State of the Union, Modern City Planning, and Bloodletting: Interdisciplinarity, Anyone?

In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama made the point that “There are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens [. . .] who come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities.  But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us.  It makes no sense.”

And he was right. It makes no sense. Here in the United States, we have always prided ourselves on our culture of excellence. We patented the first telephone, launched the first airplane flight, and sent the first man to the moon. We also pride ourselves on our diversity and our aptness at developing and launching new innovative ideas. We are a country of immigrants, touted as the “Great Melting Pot” and a place where anyone can achieve the American Dream.

So why are we letting so many talented scholars and innovators slip right through our fingers when they could help our already great nation become even greater? What gives? Well, I can’t help but think that too many times in our society we do what leaders tell us makes sense when, in all actuality, we are doing the exact opposite. Take city planning and bloodletting for example.

Last week I read Jane Jacobs’ 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which Jacobs critically examines the methods used by contemporary city planners and launches an “attack” on the modern principles of city building. She argues that cities are the most safe when they are busy – when they have a diverse population, mixed-use buildings, and a “casual public trust.” Jacobs pays close attention to the fact that the diverse population in the streets is the lifeblood of the city and harshly criticizes city planners who seek to clear city-dwellers off the streets in the name of “safety.”

Somehow Americans have been conditioned to think that if we live on isolated, well-lit streets, we will be more safe and more content. This belief persists despite the fact that multiple studies have told us that people are the happiest when they are involved in civic community – And despite common sense, which tells us that it doesn’t matter how well-lit or ritzy a street is if no one is around to help in case of an emergency.

In fact, Jacobs compared such practices to the historic practice of bloodletting, where doctors drained the blood of patients in the belief that the treatment was a cure-all for a number of ills. Doctors practiced bloodletting for nearly 2,000 years – right up until the late 19th century! Today, it doesn’t take a medical degree to know that if someone loseWeight Exercises too much blood, they will die. It’s just common sense. Yet people kept doing it for two millennia because that is what the “experts” told them to do.

So what do city planning and bloodletting have to do with our international scholars here in the USA? Well, Jacobs challenges the reader to realize that, to really understand something (whether that “something” is cities, bloodletting, or immigration), we first must strip away our preconceived notions, look at the facts, and see what principles emerge. What I see when I look at our current treatment of international students is this: We are clearing out the USA just like the modern planners in Jacobs’ book were clearing out the cities.

And we are hemorrhaging intelligent scholars who must return to their home countries after cultivating their talents on our soil.

In Jacobs’ book, the city planners wanted to clear out the streets out of an unsubstantiated fear that busy streets equaled danger. Similarly, somewhere along the way, the powers that be here in America have instilled a belief that allowing international students to remain in the USA will somehow damage our way of life – and therein lies the problem.

Much like Jacobs’ city streets, I think society is at its best when we have a diversity of both ideas and individuals. Preserving the American way of life isn’t about keeping up some vague status quo touted by politicians. It’s about trying new things, thinking new thoughts, and engaging in conversations with people different than ourselves to keep us changing, evolving, improving and reinventing.

After all, isn’t that what the American Dream is all about?

Anne Bennett Cook Smithson

Anne-Bennett is a former CCT Graduate Student.