Thu, 10 Mar 2005

Growing internationalism vital for modern education

Simon Marcus Gower Jakarta

It has, to some extent, become habit for people to propose that we now live in "the age of globalization", but globalization has been an on-going process for literally centuries now. We only have to think of the Indonesian archipelago to see this in action; think of the centuries that colonizers, merchants, traders and spreaders of religious messages have come to the archipelago and had a lasting influence upon it.

Some people try to resist globalization and see it as a bad thing that diminishes the world's culture and diversity. But, like it or not, globalization is upon us and among us and we simply cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand and deny it.

Whilst there may be damaging excesses or there may even be, as I recently heard one commentator put it almost apologizing for globalization, "side-effects", we cannot afford to morosely and in a practically defeatist way reject it. It will go on regardless of rejection and, in a way, roll on past the rejecters.

It is far better and more constructive to have a proactive response to it than a dismissive rejection of it. This is perhaps particularly the case when it comes to education. The value of having a more international perspective to ones education cannot really be underestimated.

There are those, however, that suggest that internationalism in education does not work and/ or claim that there is no great influence to be associated with having an international outlook. They suggest that any such influence is "a very limited prospect" for Indonesia but I think it reasonable and appropriate to state that from just such a "limited prospect" great things can be achieved. Even working with just a relatively small group of students can have an impact that, though not immediately obvious, can be considerable.

This is an experience that many international educators can and probably will have. To see students genuinely having mind broadening experiences in school is not only a great joy but also a tangible result from internationally orientated education. The opposite of this experience can be painful and saddening.

For example, it is possible to meet children in both Europe and Indonesia who have little or no awareness of the world beyond their hometowns or the borders of their respective countries. They are, essentially, uneducated about the larger world in which they live. Now it may be stated by some that they really have no need to know more of the world but this does sound terribly patronizing and limiting of their potential.

By bringing a greater degree of international perspective to the education setting of our twenty-first century world (even if these efforts seem limited to some people) we are surely proactively doing the right thing in helping to equip students with the knowledge and potential to understand the complexity of the world around them.

That complexity and highly integrated nature of the modern world effectively means that students need broad horizons; a breadth of vision that allows them to comprehend the world as it is and how they can act and interact with it. This does not mean that they should become overwhelmed and consumed by it, but rather that they should be equipped with the powers of discretion and discernment to make the most of themselves within it without losing their own essence as distinct and individual participants in the world.

In this way it seems most appropriate that students benefit from gaining an international awareness in school but do not become so immersed in it that they lose their own individual or home national identity. This is not to suggest that school students should be enveloped in a kind of xenophobic nationalism but rather is to hope that an international awareness through education can be balanced with respect for who or where people are.

It is, though, possible to see ways in which a kind of negative influence of internationalization can occur in the minds of school-age children. For example, in a recent conversation with some junior high school children it was found that one student was held up for quite cruel and painful ridicule. He was left outside of the group and was clearly being forced to experience an isolation that was neither deserved nor pleasant for him.

So, what was the cause of him being cast out of the group of his peers? Upon the slightest of investigations it was found that it was because -- quote -- "he's stupid, he cannot speak English." This was soon found not really to be true; whilst he could not speak English as well as his excluding peers, he did have some English but was evidently very self-conscious and timid to try to use the limited English he had and in no way whatsoever was he stupid.

Certainly children can be cruel in the things that they say to and about each other but in this case they had arrived at a conclusion of stupidity based almost exclusively on a lack of English. Questioned further on this odd conclusion it was proposed that "if you can't speak English you're no good and you won't get a good job when you leave school." Childish notions but notions nonetheless that portray cruel and misguided thinking.

Here, then, we can surely see that there is a need for a balancing act to be played in modern and internationalized education. Internationalizing of education with its accompanying broadening of perspectives and thought is positive and fitting for the world we live in today. But alongside of such internationalization should be placed respect and appreciation for local context and content. To provide one without the other would be a misfortune that could and should be avoided.

To be able to learn more of our world is a great good fortune and it is a gift that should be given to as many school students as possible. An ability to think and act both locally and globally then becomes possible. Internationalizing education is positive but it should not negate or exclude local context and values.

The writer is an education consultant.