Worlds of Education

Credits: United Nations Photo Collection (Flickr)
Credits: United Nations Photo Collection (Flickr)

Engaging our students in conversations about the consequences of disengaging from global institutions: lessons on US withdrawal from UNESCO.

published 16 November 2017 updated 16 November 2017
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Educating students to be engaged democratic citizens requires that they learn to engage with current affairs in schools. Engaging students with real world issues is also a way to get students to become more motivated with their studies and, over the long term, to be more effective professionally and more satisfied with their careers.

A Gallup study of 30,000 college graduates found engagement with real world issues in college to be one of the more robust long term predictors of self-efficacy and satisfaction [1]. Since current affairs are increasingly defined by the interrelationship between local and global it is necessary that the kinds of real world problems that students engage with in school are also global problems.

American schools and universities are known for the limited opportunities they provide students to learn to understand global affairs. Over a decade ago, I participated on a panel of the National Research Council to evaluate federally funded programs of international and foreign languages in colleges and universities [2]. As part of this work, we interviewed leaders in the business, diplomatic and military communities for their views about the effectiveness with which our higher education institutions were educating college graduates with the global mindsets and competencies essential for the 21st century. Their response was unanimous, a large gap exists between the growing demands for global awareness and skills for collaboration in an increasingly interdependent world, and the skill set with which most graduates leave college in the United States. Similar findings had been reported by other studies.

As a result of such deficient internationalization of the higher education or K-12 curriculum, it should not be surprising, for instance, that adult Americans were significantly more ignorant than adults in other countries of the Millenium Development Goals, a global compact adopted by the United Nations in the year 2000 to eliminate global poverty. Only 5% of Americans knew what these goals were, compared to 20% in Australia or over 25% in Germany (source: World Values Survey).

Such limited global awareness constrains opportunities for Americans, for the United Sates and may, unintentionally, endanger the world. A case in point is the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement which will undermine global efforts to curb global warming. The recent decision of the US Secretary of State to withdraw from UNESCO is another example of a decision to isolate the nation from global efforts which may end up further destabilizing the world.

Created on the aftermath of World War II, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was established to achieve the right of education, one of the thirty rights included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 to ensure greater global stability and Peace. The preamble of UNESCO’s constitution expresses its moral purpose as follows: ‘since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed’.

It is not self-evident how withdrawing from a global institution which the US helped found advances any US or global interest. Throughout its history UNESCO spearheaded and contributed to a global education movement which transformed the shared experience of humanity, to mention only one of the areas in which it focuses. In 1946, the vast majority of the world’s children did not have access to school. They do today, in part, because the efforts of the professionals who work in UNESCO and the programs they advance. That about 1.2 billion people are enrolled in educational institutions today as a result of the global education movement UNESCO started, is a remarkable accomplishment for an organization to which the United States would contribute about 80 million dollars a year, accounting for about 20% of its budget. The US contribution would represent less than 0.4% of the 21 billion dollars which the US Department of State spends in international assistance.

Just as worrisome as this recent decision of the administration is the silence with which the education community and the public have received the announcement that the United States is abrogating our commitment to the shared responsibility of advancing education for all, assumed at the time the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, abandoning the agency we helped to create to advance the right to education for all. This decision amounts also to abandoning our commitment to an organization that has effectively advocated for freedom of speech and of the press and for the protection of cultural sites throughout the world.

To support critical reflection on the consequences of this major policy decision of the US government among students and teachers in colleges and universities, I have developed, with a group of graduate students, two lessons designed to educate them about the role of UNESCO. They are available here and are included in a recent book along with  a series of essays on Human Rights and how they are been challenged by current events in the United States ( Teaching Two Lessons About UNESCO and other writings on Human Rights).

Let us remember that it is in the minds of people that wars begin, and it is there that the defenses of peace must be built.

[1] Life in College Matters for Life After College. by Julie Ray and Stephanie Kafka. http://news.gallup.com/poll/168848/life-college-matters-life-college.aspx

[2] International Education and Foreign Languages. Keys to Securing Americas Future. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/11841/international-education-and-foreign-languages-keys-to-securing-americas-future

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.