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OneWorld US Special Report

Back to OneWorld US

Part I

Part II
Demographics and Values

Part III
The Impact of Seattle

Part IV
The Fairness Revolution

Part V
Bringing Globalization Home

Part VI
Scanning the Terrain

Part VII
Anti-Sweats and Ethical Consumption

Part IX
Different Approaches to Global Education

Part X

OneWorld US Special Report

Youth Activism and Global Engagement: Part VIII

Nurturing Activism’s Base through Global Education

Though youth activism is a free-for-all, with no formal doctrines or rigid hierarchies, many of the most dedicated campaigners do endorse an implicit rank order. "There needs to be a distinction between different types of campus activists," commented a 22-year old, full-time political organizer. "You can’t lump them together. Anti-sweat groups are in a completely different league than say, the Campus Women’s Center. One attracts students who believe in direct democracy, who want to restructure the entire system, and who are willing to use militant means. The other attracts students who believe that while society is basically OK, there are a few social problems that remain unresolved, but force is not necessary, and that to get results you have to cooperate with those in power." Another similarly committed organizer argues that "activism, by definition, excludes social-service groups who fail to tackle the root causes of injustice."

While this kind of categorical thinking has not produced the belligerent sectarianism that cropped up in earlier movements for progressive change, it may in fact indicate a tendency which, left unchecked, could ghettoize youth activism and reduce the scope and reach of its appeal and impact. Richard Flacks, a reliably generous and insightful analyst of social movements, offers his own definition of an activist: "It’s someone who gets up in the morning prepared to do something to make the world a better place, whether that means writing an article or a letter to the editor or blockading an administration building."

This conceptual amplitude is wholesome, but notions of youth activism might arguably be extended even further. It is young adults in their late teens and twenties who have helped fuel movements of advocacy-oriented dissent showcased in protests against the World Trade Organization and the World Bank and in on-going campus-based campaigns like the one against sweatshops. However, any long-term effort to build a domestic constituency for global norms must seek to intervene at an even earlier stage, exploring ways to create a continuum of opportunities matched to young people’s developmental needs and to the institutional settings where these needs are addressed.

The 70 million Americans 15 and under--the largest generation since the Baby Boomers--will not be prepared to live as competent citizens in a world with porous borders unless schools revamp what they teach and how it is taught. Advancing this goal represents the agenda of an invigorated movement for global education. Among the leaders are:

Choices for the 21st Century Education Project. Attached to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, Choices manages a diversified set of partnerships with schools and civic organizations aimed at enriching the public dialogue about America’s values and interests in a post Cold-War world. Its curricular materials are used in 4,500 schools and reach 700,000 students.

iEARN, an Internet-based network linking together classrooms across 92 countries for shared reflection and project-based learning. Recognized as exemplary by the Department of Education, and operating in partnership with the Open Society Institute’s grantee network, iEARN is now poised for exponential growth with expansion into China, with support from the U.S. State Department.

The American Forum for Global Education, which for 30 years has operated as publisher, trainer, clearinghouse, intellectual hub, and overall champion. The American Forum has provided the clearest and most influential voice within the global education community.

The Center for Teaching International Relations, University of Denver (CTIR.) Their collective practice supports and equips teachers from elementary grades through high school to infuse international themes into classroom curricula and to help their students develop the substantive knowledge and critical thinking skills they need to function as citizens in a globally interdependent world.

In his classic book, The Political World of Children, Robert Coles argues that political contexts permeate the consciousness of young people, their morality, sense of security, and ways of being in and thinking about the world. Global education seeks to strengthen a pedagogy and an educational content that responds to and capitalizes on young people’s moral imagination, their social conviviality, and their curiosity about the world. The framework provided by public schools discourages advocacy. But this institutional prohibition dovetails with the developmental needs of young people which, as the following quotations suggest, are met less through evangelism than through opportunities to confront dilemmas, collaborate with peers, and acquire and exchange the tools of informed, deliberative judgment. CTIR director Mark Montgomery states:

Well-designed education can and should lead to active engagement in issues, problems, and ideas. Solid information and analytic perspectives associated with history, geography, economics, and civics prepare our youth for civic life....But education should be relatively neutral...helping students to see and understand the processes and possibilities for becoming more involved in the issue, to express their opinions, to turn their interests into action. It’s a fine distinction but an important one... I know from the history of the Center that it is politically dangerous to be seen as proselytizing. We should not put ourselves in the position of valuing one ideology or point of view over any another, (and the younger the student the more critical the separation.) We need to help them find the points of access within our political system that will help them communicate and act on their opinions. But as educators we shouldn’t tell them what those opinions should be.

For Susan Graseck, who directs Choices, explains

"A public that is educated on international issues and attentive to current events creates a foundation for constituency on global concerns. Participation as an advocate for policy is the next step in this progression. However, any initiative that advocates a particular point of view will run into difficulties being integrated on a broad scale in our public schools. American public schools were established as places of inquiry... While official advocacy of any one point of view is not considered appropriate or productive in our public schools, learning to serve as an advocate for one’s point of view is clearly within their purview…One of the early goals of our public schools was (and continues to be) to prepare the next generation to assume the responsibilities of citizenship. Among these is the responsibility to pay attention to public issues, identify and articulate one’s own thinking on the issues, and then step forward to defend that position in the company of others. Thus, education and advocacy-though different-are together part of a larger whole. Young people will not typically become involved in advocacy roles on international issues (or any issues) until they have become engaged in the issue and had an opportunity to sort out their own views. Any initiative that wishes to broaden constituency on international issues would be well served to include as an integral part of its program non-advocacy educational initiatives that promote civic participation."

"Technology now gives students the means to directly interact in the context of significant global issues," suggests iEARN’s founder and director, Edward Gragert.

To see the Internet solely as a larger, better, more visually pleasant library, is to miss its most important value--its ability to link humans for international collaborative learning and action. Over the last 12 years, we have seen that it is peer interaction across borders, languages, cultures, and time-zones that stimulates students and teachers to be active participants in the learning process... We are leaving a very long era of learning about cultures from a distance and entering an age of students learning by interacting with those cultures.

But, counter the authors of "Guidelines for Global and International Studies Education," a framework sponsored and distributed by the American Forum, "unless the study of global issues, problems, and challenges leads to some positive action, such study is difficult to justify, given the multiple demands already facing today’s schools." They continue:

To be effective, action need not be limited to the physical activities student often engage in to help maintain or improve their local environment. Action also means caring enough about global problems and concerns to stay informed and act intelligently when civic action is required. ...Students will approach global issues, problems, and challenges neither with undue optimism nor unwarranted pessimism… Neither fear nor guilt are good motivators, and neither will lead to civic action…Students will develop a sense of efficacy and civic responsibility by identifying specific ways that they can make some contribution to a global issue or challenge. School systems have the obligation to foster effective civic action. Despite the complexity of global issues and challenges, students can contribute to resolving or ameliorating their effects.

Next: Different Approaches to Global Education