“The developing world is full of entrepreneurs and visionaries, who with access to education, equity and credit would play a key role in developing the economic situations in their countries”.
From West-Centric to World-Centric Education
“reformers of global education must, along with the rest of humanity, reckon with the rise of the Global South—both as an emerging fact, as goal or ideal, and as a change of perspective.”
“In their countries, but also in the world at large”, one may add to the above quote by Yunus. Access to high quality education can and will empower the billions of people who today can only enter the global economy from a deprived and deprivileged position—and there is every reason to believe that such an empowerment of the many would benefit the world as a whole. Not only would innovation and trade be nourished; this rich tapestry of world citizens also bring their own cultures, histories and perspectives to the table; and many perspectives are required to tackle the great global challenges of climate change, global health, technological disruption, and migration. The global world, by definition, cannot be a Western one, nor a Russian or Chinese one—it must include and empower the Global South as a whole, and balance the multiplicity of human experience and cultures.
It has been argued by many that the main force of such change is education. Education can create opportunities in people’s lives, but it can also empower populations to organize and take issue with injustices and systemic failures of their own societies, spurring institutional change and bringing stability to destabilized regions.
Thus, reformers of global education must, along with the rest of humanity, reckon with the rise of the Global South—both as an emerging fact, as goal or ideal, and as a change of perspective.
One simple shift—and one that highlights the biases that have hitherto been imbedded in how we have all been educated—involves a change of wording. “The third world” and “the developing world” both imply some kind of hierarchy; the Global South emphasizes the fundamentally equality of nations and cultures. It is this sense of worthiness and equality that must reshape not only how education is organized, but also how “the great story of the world” is told and taught. The story of the world, the global narrative, cannot be a hierarchical one—if our shared goal is a rich, sustainable, peaceful, and equal world.
Reformers of global education are thus faced with a two-pronged momentous task:
- To extend the systems of education so that its access becomes virtually universal, and
- to change the narrative (the story told or implied) about human communities and their relationship to one another, from a Western-centric, to a world-centric
In this article, I focus primarily on the second part of this equation. Naturally, the two depend upon one another. Just as there should be no people—except perhaps indigenous cultures that do not take part of the global market—who are deprived of education, there should be no people who are taught, implicitly or otherwise, that their culture and heritage are less worthy, inferior, or in submission to other cultures. Such implied hierarchies cause collective trauma and collective shame, which ultimately make global peace and collaboration more difficult. Nor should the members of any culture—and this may be yet more controversial and difficult to deal with—be taught a story of the world that emphasizes, implicitly or otherwise, their own superiority and right to supremacy. If we are to avoid a future in which pompous national pride impedes human solidarity and cooperation, we must deal with issues of collective shame and the many belittlements present in everyday life. Because shame and (exaggerated) pride are sisters.
hat we suggest here is a transnational alliance between countries to reshape the narratives of the world—guiding us from more hierarchical and ethnocentric views of the world, to more equal and cosmopolitan outlooks that rhyme with the rise of Global South. This is doable, we believe, but it requires that countries escape a kind of “prisoner’s dilemma”; if the populations of country A are taught more ethnocentric views, it becomes more difficult for country B to uphold a more cosmopolitan narrative; the solidarity becomes lopsided. How can, for instance, Japanese and Chinese readings of modern history be reconciled, wounds healed, and perspectives bridged?
And mutual solidarity on a transnational level is necessary for a thriving and peaceful world.
This is not to say that populations have no use for a sense of roots, heritage and history of their own countries, traditions, and ethnicities. Yes, heritage and proud histories count. But if each person’s unique life story belongs in part to the history of their country and people, so is the history of each country and people ultimately a contribution to the history of the world and of humanity as a whole—connecting in turn to an ecological belongingness to the larger biosphere, which can itself be understood through many different lenses of the world’s cultures and religions.
And thus these histories of humanity must be balanced and brought into a harmonious whole: even the difficult parts, with histories of oppression, discrimination and violence. These are undeniably difficult—but equally vital—questions.
The rise of the Global South thus implies an entry into a truly global age—and the educational systems must adapt to this reality. This pathway can only be walked, however, hand in hand. As we argued in the Human-to-Systems Relations chapter, changing education is also about changing other systems altogether; in this case, it is equally a matter of sensitive diplomacy. What brave leaders and social innovators will rise to the task—and use the development of global education to literally rewrite world history?
Breaking the Colonial Heritage
The above outlined task would be easier if the history of the world, and many of its current realities, were not so gruesome. But they are. The global community is not only faced with a history of wars and exploitation—but also, notably, a history of colonialism. This history heaps shame on some populations and blame on others, and the response to both is often an irrational, exaggerated pride that hinders cosmopolitan reconciliation. And the blame is sometimes transmuted into a misplaced “savior complex” which inadvertently insults the dignity of those it purports to help, further feeding the cycle of shame, pride, and prejudice.
To this day, this colonial heritage continues in the form of many social and economic inequalities which are viscerally felt by people around the world, what is sometimes called the neocolonial order. It continues not only between countries (where new powers still feel that they must prioritize geopolitical security to never again be mistreated by foreign powers), but also within countries, as ethnic migrant minorities feel discriminated against and not as fully worthy citizens of their new home countries.
Our suggestion for one way out of this gridlock is to give the countries of the Global South a stake and a say in how history and social sciences are taught in the countries of the Global North—and perhaps, to some extent, vice versa (although Global South populations are already very influenced by and aware of the Global North). If Global North countries pledge to shape a part of their curricula in accordance with the guidelines of a commission including many Global South countries, the Global South can rebalance the way that history is taught, how they are seen and understood, and how they wish to be related to. They can speak directly to the whole populations of the Global North in and through the North’s own educational systems, balancing out biases and emphasizing their contributions to world history. The pledges do not have to be unrealistically comprehensive; perhaps 40 hours of taught material throughout the schooling years, including perhaps such issues as decolonialization and the histories of African, Asian and pre-Columbian civilizations, plus some general guidelines for how the specifics of the curricula are shaped. It is not an unaffordable measure.
Could such an endeavor begin to heal the wounds of the colonial heritage, creating a more equitable and multifaceted global perspective on social reality? After all, matters of healing are often matters of recognition—and to gain influence over how one is recognized. Could it help avoiding viewing some cultures as victimized, and others to blame—emphasizing instead the rich tapestry of tragic and beautiful human experience?
Big History as a Pedagogical Backbone
There is a discipline of research and history writing that has been developed by authors such as David Christian, Cynthia Stokes, Fred Speier, and Yuval Harari: Big History. It aims not only to tell the history of humanity-as-a-whole, but also the history of the cosmological universe, ecological history, and the geological history of the planet—marrying thus not only the Global South and North, East and West, tribes and civilizations, but also the natural sciences and humanities. This approach has recently gained prominence as it was endorsed and funded by Bill Gates.
There are obvious advantages to centering education as a whole around such a perspective, since it offers a holistic and unifying backbone for all that is being taught and learned within the social and natural sciences, helping young minds to parse the pieces together into a meaningful story, making the subjects more relevant and interconnected. The world, after all, does not consist of separated subjects in a curriculum.
But why am I bringing up the teaching of Big History in the context of the rise of the Global South? Well, to create a truly functional global society—and thriving members of such a society—the issue is not only to bridge and balance South and North; it is equally an issue of creating shared global narratives that help to navigate the global world itself. And here is our claim:
- The countries that invest more in a Big History education, to which global perspectives are intrinsic, will likely be at a competitive advantage over others in the global market of goods, services, and ideas.
So the reckoning with the rise of the Global South does not only entail an expansion of the reach of education combined with a balancing of South and North perspectives; it also entails, to a significant extent, a transcending of such dualities in the first place—placing a larger part of the narrative every human is equipped with on the global level.
Even if there is good reason to believe, as we will come back to on the following page, that learning Big History may put populations at a competitive advantage, a certain reluctance to reshape how history is taught is to be expected among almost all countries: the national and ethnic histories are dearly held building blocks of national cohesion, identity, and sense-making. It may feel wrong to put such sacred stories within a larger narrative of the global, the ecological, and the cosmic.
For this reason, such reformations of education can and should also be made hand-in-hand; countries could mutually pledge to shift parts of their curricula to Big History. After all, the national and ethnic stories we live by may perhaps be at least somewhat compromised with when knowing that other countries are adopting narratives that view one’s own culture and history more charitably and as an important part of a larger whole. Hence, this issue also requires strategic alliances and diplomacy at the highest level. The result could be a world population which understands itself as layered in global, transnational, national, civil society, organizational, group, and individual levels, easier cooperating across all of these. These levels or layers of social organization are illustrated in the following model:
The “7 layers of social emergence”. Please note that these don’t need to be presented as a pyramid or hierarchy, and could just as easily be viewed increasingly wide-reaching organic wholes. The top level “Global” can also be called “Planetary”.
As human beings, we are all socialized, not least through education, into these different layers: we are granted a complex individual identity; we are part of groups, such as families and movements; we learn about the existence of incorporated groups such as firms and NGOs, perhaps working for some of them; we take part of platforms and commons, such as the media landscape; we are citizens (or not) of nation states; we learn about the transnational relations between states; and we are granted some understanding of the planet and humanity-as-a-whole, the global/planetary level.
My point here is that education can help each person to identify, understand, and feel comfortable with each of these layers. As of today the transnational and global layers are still emerging. The countries that have populations who feel a native and meaningful relationship to these two layers are likely to be able to shape them in their emerging forms the most. The global layer does not only exist at summits with leaders of countries; it pervades all of the other layers. Individuals can act and think more transnationally and globally; as can movements, companies and media landscapes.
It is not difficult to see how equipping larger populations with a native sense of the transnational and global would not only make people feel more at home in an otherwise confusing world—it could also leave them better equipped to shape those emerging realities, including global governance, and make the best of their potentials.
And who is best suited to take up the most global perspectives? Is it the populations of the Global North? Perhaps not. Given the high dynamism and inventiveness of the educational sector in the Global South, and given that education is, to a greater extent, being introduced from scratch there, and given that the Global South perhaps has an even stronger thirst for new stories about reality—these countries may be best poised to take the lead as truly global natives.
Leapfrogging into the Future
An instructive example is offered by the history of education of Scandinavia, described in Lene Andersen and Tomas Björkman’s 2017 book, The Nordic Secret. Today the Scandinavian countries are known to be well “developed” by most internationally recognized measures, such as the Human Development Index, low corruption, and measures of public happiness. But a little more than a century ago, this was not the case: they were among the poorest countries in Europe (a large portion of the Swedish population migrated to America around this time due to starvation and hard times).
Educational reformers made it into an explicit goal of these countries to support the “spiritual development” of their wider populations, inviting young adults to “folk high schools”, based around the German Romantic idea of Bildung; i.e. the growth and flourishing of the whole personality by learning and experimenting with life. Such learning facilities were established around Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. The authors claim that this spurred a general development of the population—including the peasant population—and that this has been the basis of how well these countries transitioned into modern life and industrialization.
In effect, the Scandinavian countries leapfrogged into a leading position in the modern world. This was a kind of “developmental” leapfrogging. They didn’t follow the paths of Britain, Germany, and France step by step. They learned from them and jumped right to a later developmental stage of their societies, cultures, and economies—creating societies that were in many ways preferable to those in continental Europe.
At the present moment in history, a similar opportunity may be presenting itself to countries that never fully entered into the modern, industrial world on fair and equal terms. As global society shifts from industrial to postindustrial, automatized, and digitized economies, it is not inconceivable that those countries that educate their populations more along the lines of these new life-conditions, emphasizing global perspectives, the quality of relationships, and inner personal growth, can perhaps leapfrog into strong positions in the world economy and its multifaceted, global culture.
The rise of the Global South may very well take place through such a leapfrogging by means of forward-looking and timely reformations of educational systems. After all, in the industrial age, you needed significant financial capital to start a factory. Today, you need a laptop, an Internet connection, an inventive mind, some new perspectives, a global outlook, a good network of collaborators, and an ability to maintain intrinsic motivation and good relationships—to create a successful startup. In many ways, this is a more democratic form of economic competition, and one where education can make an even greater difference.
When the great challenge of expanding education to deprived populations around the world is tackled, perhaps they can be granted, in that education, the tools to truly participate and lead the way into a more global and digitized society. It is thus not a question of “walking in the steps” of “developed countries”—it is about forging a new path for a new moment in history.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.