How the degradation of education went global

Alex Standish persuasively argues that ‘global education’, promoted by Western elites as a way of dealing with their own loss of meaning, has undermined the central role of education: intellectual development.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

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In his foreword to Alex Standish’s new book, The False Promise of Global Learning: Why Education Needs Boundaries, Frank Furedi writes: ‘Global education is one of a number of innovations developed to bypass the problem of meaning.’ Standish himself makes a convincing case for why this interpretation is far more accurate than the current orthodoxy, which holds that attaching the label ‘global’ to all things educational ‘enables people to understand the links between their own lives and those of people throughout the world’. But it’s not as if such an understanding did not exist in the past. The administrators and missionaries of the nineteenth century understood perfectly well the links between the imperial centre and its colonies. The difference is that unlike today’s advocates of global education, they judged British culture to be better than the rest. Today, global education is not about developing intellectual understanding with which to show how and why the imperialists were wrong, but to suspend judgement altogether.

Standish shows that today’s global education is less about understanding anything and more about acceding to attitudes and values determined by a liberal elite that no longer has the confidence or will to value education based upon academic subject knowledge. The term ‘global education’ itself is so broad as to encompass many different intellectual strands of thought and forms of education, which, as Standish perceptively points out, suggests that global education has very little substantial meaning itself. Basically, its various linguistic forms are used to refer to a perceived gap between existing educational provision and the purported new needs of society – with global education called upon to bridge the asserted gap.

The first two chapters outline how global education has developed over the years since the first International School opened in Geneva in 1924 to educate the children of parents working for the League of Nations. This period of development of international education was, paradoxically, based upon the need to reconstruct and integrate nation states, which had been materially weakened and ideologically compromised through two world wars, the growth of the Soviet Union and the experience of fascism.

In this context, politicians and educators were concerned to develop forms of education that would promote international cooperation and democratic values, but on the basis of strengthening the legitimacy of the nation state. However, Standish rightly proposes that the driving motivation for international education in the US was very different to the motivation in the UK. In the US, international education corresponded to the nation’s expanding scope of power and influence. International education made sense for America’s elites in a similar way that History and Geography had made sense to nineteenth-century British elites.

For Britain, whose power and international status was greatly reduced from its imperial heyday, a whole matrix of domestic and international relationships needed to be negotiated. For the postwar British elites, Standish suggests that the emergence of Development Education was one way that they could continue their relationship with former colonies while moving away from the stigma of their imperialist past. In this effort, government and charities had a shared interest; most importantly for the British government, this new style of education allowed it to reformulate and legitimise a role for itself as an agent of development rather than of colonialism.

Standish identifies two waves in the emergence of global education: first, the 1960s and 1970s; and secondly, the 1990s. He shows how these waves introduced fundamental changes in education and he makes a detailed analysis of the material underpinnings of these developments. Global education is fundamentally different to its antecedents, International or Development Education, in two important ways. Firstly, the economic pressures of the time were such that the assumed growth, upon which national and international development had been predicated, was being called into question. Second, there was a decisive move away from subject-based education.

The reassessment of the positive potential of growth was expressed in the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth in 1972 and in Robert Hanvey’s An Attainable Global Perspective published in 1976. Hanvey writes: ‘Exponential growth is treacherously rapid and will bring us to the earth’s finite limits.’ His advice to educators is to consider five dimensions: perspectives consciousness; state-of-planet awareness; knowledge of global dynamics; cross-cultural awareness; and awareness of human choices. Critical of hidden middle-class values ascribed to subject-based education, advocates of global education fight shy of declaring their own, altogether more problematic values. It is these values, which propose a reduced role and scope for human attempts to control rather than adapt to supposed natural limits that underlie their proposals for educational change rather than any rigorous understanding of societal or educational developments.

The shift in educational discourse is indicated by the preponderance of words such as ‘awareness’ and ‘consciousness’; it expresses a turn away from education being about intellectual development, and towards a form of therapeutic consciousness-raising. If education is no longer primarily regarded as being about intellectual development, then educators themselves no longer have a central role. With teachers recast as facilitators and deliverers, the space was created for new disseminators to spread purportedly new knowledge derived from new global conditions.

Some educational sociologists point to the growth of the private sector in education as being the driving force for undermining education, and place the blame for problems in education on business interests. But as Standish shows, charities and third-sector organisations have been increasingly influential in education long before the New Right’s attempts to privatise or reorganise the public sector. For example, Standish notes that the number of non-profit organisations operating on the international stage rose between the 1970s and 1990s from a few hundred to over 29,000.

Interventions into education from such sources have met with far less opposition; on the contrary, Oxfam’s A Curriculum for Global Citizenship, published in 1997, has been widely taken up and emulated by a host of other non-profit bodies. Yet these initiatives have helped displace subject knowledge and thus clear the way for more interest groups, including those of business, to demand education cater to their needs. In the process, education has moved further away from its core role.

The devaluing of academic knowledge takes many forms. Sometimes, such knowledge is explicitly denounced as elitist and/or belonging to a bygone age. More often, it is disavowed by calls for it to be updated and made relevant to contemporary issues, however defined (globalisation, racism, homophobia, rising child obesity – the list is potentially endless). Standish includes several examples of teaching materials from various American and British charities and third-sector organisations and explains how the intellectual content has been hollowed out.

One example from Oxfam’s 2002 publication, Global Citizenship: The Handbook for Primary Teachers, illustrates both the vacuity and perniciousness of education thus conceived. The aim of a lesson plan entitled ‘Cooperation’ is to encourage pupils to think about how difficulties can be resolved through compromise and cooperation. It involves pairs of children undertaking a practical task involving a hoop and an apple; they have to work out the best way to reach the apple given certain restrictions of movement – it’s the kind of warm up, trust-building exercise traditionally done in drama lessons. Pupils then have the obligatory discussion about the best way to achieve their aim. Standish proposes that this asserts a normative model of an individual who values cooperation over competition, and who is predisposed to accept the opinion of the designated expert as fact, rather than an individual who works out and asserts their own position.

I agree with this but would go further in criticising such lessons, which are prevalent in education today. Firstly, interpersonal cooperation as a teachable skill, in the way proposed by virtually all educational initiatives of the past few decades, amounts to a de facto devaluation of human experience and relationships. It ignores the reality that cooperation in our private relationships can take different forms, be difficult to enact – even if desired- or may not even be desired at all, or desired inconsistently. Cooperation is something that emerges from the affective and intellectual substance of unique relationships; it is not a generic skill to be applied in the same way in each instance. To teach cooperation as a skill to older-aged pupils is to invite the astute response of ‘Well, what about the people who cooperated with the Nazis?’. Fair enough if, as a teacher, you are prepared to discuss the question in light of important historical, political and philosophical knowledge. Sadly, this is just the type of knowledge being ruled out.

Secondly, no doubt the authors of the lesson on cooperation thought they were devising a lesson appropriate to the developmental level of their target pupils – a simple hoop and apple game. But to understand how such a task could symbolise the idea of cooperation actually requires a fairly high level of intellectual development. A pupil would need to be able to identify, abstract, compare and synthesise concepts, which I suspect is beyond the ability of most young children. For most, it will remain a possibly fun, rather meaningless game or a chance to earn automatic brownie points by saying what some pupils will intuitively guess the teacher wants to hear. Cooperation, as a complex and often contradictory human activity involving personal autonomy and judgements, is replaced by an automatic banal sharing-task that is set and judged by someone else. In this way, such knowledge is likely to promote conformism and dull the development of meaningful critical thinking, whatever the intentions of its advocates.

By basing the content of education directly upon a selection of social problems, issues or values, subject knowledge itself is bypassed. Without such knowledge, described as ‘vertically classified knowledge’ by educational sociologist Basil Bernstein, more generalised understanding of ourselves and the world becomes less possible.

Towards the end of his book, Standish explains how the concept of vertical classified, or theoretical knowledge refers to subjects that have the most codified, abstract and therefore generalisable meanings. Horizontally classified, or everyday, knowledge has meanings that are mainly dependent upon specific experiences bound to particular contexts. For example, navigating a boat along a river requires the latter type of knowledge; drawing a map of the river would require the former type of knowledge.

The sailor and the cartographer can both say they ‘know’ the river; but the forms of their knowledge are different. The concepts, language and process of identification, abstraction and synthesis of concepts involved in theoretical knowledge are unfamiliar in everyday life and are difficult at first; they require persistence and determined application of thinking for some level of mastery to be achieved. This is why, as Alison Wolf points out, for all their involvement in a host of vocational education initiatives, global or otherwise, employers still often prefer candidates who have had an academic education, even if the subject seems of less immediate relevance to the particular job.

If academic knowledge is the codified, abstracted, generalised and generalisable systems of representation through which humanity has endeavoured to understand itself, and the world of which it is both part and maker, then to turn our back on subject-based education is a profoundly disempowering, dehumanising act both of, and by, ourselves. Standish’s book is an admirable and ambitious attempt to describe, explain and critique global education. I like the way he has used actual curriculum examples to show how ideas emanating from the elites are realised in the classroom. This is in contrast to the majority of books on education, which tend to deal either with decontextualised practice, or theory de-coupled from empirical reality.

The important message of this book is that behind the many apparent drives to ‘modernise’ or ‘globalise’ education is a drive to displace or reinvent academic knowledge. Proponents of global education assert that knowledge itself, as well as educational institutions, needs to take cognisance of new conditions of international cooperation by removing epistemological and institutional boundaries. This is regarded as a positive, liberating move. What they fail to realise is that education needs boundaries. Boundaries arise out of our attempts to understand and organise information, experiences, people and things. It is through the process of comparing, analysing, describing, categorising and judging that we ascribe meaning to our world. This is how knowledge, rather than opinion, is created.

It is true that the boundaries between subjects are not set in stone; some may be less valuable or justifiable than in the past, but others retain their salience and importance. In education, the boundaries between academic and everyday knowledge, and between education and social/economic policy, need to be maintained if education is to retain any distinctive meaning or value. Removing epistemological boundaries in knowledge results in separating knowledge from its own reason and truth. It becomes either hollowed out information or mindless generic skills. This approach has proven unable to ameliorate the problems it has sought to address, and has succeeded only in misdirecting the search for answers down a blind alley. In the process, all that is worthwhile about education has been corroded or deemed problematic.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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