Education for Global Citizenship was the theme of the 66th Annual DPI/NGO Conference in Gyeongju, Korea. I began the conference as a moderate skeptic, not fully understanding the work of UN conferences like this and harboring doubts about lofty concepts like “Global Citizenship” that don’t appear to bear any clear connection to the university endeavor. I leave the conference seeing that this concept, and the work of the UN, is critical to the future of higher education, especially in the Vincentian Tradition.
DPI/NGO, part of the UN alphabet soup, stands for the Department of Public Information / Non-Governmental Organization. For those who aren’t familiar with UN speak, myself among them, this conference was a forum for “civil society” to engage issues of the day. Civil society is comprised of organizations that do not represent the public sector (governments) or the private sector (for-profit corporations). It is an autonomous and independent forum of organizations that pride themselves on representing the interests of people, to hold governments accountable for the commitments they make.
A few days unplugged from the US news cycle was most welcome, although I did have a number of people ask me what I thought about our election. I politely moved on as quickly as I could, already tired of political conversations that quickly devolve into one of two intractable world views: tastes great and less filling. I know drinking a good beer is much more than those two positions.
The theme of this year’s conference was Education for Global Citizenship: Acheiving the Sustainable Development Goals Together. A lot of people talk about the value of education, but it is important to understand why. Education was chosen as the focus a couple years ago because the results of the UN’s My World Survey taken by 10 million people put “a good education” at the top of the list of the most important issues, ranking above healthcare and job opportunities. I have administered a few surveys in my own research and 10 million is not a shabby sample size. When people doubt that eduction should be THE top priority, these results help make the case.
And it really isn’t all that surprising if I think about it. No society, no government, no civilization has existed or can exist without a robust system of education. This is as true for dictatorships and fascist regimes as it is for democracies, for violent extremists as it is for peace loving monks, for tyranny as it is for freedom. Education provides the conditions for the possibility of society itself, which is why UNESCO believes sustainable development begins with education and Goal 4 of the SDGs “to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” could be viewed as a foundation for all of the other goals.
Why the Ivory Tower Matters.
I have worked in higher education for most of my career, and from time to time people make comments about working in the ivory tower and needing to get out into “the real world,” as if education is something unreal, less valuable, or naive. It is hard not to internalize this critique, especially when many harbor a cartoonish image of what actually goes on in a university as a caricature of the eccentric, unnecessary, and absurd. Nutty, out of touch professors impose their peculiar opinions on naive students without the faintest idea of how the “real world” works, producing graduates without a single marketable skill. [Insert cliche of broke liberal arts graduate pouring coffee here]. To be fair, however, there is a kernel of an idea in this cliche, which is the very real concern that higher education is in a period of flux and needs to clearly articulate its basic value proposition. Many disciplines are being forced to articulate their value to an increasingly critical body of students and parents who rightly ask “so what?” and “what can I do with this major?” I have spent enough time hanging out with “real world” folk who know first hand that having a clear value proposition is a matter of life and death for anyone who operates in a market economy. The threat of going out of business is a real one, and higher education is no different – it is always good to have a better understanding of your product and your market.
So what is the value proposition of higher education in the era of ubiquitous access to information? There are two essential elements of the higher education value proposition: training and transformation. Training for professional life is a pillar of university education. Students pay big bucks and take on significant debt with the belief that a university education will make them more employable when they graduate. They seek jobs. When you compare the earnings of all college graduates to those who do not have a college degree, there is plenty of evidence that it is still a worthwhile investment. Sadly, there are large parts of the population who don’t have access to a college education and that is a critical issue that must be addressed. Access to this resource cannot be restricted to the shrinking pool of individuals and families who can afford it. But professional training does not fully capture the value proposition of higher education, and this is where the university community can clarify what it offers.
In The Great Work, the ecologist Thomas Berry argues that there are four great shapers of culture: governments, corporations, religions, and universities. Each plays an important, distinctive, and unique role in the development of society. As communities of scholars and teachers, universities are centers of discovery, innovation, and formation that empower individuals to critically evaluate current conditions and chart new courses for the future. A university education cultivates a habit of mind, a perspective that provides great value to society – a value that employers recognize. Yes, there are exceptions like Bill Gates, but I would argue that the university is exactly the kind of space for innovation and discovery that helped build Microsoft – regardless of Gates’ enrollment status.
Marketers use the term brand provenance to describe brands that have a long history of providing a particular good or service. Black and white photos of English soldiers wearing Burberry coats, for example, give provenance to the Burberry brand for making them – “we’ve been doing this for a long time” the pictures say. It is important for the institution of the university to understand its brand provenance.
The first universities in Europe began to take shape as independent institutions in the 12th century as guilds of scholars and teachers gathered together to critically examine key questions of the day separate from the institutional structures of government and church. Of course there were “schools” of critical thinking well before that (think of a young Aristotle learning from Plato on the steps of Athens, for example), but they were not institutions. There were only three disciplines in the early medieval university: theology, law, and medicine. Theology was the queen of the disciplines, law was secondary, and medicine was a distant third comprised of an odd collection of folk remedies. As religious monks, masters and students, gathered together to carefully study sacred scripture, tradition, and newly encountered principles from Muslim thinkers, the guilds of scholars and teachers carefully examined claims from a variety of sources that appeared to be contradictory and irreconcilable. They created the context of academic freedom and inquiry not to protest or transform church doctrine, or the work of the state, but rather to freely examine and find resolution to complex questions that both institutions had yet to resolve. Among the most pressing was Tertullian’s question from the second century, what has Athens (reason and philosophy) to do with Jerusalem (faith and revelation)?
The university, as an institution, had to be independent of the church and later of government so that it could freely examine disputed questions and not simply transmit information or existing knowledge. Although the student had to demonstrate mastery of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and mastery of a particular segment of the tradition to become a bachelor or master, the transformative educational process itself unfolded as an ongoing examination and integration of what came before in light of new data and new experience. Peter Abelard’s prologue to Sic et Non (Yes and No) provides great insight into the ethos of the early university. He developed a systematic and principled way to examine apparent contradictions between sources that were orthodox and potentially heretical at the same time. His work was, unfortunately, marginalized, but he put in motion many of the principles that would eventually become institutionalized in the scholastic method, which reached its apex in the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. This sweeping account of creation and the role of the human person within it puts on full display the operating logic and transformative method of scholastic inquiry: a topic was divided into component questions, assumptions were identified, precedent was cited, judgment was made, evidence was marshaled, and responses to each assumption were elaborated. The structure of the text itself reveals the medieval mind and the community of inquiry at work. This respectful engagement with tradition and with new data, although mechanical and rote in places, offers a unique gift to society because it makes critical thinking transparent to others, and it opens itself to the judgment and scrutiny of others – most notably from future generations. The approach provided a process for analyzing and synthesizing complex questions in ongoing discourse, a parent to the scientific method itself. It was within the institution of the university that many of Western civilization’s most profound insights had been examined, tested, evaluated, challenged, and disseminated. And it is this contribution to society, as an independent institution of inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge, that positions the university as a shaper of citizens and of culture. This is the core part of the value proposition of a university education that is often overlooked, dismissed, disregarded. In the era of information, the brand provenance of the university is not merely mastery of skill but of critical thinking.
I was reminded of the university’s value proposition as I toured Cheomseongdae, the oldest observatory in Asia. Although not associated with the institution of a university, it is a powerful symbol of human observation, inquiry, and knowledge that has been cultivated for centuries. Observers saw a deep connection between the movements they observed in the heavens with the agricultural processes of the Earth.
Global Citizenship: A Vision for the Ivory Tower
When I was in high school, I chose to take Latin to fulfill my language requirement for no noble reason other than it was a choice a little bit different than what many of my peers chose. After a couple semesters, I quickly realized that the only way to survive the requirement was to find something interesting in it. My teacher, Fr. McDonald, used to say in every class “Latin is a highly inflected language, you must look at the endings of words to understand the meaning of the sentence.” And so I learned the difference between the nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative cases, where to hunt down the subject, verb, and object of the sentence, and how to puzzle my way through a translation. By learning Latin, I later discovered, I became a much better student of English grammar – my mother tongue. I learned something about my own language, my own inherited conceptual filters and their assumptions, by leaving them behind and returning to them with new eyes. Through exposure to something other, something different I became a better thinker. And that, essentially, is the value of Education for Global Citizenship – to discover the value and limitations of one’s own beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions by viewing them through another lens.
But beyond the value of exposure to different cultures, Global Citizenship Education (GCE) has an even more important value proposition. It points to a clear set of global commitments that are vital for the world we want. I was initially skeptical of “global citizenship” at the beginning of the conference because it appeared to be a lot like “social responsibility,” which sounds nice but is never defined. It is often used to justify pet interests; there is little in the concept itself that provides clear standards that approach anything close to a global perspective equipped to frame the challenges of our day. The conference planners defined the concept of Global Citizenship Education relative to the Sustainable Development Goals, which have clear targets about eradicating poverty, ending hunger, achieving gender equality, and so on. Global Citizenship Education, then, is a vision for the future we want that includes a set of values that higher education should fully embrace without equivocation. Education with a purpose that is relevant and needed – a value proposition that inspires investment.
During the conference I was fortunate to meet Daughters of Charity and Sisters of Charity, the women of the Vincentian Tradition, who run high schools, women’s shelters, and a host of other agencies that serve people on the margins. They work in the gaps that exist between governments and markets. They are the voices of civil society that are not often reflected in government policy or in business plans. Education for Global Citizenship is education equipped to serve the people they represent, who weren’t at the conference, who often don’t have access to education, who don’t have political power to shape policy, who are left out of markets. As we watched and contributed to the outcome document of the conference, I witnessed the scholastic method at work – a community of committed individuals debating, framing, re-phrasing, and finding consensus for another group to build upon.
And so I return home with a new respect for the work that happens at the United Nations, especially the important role of civil society and NGOs that hold governments accountable to their public commitments. In Capitalism at the Crossroads, Stuart Hart calls NGOs “smart mobs” because of their capacity to influence policy and corporate practice. I leave the conference with a desire to introduce GCE into my classes and perhaps more broadly, to clarify the unique value proposition of the ivory tower as a shaper of citizens and culture.