School Daze:  The UN Struggles to Identify Education that Matters, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Aug

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It’s mid-August in New York, and I and many other have struggled this weekend with indoor “sleeping” temperatures hovering around 90 degrees.   I’m also dealing with massive amounts of dust, willingly blown in all directions by my strategically placed fans, complements of a construction project next door.

For many young people, August heat portends the immanent start of another school year.  For some of these youth (including me decades ago) school is a place of boredom and even conflict. For other young people (and virtually all of their parents) the return to school is a return to normalcy – the prospects both of intellectual challenge and a re-emerging, viable, family routine.

Tragically, for many around the world, school remains mostly a distant vision.  For Syrian refugee children, for earthquake survivors in remote regions of Nepal, for children dodging bombs in Yemen or insurgents in the DRC, school represents the faint hope of stability and possibility; the yet unfulfilled promise of inclusive and peaceful societies in which their contributions —including their engagement with civic responsibilities — are valued and encouraged.

Last Monday, the UN held a discussion on Indigenous People’s Right to Education in recognition of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.   There was much of value in this session, including an admonition by ASG Thomas Gass to decouple indigenous education from any “backhanded” assimilation narratives. Also noteworthy was the UNPFII Chair Álvaro Pop’s reminder that indigenous education must maintain as its core objectives the dismantling of remaining colonial vestiges in order to create “better local democracies.”

But for the three of us in the room from Global Action, the “star” presenter was Ms. Karla Jessen Williamson, an Inuit from Greenland now teaching in Canada.  It was Williamson who most clearly defined the challenge with “schooling” from the standpoint of indigenous culture – that the higher up the educational chain indigenous youth go, the further they tend to get from indigenous linguistic and thought forms.  Others on the panels lamented the linguistic and other local losses that are absorbed when indigenous youth travel long distances to educational institutions, only to struggle at times with both the training methods themselves and the values embodied in those institutions.

Williamson additionally highlighted educational benefits including skills for “self-governance” of Arctic peoples and the respect they should rightly demand from “down south” governments, but these were raised with softer edges.   As with other speakers, she honored the “suffering” of those ancestors who made it possible for her (and others) to speak in a place like the UN.  She also expressed her educational preference for “inner imagination,” a preference which she did not have the opportunity explain at length but one which clearly sees education at its best as the full and dynamic expression of a whole culture more than a specialized, highly-cognitive pursuit within a distinct social institution.  It suggests an education that is about the contexts through which we can grow and change, that upholds the values of honoring and appreciating, and is not only about the worldly tasks that define our budding careers.

In indigenous cultures and beyond, school and learning are not synonymous and it is unhelpful to see them as such.  Many personal and institutional roles carry an educational responsibility, albeit one not tied so tightly to career and employment options.  People “learn” about the world through diverse sources, many persons, institutions and agents of culture.  When a comprehensive social pedagogy is undermined, when “school” becomes the sole arbiter of what a culture transmits to the young, when adults abdicate responsibility for education to specialized (and increasingly expensive) institutions,  more than “inner imagination” is in jeopardy.

As the primary institution of global governance, the UN has its own “teaching” responsibility, sadly much of which takes the form of campaigning and branding, trying to “sell” political agendas rather than helping people understand more about the current state of the world and their responsibilities in it.   We throw around words like “empowerment” as though we have any clarity about its criteria – how we know it when we see it, how that generic (and overused) term can possibly have any relevance outside of the specific political and social contexts in which people find themselves.

Moreover, we too often address young people as though they are our “saviors” more than our successors, leading them to believe, in the name of (rightly) encouraging youth participation, that they are already perfectly formed, already prepared to take us places the rest of us ostensibly can’t take ourselves, already able to confront grave planetary challenges on their own merits, already “sufficient” to life in all its (increasingly) virtual and non-virtual elements.

Even in the august Security Council, security policies are sometimes promoted as though it could not possibly be otherwise, policies that are willfully detached from the consequences of their precursors– successful and often not — and that try to equate the political interests of one or more states with resolutions to address the interests of those suffering a wide variety of conflict-related abuses.  Here as well the point seems too often to be how to “convince,” not how to enlighten or reflect. Neither teaching nor leading, it seems.

The UN is primarily political culture, and so it isn’t surprising when discernment yields to political considerations.   But when such discernment devolves into outright hyperbole, into a denial of complex realities we should well be clever enough to grasp, few will get what they need to flourish in learning; our inner lives will suffer; general levels of trust in the veracity of our foremost institutions will shrink.  People will listen less often, in part because of our collective authenticity deficit.

During a UN youth event on Friday devoted to “sustainable consumption” and poverty reduction, ASG Thomas Gass in his own modest manner attempted to get the audience to be more mindful of the “ethical” compromises and sacrifices represented by the clothing we purchase, the food we waste, the phones we clutch as though our very lives depended on them. However, in the back of the conference room where I was seated, young people were busy on those very same phones, snapping pictures for their Instagram accounts, planning their weekends, texting like the world was about to come to an end, doing only what many kids now routinely do.

Their energy and confidence can both be infectious, but there is still so much for them to learn – about the world and its current challenges, about gadgets and their limitations, about the deep and sometimes scary wonders of their “inner imagination.”   This is education by diverse stakeholders and cultures that the UN would do well to assume a larger role in ensuring.  This is education the potential of which schools themselves can only partially fulfill.

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