In the late 90s, I toiled away as a graduate student at Texas. I made some great friends but never achieved my dreamed-for intellectual collegiality with professors. It was a rare day then when a group of students and professors fell into conversation in the cramped, woody entrance to the History Department office, then in Garrison Hall . Actually, I don’t remember all who were there, but I remember what one of them said:
“Environmental history is the final refuge of the white male historian.” (Since all of us were white men, at least as I remember, I found this a provocative statement.) “Look, over there,” the speaker pointed across the quad below the famous clock tower,”there is Chicano Studies. Hispanics who would otherwise study history are over there. And women are in Women’s Studies and African Americans study African American Studies. That leaves white men alone in history departments.”
“But what do you mean about Environmental History?” asked another grad student.
“Environmentalism is PC and the environment doesn’t call you racist or sexist. It’s a safe place, where middle-class whites can be liberals without having to be challenged.”
Wow, I thought. I never imagined something as cutting edge as Environmental Studies could actually be conservative in some way. But it also made sense. I’d grown up in Oakland and heard about Blacks who didn’t want to work with white liberals as well as lesbian feminists who had had it with male allies. Wanting to be on the right side wasn’t always good enough.
Of course, environmentalism needn’t be de-coupled from social justice. We have terms now, like environmental racism, that make plain the fact that environmental damage happens in a social context and is linked to, and reflective of, other forms of social power.
Twenty years on, I wonder: is there a danger that global education initiatives, especially at privileged schools, could become a similar stage on which to exhibit concern while retaining privilege? Could a focus on faraway issues (think clean drinking water in “Africa”) become a substitute for more robust and difficult efforts towards social justice on the local and even campus level? Teaching students about leadership and global affairs, sending them to Model United Nations conferences and on cushy study abroad trips allows a school to claim it prepares young people for life in the 21st century. (I think Model UN is great. I just don’t think it is a substitute for real-world action.)
It is easy to see how students can be encouraged to use a lens of charity and philanthropy to see global problems. Raise some money and send it to “Africa.” Travel with friends to somewhere poor and build something. Check the box and add it to your college entrance essay. None of this changes the status quo or teaches the students about responsibilities as wealthy global citizens that surpass writing a check.
In short, such an emphasis on global education is a dodge and arguably an elaborate psychological refuge from the challenges of the current era. Couple it with a vague institutional nod to “diversity” and you’re done. Of course, this does not prepare our students for the world they will actually inherit.
It goes without saying that the issues faced by our students’ generation are global. Energy, water, poverty, health, climate: none can be tackled without international cooperation. Our students must learn to work and find solutions to complex issues with people who might not look, think, or agree with them.
And they need particular skills and outlooks: inclusivity, openness, empathy, valuing each person as a part of the whole. Creativity and problem solving as well.
But these talents are just as necessary in the classroom, in the workplace, at city hall, or on a cross-town bus as they are at the General Assembly of the UN. We are interconnected with and reliant upon our neighbors and we are interconnected with and reliant upon the people who made our shoes on the other side of the earth.
So there is some sort of parallel structure between multicultural education and global education–or internationalization, depending on the nomenclature. Institutions need to be very clear what each is, what its goals are, and how it fits in the curriculum.
The two are certainly related: students can combat climate change in their home cities with new housing and transportation schemes; they need to learn why life-saving drugs are not affordable for the poor in their own cities as well as in developing nations; their teachers must carefully help them confront legacies of imperialism and racism so they can set about the work of improve relations at their schools and in their neighborhoods, and so on.
Yet issues of equity and inclusivity, the challenges of multiculturalism, these are local or national in scope. They are hard because they are right here, in the room with us. Sometimes they feel like open wounds.
Tellingly, I don’t see schools hyping the career benefits of “multicultural skills” or “multicultural leadership.” Even schools (silently) dedicated to preserving inequality would blanch at directly promising parents their children would be equipped with all the skills needed to assume leadership in a multicultural setting.
And we cannot teach our students to earnestly care about only global issues. This seems impossible. Our choice is really both or neither. Of course, many schools will teach students to perform concern and care. This might be the most common outcome.
When it comes to educating our students about challenges both local and global, our ultimate goal as teachers is, in may ways, the same. In Finland, I have seen this flower of significant learning, Fink’s taxonomy, several times, a nice extension of Bloom’s taxonomy into non-cognitive skills and engaged learning. It applies here. Learning becomes significant, Fink argues, when students are changed by it. They develop new level of care, they see the human dimension in something previously abstract or far away. There cannot be meaningful global education without application–otherwise it is only data and facts; multicultural education requires caring (and not mere “tolerance”) as well as knowledge.
The good news is, young people will care about the global challenges ahead. As far as I can tell, many young people already identify problems such as climate change, peak water, and pollution as “theirs.” What else do they have that is theirs alone? An Instagram account, a phone, and, oh yeah, climate change.
So as global education and its more adventurous cousin, global citizenship, become increasingly trendy and later established in the world of primary and secondary education, they will cost money to have around. Then we must be vigilant that our concern for an active inclusivity, multiculturalism, pluralism, or whatever we call it is not pushed aside. In order to be successful with global initiatives we must also do the needed work on the local level as well.