Perspectives on the State of Global Education

Global Education as THE Dialogue among Civlizations

Global education is not new. Aspirations to the “education of the human race” first appear in Lessing’s treatise of that name (1780), but the idea goes back to Renaissance Europe’s rather belated realization that there actually was a “round world,” out there.

Today, the West is again experiencing a similar realization though this time it is Thomas Friedman’s “flat world” that is being discovered “out there.” A survey of recent sessions at the highly successful and engaging 2012 Global Education Conference suggests that Western educators are once again eager for a world larger than the one they know, and that others from around the world are eager to work with them. No small wonder as to why: digital mediation of global relations offers power “extraordinary and plenipotentiary”–previously reserved for Ambassadors– to the youngest child with a digital device at their fingertips. Such direct citizen diplomacy should be celebrated as well as integrated into our thinking about education for the 21st century. That said, I believe we must be careful lest this new call for global education fall into traditional patterns that have plagued the West’s relation to the “Rest” since 1492.

What are those patterns?

In its first attempt, global education launched from the West was about “exploring” a supposedly uncharted world, acquiring new knowledge to map and categorize the world according to European standards. This paradigm influenced global education from the late 1500s well into the 1700s, and produced a lasting legacy. The maps and globes of the “known world” that resulted have been the mainstay of geography and social studies education in the West, and the West’s schools, for well over a century. If, indeed, Common Core Standards can ever be achieved for Social Studies, there is little doubt that this “known world” will persist, despite the fact that these “explorations” ultimately produced exploitations that other societies were forced to accept, often by arms, so that they could have a place among the “family of nations” known as the “international community.”

In its second attempt, global education was about “developing,” sending those educated to the new standard out into the known world in order to raise others to that same standard. Again, this was often by force of arms. Beginning at the end of the 1700s with a wave of “enlightened colonialism,” this paradigm populated the known world with “best practices” of Western government, administration, and education under the guise of “enlightenment” and “civilization.” Though Conrad saw in it a “Heart of Darkness” and Kipling decried it, rightly, as a “burden” by the end of the end of the 19th century, it remains influential even to the present day, with the US Peace Corps and many global service-learning initiatives being common examples. Yet those to be “developed” (and yes, the passive voice is appropriate here) were—and often still are—only rarely asked whether and how they want to be.

Most anyone associated with global education today would distance themselves from both of these early attempts to educate the human race. Most would accept that what passed for exploration actually helped to flatten a complex world as it mapped it; and most would accept that what passed for development actually created economic dependencies that continue systematically to impoverish 2/5th of the world’s population. Yet many who engage the world through their digital devices seem oddly able to ignore the fact that the new technologies that are supposedly “flattening” the world have actually created a “digital divide” (see Edutopia for the status of that in education) and a “spiky world” (see Florida or Bhagwati for different versions of that); a divide that once more risks repeating those classical patterns of the West when it comes to global education.

As in the past, today’s technologies create a knowledge and skills divide that empowers students with access to “explore” the world, acquiring new knowledge according to the standards of their national or transnational education bureaucracies. And, as in the past, many on the other end of the divide must once more be content to use their limited access to knowledge and skills to be “explored” by those with more ready access, rather than to go forth and conquer themselves. As a result, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, in these cases, they are included in global education primarily as an object of study, rather than as those with their own voices, and their own needs. Wonder who’s really benefiting from those powers “extraordinary and plenipotentiary?” Just look at who’s earning the “badges” for participating in this on-line “exploration” of the “flat world.”

Likewise, this divide also allows students with greater access to technology to identify so-called “needs” in the “developing world,” and to target “developed” solutions for those with limited means to voice their needs. Today, young people with access are reading and applying the lessons of “experts” in the international community–not just in simulations like Model UN–but in real villages around the world. As with their innocent explorations, however, we once more risk including our “partners in development” only as the “subjects” of an emerging global discourse rather than as participants with the right to their own voice in the future.

Think I’m being unfair to the hundreds of teachers and thousands of students who are seeking a global education these days? Perhaps: but only to make a point. At GlobalEdCon this year, there were indeed presenters with a different vision, and many of those were not from the West. If you missed it, I encourage you to scan the sessions with the following questions about the global education movement as a whole: How many of those contributing to “global education” are sponsoring projects that allow indigenous rainforest societies to help Americans deal with their growing obesity or diabetes epidemics? How many are inviting African populations to challenge Western standards of geography and culture by compelling us to acknowledge the expansiveness of “their many voices,” rather than merely learn the borders and boundaries that the West imposed on them in another fit of global education? Learning experiences like these are in the minority for most children engaging in global education, and as a result, I believe we risk re-establishing, at least conceptually, a form of digital neo-imperialism in the minds of a generation. All I’m suggesting is that those of us involved in this movement need to take a good hard look at what we’re doing for our students, while there is still time to learn from all the students in our global classrooms.

A Dialogue among Civilizations?
Just after September 11th, 2001, the UN launched an ambitious effort to promote a genuine “dialogue among civilizations,” and it challenged world leaders to let it “begin with the children.” A violent and turbulent decade of “exploration” and “development,” both by force of arms, has passed since then, but there are indeed innovative opportunities for networked global learning based on dialogues that begin with children, and these can indeed be found among the presentations at GlobalEdCon this year. The question is whether they’ll survive the accountability craze currently affecting many of the nations the participants call home. Will a genuinely inter-cultural dialogue among civilizations beginning with youth be allowed to “transform” the world, or will it only be allowed to “transmit” the different realities of the world’s 200+ nation-states across historically arbitrary yet sacrosanct cultural boundaries?

My hope is that we can let go, and let the former prevail. When transnational dialogues between students are based on equality and openness to both the standards and the learning needs all sides seek to address, global education is indeed possible. However, it is imperative that the standards and needs to be negotiated include both technology and academic skills/knowledge. Where the focus is solely on the technologies that allow us to interact with Others, we risk solving the “digital divide” only to broaden the cultural divides which separate us.

I encourage you to visit GlobalEdCon for possible answers to these questions, but also to pay attention to those sessions that promise—and deliver—on genuine “communication,” “collaboration” and “integration,” of knowledge, skills and needs from the participants on both sides of the global dialogue. Today’s children of Western technology do not need another round of “exploring,” or “developing,” the Rest. They need to learn to work with those who do not share the “known world,” but who are willing to work together to produce one. They need to learn to learn from each other, not just about each other. Only when global conversations begin with children engaged in an honest negotiation of all the important resources currently monopolized in the West, will genuinely global education be possible.

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