January 10, 2010

Perspectives on Globalization from Panama

I just returned home for the first time in fifteen years. Home, for me, is the Republic of Panama where I grew up in the now defunct Canal Zone. Work, kids, and finances had kept me from returning along with the vague fear that the home that I remembered would have changed beyond recognition. It hadn't.

While much had changed, much remains the same. Some places I remembered were gone, new places had appeared. Perhaps one of the biggest surprises was how much energy and commerce there was in the country. On an old Air Force base Panama built the biggest mall I have ever been it, and right next to it a gigantic terminal for buses. People from all over Panama and other parts of Central America shop at the mall and bring their purchases home on the bus. My wife, Karen, and I took air conditioned buses nearly to the Costa Rica border, a seven hour trip, for $12.60 each. The Panama Canal is being expanded, a huge container shipping port has been built, and the pristine and vacant beaches of my youth are dotted with forty story condo towers. Panama City is thriving, visitors and retirees are welcomed, and cell phones and internet bring changes to a centuries old culture.

We read about globalization, and as engineering educators think narrowly in terms of numbers of students, competition for jobs, H1B visas, and changing curricula. But this view is deceiving and limiting. Globalization also means that many corners of the globe are becoming more livable for those used to the amenities typically associated with "Western" Civilization. Globalization means that the number of problems that can be addressed by modern technologies (with its reliance on modern infrastructure) is growing dramatically. Globalization means that we need to look beyond our own borders for solutions to our problems, because they may have been solved by others before us. The "missionary zeal" we feel to bring the supposed advantages of Western cultures to the rest of the world is exposed as hubris.

Our students need international experiences, not, as often assumed in the talks I have attended, to give engineering expertise to the Third World, but to realize that the distinctions between First and Third Worlds are vanishing. Travel is not to play Prometheus and bring technology to the primitives, but to take ideas and energy and perspective from places where life moves faster and runs deeper.

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