If you’ve been thinking about the world lately, you may have experienced the same feeling as I have: the world is no longer waiting for us to go out and explore it. Perhaps it started for Americans with the physical attacks of September 11th. If you’re reading this online, however, I suspect its fair to say we’ve all felt this the last few years.
One of the consequences of living on our side of the digital divide is that we feel this more than others. Even without physically violent reminders there were the virtually immanent Iranian Revolution of 2009; the virtually realized Arab Spring of 2011; the social media tremors of the earthquake in Haiti in 2012–and the digital waves of ‘relief’ sent via text message to salve our pain (if not theirs). Then there were disappearing Malaysian airliners in 2014; abductions of girls or massacres in Nigeria; and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo or concert goers in Paris. My point is not that the world is getting nasty and brutish—it’s always been nasty and brutish for those who choose to emphasize that side of our nature. My point is that digital communications have not only wrought a revolution in the supply of information and the rapidity of its flows (which they have), digital communications have changed our very experience of living in the world as well. Anthony Giddens felt ours was a “runaway world” way back in 1998. Today, that feeling is upon us…immediately.
If you sense this, you are not alone. Indeed, that may be the problem. You can no longer be at home, alone, without being at home with the world. You are being forced into a social space in which it is no longer optional to go out into the world, because the world is coming—not just into your home but also into your mind and maybe even into your heart. What it does there only you can know, but surely you feel that the emotional impact of these events leaves you with little choice but to respond. You want to respond; yet you lack the benefit of the time or distance that previously allowed you to frame a response. There is no time to think about Paris. There is also no significant distance that separates us from what happens in Paris. It could happen here, too. You have little choice but to say “Je suis Charlie” or “Who cares?” Is either of those a response, or are they just an immediate reaction because of the way the world is pressing in on you…immediately?
I’m an educator, and I raise these questions because I am convinced our institutions of education no longer understand how to educate our children to respond to the world in which they live. Previously, those living in democratic societies took their issues and their voices to a designated public forum, debating and resolving issues together, or through representatives designated to do so. In either case, those societies were organized to mediate global issues through the formal institutions of political life: Parties, Departments, Ambassadors, and the like. All these institutions were responsible for protecting us, for putting some time and space between us and the world. So too, when these democratic societies built a system of public education to support those institutions, they built a civics curriculum that formally prepared students to live and participate in those formed communities for most of their life.
This curriculum drew on classical pedagogies of preparation for civic life rooted in Greek Stoic thinking (see Nussbaum, 1994). A long pedagogical sequence took youth by the hand and led them from home and neighborhood; then neighborhood and city; then city and state, and ultimately, state and the world over the course of 18-20 years. So educated, fortunate youths were then empowered to travel out into the world in a practice ushered in by the “grand tours” of European aristocracy. If you didn’t make it that far out into the world, you didn’t have to worry because layers of bureaucracy and privilege would shelter you from the cold cruel world “out there.” This sort of story is nothing really unique to Western societies, democratic or otherwise. Other societies have other versions of the same story. As the story goes, however, Western societies schooled the world with this particular mental map of our planet in the 19th century, and so it’s the world most everyone on the planet has called home for the last one hundred years.
Today, this pedagogical sequence is hopelessly out of touch with students’ lived experience of the world. Few protective barriers remain to mediate students’ experience of global events and, in fact, students are actively working to tear down those that remain because they suspect adults are hiding something from them. Just try to tell a teenager to stay off her cell phone! No, this very traditional curriculum – self, home, neighborhood, city, state, nation, and world – serves little purpose to connected millennials or even their yet unconnected peers. Institutionalized, it remains the fossilized bedrock of civics education in our schools. All too often it is also the core of so-called global education initiatives, most of which try to find a way to prepare more and more young people for the experience of getting “out there.” Yet as I experience the world, immediately, I am coming to believe that the civics challenge educators face today isn’t helping students understand something “out there,” but the fact that “out there” is “in here,” and what’s “in here” no longer has fifteen years for educators to prepare it to handle what’s “out there.”
To meet the needs of students today— in their day—we must invite them to work with us, transforming our schools and other public institutions into laboratories of global experimentation, laboratories that will build new communities that help us all to live in the world immediately. To do this, schools must be admitted as sites for democratic practice with a real, and vested stake in their communities. This must be admitted regardless of how students, teachers, and parents choose to define those communities to meet the needs of their moment. Indeed, the most important 21st Century Skill in this global age of political immediacy – where we no longer rely solely on institutions to mediate our lived experience—will not be the preparation to participate in existing democratic institutions. To meet the needs of students today—in their day—we must offer them the opportunity to participate in the preparation of new and more vibrant modes of political association; politics capable of responding immediately to the challenges of this “runaway world.”
Those experiencing this world, immediately, will not want to wait—or to wade—through an essay much longer than this (I just broke 1000 words in the last paragraph!). Indeed, part of our experience of the immediacy I’m describing is that we have come to value the Tweet that travels virally far more than the well-reasoned attempt to assay, or try out an idea, as did Montaigne when he coined the term in the 16th century. Pressed by the need to conclude, immediately, I have abandoned the hope of writing an essay that will try my case, and will surrender to the collective impatience of our times to offer three provocations in 140 characters or less. Tweet them if you want to try them out for yourself, but don’t take them for conclusions. The immediacy with which I am grappling is one that cannot be addressed by jumping to conclusions. Precisely because of their political implications, the meanings and applications of these tweets need to be worked out together by those of us who read and re-tweet them:
1) The “flatter”, “runaway” world of this millennium requires an inherently political re-negotiation of the way we experience it.
Arguing for democratic citizenship appropriate to an emerging, one-world global market or global civil society misses the fundamental transformation of the 21st century. The radical freedom of association arising from digital communications technologies introduces interference in, rather than fosters the creation of, imagined communities on a global scale. Want proof of this interference? Recall the long list in the second paragraph of this blog. This interference tears seams in the fabric of global society, and those tears must be re-negotiated not stitched back together. Politics are no longer a set of practices we can alienate to institutions that mediate the world for us. Politics in the 21st century are becoming a set of personal and inalienable practices necessary to sustain “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” because our aging institutions are no longer able to mediate our lived experience of the world.
2. Our future belongs to those who make worlds—plural—with the tatters of our old world, not those who try to patch one old world together.
If citizens can, and must, rethink their political experience of the world in order to cope with the world, immediately, then it is also necessary to rethink notions of what it means to be a globally competent. Thought leaders in the West have coined a range of universalisms—that particular phrase among them—in an attempt to code the world into a single governable, cosmopolitan, family. The world, immediately, tears theses notions to shreds. Such universalisms remain, at best, imperialist attempts to contain globalization in a domesticated political space rather than to embrace the opportunities that emerge as our old world falls apart at the seams.
3. We are all ambassadors extraordinary & plenipotentiary! Education must offer youth skills to negotiate their own “imagined communities.”
Rather than focus on global competencies for employability in the neo-liberal ecosphere, there are three skills that must come to be identified with the competently global: questioning, negotiating, and collaborating. These skills are to be found on the margins of all the world’s cultures. They are also found in the histories of many centuries, not only on the technocratic side of the digital divide that separates the 21st century West from it’s own imagined “rest.” These practices are not novel, 21st Century Skills, but rather the skills traditionally associated with those whom societies permitted or empowered to travel the world in order to engage other, foreign publics. They are the skills of diplomats, merchants, and yes, also the military and missionaries. These travelers were always commissioned to return home from their adventures with new goods, and their skills were always the skills of those who transformed society, not those who preserved it for transmission to the next generation.
Of the three points above, I believe the last is most important. It is also the most radical, because it stresses that schools need to stop preparing students for an existing world, and start letting them participate in changing the world they inherited.
If we are not to be left feeling besieged by the world, immediately, we must look at civic education not as something that preserves a long, monolithic tradition of the liberal arts with rights reserved only for a select few (as all of our diplomas in higher education still declare), but rather as something that helps every young person use these inalienable practices to create smaller, more manageable worlds. This will allow them to meet the challenges of their daily lives in the world immediately. Only when every child can do this, will every child be able to find a meaningful place in the world. Every child will only be able to do this when we start talking about it together–immediately–with one another and with our children. If this blog provokes you to do so, please keep the conversation going with a tweet or a comment. The future of our many little worlds may depend upon it.