I remember several years ago trying to promote the study of archaeology, because there was a very active group of scholars interested in developing Caribbean archeology. And the governments of the Caribbean at the time were not terribly interested at the time. You know, they said, “This is very avant-garde work. And what value is this going to be?” And I said, “It’s going to be. If you make a modest investment, I assure you that you will get a good return.” They didn’t. So I had to go to outside donors to start the archaeology program. But today, heritage tourism is a big feature of the tourist package. So everyone wants to train people in what they call heritage studies. But the central element in heritage studies is archaeology. So very often it’s a question of what sort of view you take about the needs of society, not just immediately, but in a longer term horizon. And in that context, a number of areas, I mean the humanities have now got a quite different importance today than they had before simply because of the need for area studies, what we were talking about earlier, getting to know the world better.

HEFFNER: You mean you do make a connection there, as you said a creative connection between vocational training and humanistic studies?

MCINTYRE: Yes, because a university is not only about providing students with skills. It is also about providing them with a world view, and giving them a sense of commitment and a sense of understanding of the leadership role that they have to play.

HEFFNER: It’s so interesting to me that, again as I learn more about your University of the West Indies, I think of ourselves as being so much more parochial. You began by saying that we must develop a world view that you have at the University. I don’t see much change here, do you, in this country?

MCINTYRE: Well, it’s a very large country. And you have what, four thousand colleges?

HEFFNER: You’re very kind.

MCINTYRE: But there are some institutions here doing things of interest in this direction. Let me give you one example. Three of the most prestigious medical schools in Britain have just merged into a single entity, Guy’s, St Thomas’ and King’s. They are now called the United Medical and Dental Schools. And since 1945, at the end of World War II, they have had a link with Johns Hopkins University of the United States. And within more recent periods they have developed a link with Leuven in France, with Charles II in Prague, and with a Japanese university. They have now asked us to join the network. So there are six medical schools. We are going to offer different electives to our students. We are going to provide mutual possibilities for graduate work, faculty exchange, joint research. This is a very exciting thing. When I told the medical students at the University of the West Indies, “Well, you know, in the not too distant future you will have the possibility of taking electives probably in the United States, or France, or Japan, in Britain,” they were terribly excited. The world was their oyster, you know, and they felt very enthused by this possibility. And I believe more and more of this is going to happen.

HEFFNER: Sir Alister, we are sitting here taping this program at the end of September 1995. Not long ago, not many weeks ago, the islands were badly, badly hit and hurt by a series of hurricanes. What kind of impact will they have had over the next year or two upon a) the islands, and b) the educational structure that you administer?

MCINTYRE: Well, less damage to the educational structure; we haven’t had much damage to our buildings and that could be corrected in a matter of months. But there’s been very substantial damage to the housing stock. Antigua for instance, which is wholly dependent upon tourism, 75% of the housing stock has been damaged and 45% has been destroyed. Two hotels were washed away. And one can’t reconstruct the tourist industry when the towns are in shambles. One has to have water, and electricity, and sanitation, and telecommunications and all of that. So it’s going to be a very hard haul for them over the next couple of years, I think, to get themselves back into shape. Dominica, where the banana crop was destroyed, is slightly better off because in six months time they’ll have another crop. But in the tourist islands, of course, it’s going to be a very difficult thing to get back into shape.

HEFFNER: Has tourism become the major industry of the West Indies?

MCINTYRE: It has become so. It’s the largest source of foreign exchange. It employs five hundred thousand people, one quarter of the labor force. And it feeds and stimulates a number of service and goods industries. We call tourism today an axel sector, because around it revolves a number of other industries and services. About fifty service industries at the present time have a linkage with the tourist industry. So it’s become extremely important. And the character has changed, from the old days when it was an enclave industry, you know. It has become integrally linked into the local economies.

HEFFNER: And that means what, in terms of the damage done by the…?

MCINTYRE: Well, it means that a lot more people than those directly employed in the tourist industry, as substantial as that number is, will be adversely affected by the hurricane damage. And the economy has virtually ground to a halt in Antigua, Anguilla, and to a lesser extent in the other islands.

HEFFNER: There are a number of industries in the United States, a number of major corporations that have been of assistance to you, understanding what you can contribute back whether at the University or elsewhere. Are they indicating a recognition of the need to foster the rapid redevelopment of the West Indian Islands that were badly affected by the hurricanes?

MCINTYRE: Well I don’t know precisely what their response has been, but I would be very surprised if they didn’t take an active interest because a number of them have very keen interests of one sort or another in the economy of those islands. In the University itself, of course, we have sought as a deliberate strategy over the past few years to develop very close partnerships with a number of companies. One example, we’ve got a small computer software company on the Jamaican campus of the University, Mona Informatix, just won through competitive bidding a very large contract from Boeing Aircraft. And we are looking for those opportunities where we can use our strengths to build viable partnerships with American business in one form or the other.

HEFFNER: You have in the past talked about the connections, the corporate connections with the medical facilities, with the education facilities in the field of medicine. Is that developing particularly rapidly?

MCINTYRE: Yes. Yes, we are getting back, for some years in the seventies we stopped a number of things that we used to do such as drug testing. We are getting back into that field.

HEFFNER: Why did you stop?

MCINTYRE: For a variety of reasons, because of economic difficulties, the pharmaceutical companies had problems with foreign exchange and things like that. Those problems, thankfully, are behind us. So we can get back into that activity more substantially and, of course, the work which illustrates very well what the university is all about. You know, in three areas where we started addressing local problems, we’ve had a global impact. We have perfected techniques for reversing mental retardation in malnourished children, which not only helped the situation in Jamaica and in the Caribbean, but we are working today in Bangladesh. We have worked in several African countries, testing these procedures successfully. We have been one of the few universities that were in the business of clinical investigation of sickle-cell anemia. We are one of the first institutions to find it in the Mediterranean in Greece, in Turkey, and India. And as a consequence, the international interest in the disease has grown enormously. And much more recently we have detected a link between the HTLV-1 virus and leukemia. And the National Institute of Health here in Maryland has been very helpful in expanding that work. So, in a sense our slogan has been think globally and act locally, because we are so small we’ve have had to think beyond our shores in looking for fruitful areas, not only for teaching but also for research.

HEFFNER: Sir Alister, you studied at Oxford. Are there American universities that one could single out that educate, train a considerable part of your population?

MCINTYRE: Well a number of all students, for a variety of reasons, sit the SATs. And if their scores are good enough they are offered scholarships at some of the top universities on the east coast, and the west coast, and so on. So we do have a very substantial part of all graduates coming from many of the American universities. And it is good, because it gives diversity to our intellectual climate. And they bring a special attribute of action-orientation that I find highly interesting.

HEFFNER: What do you mean action-orientation?

MCINTYRE: They like to get things done, and they are impatient which is very good.

HEFFNER: You mean the American way of doing things?


HEFFNER: Yet it sounds to me in terms of our discussion today, that you have been setting about, successfully, in getting things done perhaps more than the traditional universities in the United States.

MCINTYRE: Well we are trying, because for the reasons that I have described to you, time is not on our side. The 21st century is six years away.

HEFFNER: Same here.

MCINTYRE: The Miami, the Hemispheric Free Trade Area is ten years away. We have very little time really to begin preparing ourselves for a quite different world and we have to work hard and quickly.

HEFFNER: Do you think that notion in the early 1940s, when for instance Nelson Rockefeller headed up our efforts to create cooperative ventures between the Americas, do you think that is going to become more and more important once again?

MCINTYRE: I believe so. I do believe so. I believe that the whole tradition of good enabling, of building a hemisphere together, et cetera, will prevail as we move into the next several years.

HEFFNER: And the political situation in the islands? Stable?

MCINTYRE: Very stable. Very stable, very moderate, and let us hope that it keeps that way.

HEFFNER: Sir Alister, I do appreciate your joining me today here on the Open Mind. I’m impressed with the strides that you have made in the Indies, as you describe them and as I have read about them. And I’m impressed with your willingness to note that there is much that we can learn from the cosmopolitanism that’s characterized your approach. Thanks for joining me today.

MCINTYRE: And thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $4.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.