Dana E. Abizaid

I was excited to have the opportunity to teach the history of my country in a nation I was raised to despise and fear. The lecture hall at Moscow State University was full of first year history students eager to hear what their American lecturer would say about US history. As first impressions are important in teaching, especially across cultural borders, I labored for days over my opening remarks. Although I had been a US Peace Corps Volunteer in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s and felt I understood the mentality of post-Soviet students, I did not want to appear as a condescending Westerner confident that the American approach to historical study, education, and, hence, life was superior. After all, if I had learned anything in my short life, it was that a little humility goes a long way.

I thought the opening remarks were rational, clear, and devoid of hubris. Choosing what I believed were well established facts, I set out to state humbly in one sentence the objective for our course: “In this concise history of the United States we will explore the historical reasons and events behind America’s rise as the most militarily and economically powerful nation in the world.” A hand immediately went up. I asked the young man to state his name and make his comment. His name was Victor and he said I had made a mistake. The United States was not the most militarily powerful nation in the world. “Which nation is?” I asked. Russia was the reply. A silence fell over the hall as I took a deep breath before responding. I told Victor and the students that difference of opinion, dissent, and the exchange of ideas were vital parts of historical study and that our class would be a forum for such expression. Nonetheless, I had blundered and knew it.

After the lecture Victor and I discussed the relative merits of the Russian AK-47 assault rifle compared to the American M-16. Our discussion and, in fact, the whole lecture had gone well. But I knew I had erred at the beginning and that winning the trust and confidence of my students would now be tougher. In short, before “changing the world” I would have to change myself. This would entail learning much more from my students than I could ever hope to impart. Although embarrassed and frustrated by my mistake, I learned an important lesson: people are proud of their nation, culture, language and traditions and not everybody is open to what many perceive as the westernization of the world. This is especially true in the former Soviet Union.

Since the end of the Cold War it has become increasingly important for American scholars to learn the languages of the former Soviet Union and represent the positive aspects of US domestic and foreign policy in a region of the world that is very skeptical of US intentions. In this way, it is essential for scholars to treat those they work with as people, not “subjects”, something about which Victor’s very human reaction reminded me. Since a proud educational tradition exists in Russia, scholars working there must be careful to tread within the boundaries of the Russian system, not impose western standards and approaches.

Although difficult, scholars must balance their personal ambitions and goals with the benefits of their work for host country nationals. Serving the people – eating their food, speaking their language, taking part in their traditions and not rushing to judge their political beliefs, historical understanding, or superstitions – fosters a deeper and more meaningful understanding and experience.

Before criticizing another society, we must hold up a mirror to our own. Furthermore, before attempting to change the world, we must first realize what we must change within our culture and what, if anything, is worth exporting. Despite the American exceptionalism prevalent in government and media pronouncements, we are far from perfect. That is why the framers of our Constitution implored us “to create a more perfect Union.” Consequently, Rotary Scholars must ask themselves how their experience will change them and truly help others, not how it will further their own or their nation’s interests.

Victor helped me see the error of my ways. However innocent my remarks were, they were representative of a dangerous trend in American thinking and policy making: that we are always right. Working with Victor and my other Russian students was more than an academic exercise. I learned quickly that Russians separate those Americans who are in the former Soviet Union sincerely trying to learn and help (who have put service above self) and those whose only concern is exploiting Russia’s people, resources, and geopolitical importance for their own gain.

The United States is at a critical juncture in its brief history. It is essential that those concerned with improving America’s image in the world by listening to peoples of other cultures rather than speaking down to them raise their voices for change. I think Victor would agree with me that the real question is not how strong the United States is, but how responsibly it wields its strength. Consciously thinking about the effects of our actions on the world stage - putting service above self - rather than viscerally reacting to events and applying infallible American solutions will help change the world. These, of course, are lofty, ideal goals that upon first glance seem unreachable. It is striking, however, how far a little humility can go toward attaining them.