Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Making Global Education

This is a bad time for globalism. The recession has renewed the fear of the others, and various politicians, from Japan to Italy to United States, are inventing foreign bogeymen to obscure their own failures. Companies, while desperate for ideas and for growth, are receding to respective homelands for safety: The only international bit they would still like to do is to keep their cashes stashed in tax havens. In fact, by doing so, they have given global business more bad press - Starbucks dodging taxes, Wal-Mart paying bribes and various banks, almost all of them, defrauding customers and governments alike.

Critics can say that this was bound to happen and globalisation is a sham: But when it comes to climate change, nuclear disarmament, human rights, the issues that the same critics love, they concede that there is no alternative to concerted global action. I shall contend that global connections (or disconnections) are a function of technology and due to progress in transportation and communication, distance has irretrievably died. The fear of the other that keeps globalisation at bay is a tool for inefficient, self-serving political machine, a system fit for another era, a set of people with dated values who seemed to have sleepwalked into our time. Globalism isn't rhetorical, it's real: Its our back-from-dead nationalist politicians who are really the voodoo dolls.

Indeed, differences are alive and well, and they ought to be, as human diversity works for us and allows us to do complex things. But being different does not have to make us fearful, because such fears have always caused trouble, whereas great prosperity was created when we overcame those fears. Our society works on adjustment, and we must now expand our field of vision to include those who are different from us.

As with other things, my take is that this has to start with education. The education as it is now comes in two varieties: A nationally grounded variety, which displays the politicians' handiwork at its worst, where purse strings are pulled and various national stereotypes are embedded in the students' minds; and the other, at a more advanced level, where a neo-liberal special species doctrine is preached from the business school pulpit, where a special band of marauders are prepared to live a life steamrolling differences and undermining societies, creating the demonic globalisation that the Muppet-politicians then use to whip up the fears.

However, global education isn't a new idea. In fact, educators around the world have been trying this for at least a century. They were in the fringe, as their models did not suit the government-funded version of the system, and they were labelled sages and visionaries (in effect, impractical men and women): One such example was Viswa-bharati (the world school) in Bolpur in West Bengal, which was formally started in 1923 (the school was operational since at least 1905) with the Nobel prize money of its founder, Rabindranath Tagore. The founding idea of the school was to step outside the British colonial education, which was designed to produce pen-pushers and bureaucrats in the service of the Raj, and to imbibe creativity, love of nature and globalism in its pupils. It is a tragedy that the ideals of Viswa-bharati was forgotten soon after Tagore's death, when his successors, Mahatma Gandhi and eventually Jawaharlal Nehru, integrated the project into India's national building, turning this into just another university, if slightly exotic, tasked to produce bureaucrats in the service of the new Indian state. However brilliant, Viswa-bharati's globalism was dead and buried alongside its founder.

Tagore saw the horrors of nationalism well ahead of his contemporaries, and spoke about its perverse nature as early as in 1905. He persisted even in the face of hostile public reception, particularly in China and Japan, where nationalism and national pride  were seen, in 1920s, the great force of freedom and progress (just as in India today), and his lectures proved so unpopular that some of them had to be cancelled. Tagore remained a marginal figure in India's independence movement because of his nuanced views of nationalism, he and his education project reviled by his compatriots as 'empty internationalism' and shunned (his chosen successor, the great Bengali nationalist leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, refusing to take on the responsibility); indeed, his globalism was never fashionable, not even in his dying days when the world was plunged into the horrors of nationalist slaughter of the Second World War. Tagore's efforts were modest, but heroic for a single man; and certainly, he was not alone in envisioning and creating a globalist education. Thus, the founding ideals of Viswabharati now needs revisiting, and dare I say resurrecting, as we face another long global recession, like that of the 1930s, which is inexorably sucking us into abyss, putting tinpot dictators in place and reviving the nationalist rhetoric across the globe. A global education, aimed at the creation of global students, leaders, managers, is more in need than ever before.

Indeed, one has to be mindful of the neo-liberal variety of global education, that which steamrolls differences and imposes a near-imperial view on the world, and which is precisely the reason why global education gets equated with an arrogant, disconnected mindset: We need global education, but in a reinvented form, which respects differences and celebrates, rather than attempts to reduce, human complexities and variations. Global education isn't, and shouldn't be, fitting economies into standardised models and having a touristy view of national idiosyncrasies; It is rather about knowing that a range of mental models exist in the world, and each has its own sphere of validity and legitimacy. It is about humility rather than arrogance, about discovery rather than evangelism, and, if this is forgotten, about learning rather than collecting fridge magnets. 

If someone is wondering whether I am in a time-wrap and whether talking about globalising education now, just when localism is on the rise, is a good idea, we must remember that the global recession, for which globalization is blamed, is actually a product of lack of global integration, or shall we say, lopsided global integration; and, indeed, the greatest danger that comes with this recession is to get back to our murderous nationalist habits. In summary, there was never a time when creating global education, that based on understanding and tolerance, was more important.

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