Tag Archives: education

Youth and the Limits of Inspiration, Soren Hixon

7 Jun

Editor’s Note: Soren recently completed an internship with Global Action and shared with us this reflection (lightly edited) on some of the frustration he (and others passing through our office) have experienced in their interaction with youth-focused events at the UN.   Like many of his peers, Soren is a serious young person seeking to participate in serious policy discussions.

On May 30, the UN held an event to discuss the importance of youth involvement and empowerment. The meeting had great potential to be a driving force for youth-oriented policymaking worldwide, but some of the potential was squandered due to how the event organizers chose to run it.

The meeting opened with a statement that gave me great hope that the next few hours would be a whirlwind of discussion on better policies and laws concerning globally accessible education that meets predetermined standards of quality as well as ensuring availability of jobs that build off of skills taught in school.

But the meeting veered away from policymaking as Pita Taufatofua took the stage. He spoke passionately about his work with youth in Australia and shared some inspirational words about “becoming your own superhero.” Any talk of policies and reform was absent from his speech. The next speaker to take the stage was a young singer from Iraq named Emmanuel Kenny who had been orphaned and eventually sung his way to the X-Factor, becoming a YouTube celebrity along the way. He sang inspirational songs and spoke about his journey from “zero to hero.”

While these two speakers were both uniquely passionate and inspirational, the fact that they were chosen to be the focus of this youth dialogue highlights a problem with the mindset of the United Nations when it comes to engaging youth. The belief that applying inspiration like a Band-Aid to a gaping wound believing it will resolve the issues facing young people is a bit short-sided. It does not matter how inspired today’s youth might be if policies are not in place to allow youth together with their elders to modify their circumstances positively. Youth cannot do it on their own. They need the assistance of policy leaders who realize what a severe problem the lack of education is and then do what is needed (with the participation of youth) to rectify the problem sustainably and permanently.

This meeting was an opportunity to present a convergence of minds and power with potent ideas and strategies for policies to resolve global issues impacting youth. Instead it was largely wasted by providing youth only with what seemed like misplaced and superfluous inspiration. The problems facing youth will only continue to escalate as the population mounts. The number of young people is going up, not down. Next time the UN has the chance to hold meeting like this, hopefully, they will make it less about inspiration and more about policy change.

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.

Literacy Beyond Literacy: A Civil Society Engagement, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Apr

Editor’s Note:  These remarks were given at the Leonard Tourne Gallery in New York City, run by longtime friends of our office, which recently featured the art of Christel Ibsen who graciously arranged for this discussion. 

Global Action is pleased to follow Faye Lippitt, director of the organization Literacy is for Everyone (LIFE). As noted on the LIFE website (http://www.life.org.ky/) “Literacy goes beyond an individual’s ability to read, write and communicate well – it encompasses an individual’s capacity to use these essential skills to shape the course of his or her own life.”

This sentiment was echoed by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, also quoted on the LIFE site, who I was privileged to meet on two occasions. Freire maintained that literacy involves both “reading the word and reading the world.”  Faye helps people to read the word.  Global Action encourages people to read the world, helping them connect effectively with others across lines of religion and ethnicity, protect their own rights while cherishing the rights of others, and find the most appropriate resources and other support as they face life’s emergencies, including grave illness, unemployment, drought and violent abuse.

The configuration of this “other” literacy changes from place to place. In Central America, literacy means in part learning how to petition the government for a voice in national development priorities.  In Central Africa it means in part learning how to develop civil society that can communicate effectively with funding sources and engage global policy advocates.   In Central Europe it means in part learning how to open the hearts of neighbors to the many migrants who risked their lives in the hope of saving themselves from numbing poverty and terrorist violence.

Global Action assists with these and many other “literacies.” We recognize that all of our tasks in the world have a primary vocabulary to master as well as skills to practice.  For us, the focus of literacy must remain relevant to what people are trying to accomplish for themselves, their families, their communities.  Literacy even has a special relevance as we (with others) try to get governments to open themselves to different ways of solving some very difficult and complex political and social problems, including problems related to the proliferation of illicit weapons.

The world is indeed becoming much more complex and stressful.  There is more for us to do and we seem to have less and less control over the economic, political and environmental factors that both threaten and shape our choices and actions.  In trying to cope and make meaningful change, all of us have so much more to learn, so much we need to practice, so many vocabularies of which we need to gain some working knowledge.  The burdens of literacy are ever-greater.

Sometimes we have to return to basic principles. I spent this morning, as I spend many mornings, in the Security Council.  Today the Crown Prince of Jordan joined with many Foreign Ministers to discuss how to keep young people from being recruited into extremist groups. Some of diplomats talked about how vulnerable young people need to read more about human rights to appreciate better their own advantages and responsibilities but also to understand and highlight the twisted values and priorities of the terrorists.  For others, a different kind of light went on.  Why would suchy a young person want to read about human rights if they have limited skill in reading or any real hope for having their own rights respected?

There is indeed a basic literacy, LIFE’s literacy, which forms the basis for the many other “literacies” that allow us to appreciate art and beauty, participate fully in our political systems, bring abusers and other criminals to justice, even cope with the frustrations of airlines and cell phone companies.   All of these literacies help to create a world of greater competence and trust, a world that our young people can better believe in.

As Faye helped me to understand, Global Action is also in the literacy business, a literacy pointing towards a robust engagement with social and political life based on a prior literacy of the word.