What Makes a Truly Global Education?
In the middle of nothing—that is, nothing but sand stretching in every direction—there is a peculiar oasis. It has huge palm trees with thick rough trunks and wild leafy tops placed in a grid: six by six. No oasis anywhere in the desert has palm trees that grow in a grid like a Cartesian plane. But here at New York University (NYU)-Abu Dhabi, this oasis of sorts is both the center of a contemporary university campus and the perfect metaphor for the unique type of global education that the university offers. Is this the kind of global education that will bring together the next generation globally? I’m not sure.
I was visiting NYU-Abu Dhabi as a stopover to visit my mentor, Carol Gilligan, and her husband Jim, on the way home from a visit to India. The two contexts, side-by-side, present very different possibilities for global learning. Carol and Jim are both NYU faculty who were given the opportunity to spend a semester at the “East” campus…in Abu Dhabi. The contemporary sand-colored campus was just completed about six months ago, and it has far more space than students at the moment. The entire university has been fully funded by a sheik who wanted a world-class university set in an Islamic context. Young Muslims can study here, in an environment supportive of their religious customs. Plus the entire education is free and actually quite luxurious (students can have their own personal trainer, for instance). NYU handles the application process, and the competition for places is even more competitive than Harvard.
Only some 18% of the students are from the UAE, which makes the student body truly global. Some of the world’s best students from dozens of countries spend four years together here, developing friendships that could last a lifetime. Yet, as I heard from a young woman in one of Carol’s classes, the cultural diversity, which starts as an attractor to the students, can end up being difficult to live with. Even with what seems like very positive attitudes from the students, differences make us different, strange, and often uncomfortable with each other. From what I could see, which was limited, the students seem to be pretty much on their own to figure this out. The faculty is predominantly American, but also European, and generally seem to be extremely liberal—postmodern pluralists, you might say. From what I can tell, the faculty do what NYU faculty do—there is no censorship. So, for example, a prominent liberal rabbi gave a presentation on campus, at the suggestion of the faculty. I don’t know how many students, or how many Muslims, went to the event, but it’s there, right in front of them.
And the language on campus is English. Here is where my questions arise. The values of the university itself are secular Western with both its modernist belief in scientific objectivity and postmodern relativism that makes few, if any, value distinctions except for the value that everyone has a right to their own truth. Even as this postmodern belief has become increasingly unworkable in an age of civilizational conflict and terrorism, this is the dominant philosophical approach in the liberal academy at this time. (In fact, postmodern relativism is probably the reason why NYU and its faculty can be in the midst of massive oil wealth that has supported Islamic radicalization and feel that they are doing a good thing.) The investment of prestige and capital in creating the university and the city has a stabilizing effect in the region, but are the students getting an education that allows them to inquire into and question their own and each other’s values? Is that happening? Or are they being inculcated into a view of the world that is not really global, but from New York? Education like this is extremely seductive. But is it a subtle new form of Western hegemony—this time not through devouring resources at gunpoint, but through the attempt to change the categories and values of young people so they fit into a world of global capital covered in a veneer of pluralistic tolerance?
These questions probably became very much front and center for me because of the rest of my journey in India. I was part of a small team that is exploring the potential of new, consciousness-aware dialogue processes to embrace diversity in a context of prior unity. We met at the conference center of SIDH, the Society for Integrated Development in the Himalayas, which was founded by two of the participants in our dialogue. SIDH provided schools—up to 19 of them!—in the remote villages in the mountains that the government couldn’t reach. Today, they have three remaining schools, because the government is now providing education in most of the villages.
All of the Indians who participated were concerned about the effects of modernity on the deep, collective traditions that are now rapidly disappearing in India. One participant spoke very powerfully about how the villagers live from an awareness of the whole village and engage in life by putting the needs and concerns of the whole first. This is a quality and capacity that we moderns and postmoderns need to regain but from the individuated self-consciousness that now defines us in the West. Those of us from the West who participated in these dialogues are also concerned about the effects of modernity because, despite its benefits and advancements, it has become toxic not only to the planet but also to the human soul. The individuation and agency that has propelled human creativity has also led to deep alienation from ourselves, each other, and the world in which we live.
Developing an education within a fast-changing global reality may paradoxically involve teaching children from the villages to value their roots rather than pushing them to compete in the market. My new friends from SIDH spoke about their arrogance in approaching the villages with their ideas of what the villagers need to learn. The pull of the modern world, represented by the city, attracts so many young people from the villages. Attracted by the shiny objects of modernity and the promise of a better life, they leave the land behind them and too often find that they have made a mistake. Debt and low wages keep them from finding their way home. SIDH sometimes takes teens to the city to see the harsh reality of how those from the villages live. They also developed new curricula to teach the villagers using the plants, materials, and work of the village as the basis for learning. The educators’ response to global modernity’s intrusion into the integrity of village life was to build upon that integrity rather than offer an education abstracted from the life conditions that the kids are in. The leaders of SIDH are not hopeful about preserving this deep communal tradition—the juggernaut of modernity may be too strong. And as one of the SIDH leaders said repeatedly, “We can’t go back.”
Going forward, across civilizational divides, was the purpose of our meeting together in India. We share deep concerns about modernity—not just about its material impacts but in its loss of the bonds of human connection and the truth of nonseparation. The power of individualism needs grounding in the depth of human interrelatedness and a shared purpose of fostering life on this planet. For those of us from the West, this has been our spiritual practice—awakening to a Higher We of living nonseparation. For our friends from India, this depth of prior unity is not far away. Our dialogues together opened a deep space between us that enabled complex discussions about core principles that are the root of divisions between India and the West. While our time together was not all smooth, we ended with a shared inquiry that held a wholeness despite difference. To me, creating relational spaces that hold a capacity for unity and diversity is an imperative in our times. At the end of our three days together, there was a strong intention to find a way to continue.
How does this relate to global education? All education on the planet at this point has the fact of globalization as its context. Whether in a tiny village in India or in a world-class university in the Gulf desert, the homogenizing effect of modernity and the world economy of multinational capitalism has to be contended with because it produces such deep alienation. Is it possible to create means of communicating—through dialogue or education—that do not privilege Western ways of thinking and being yet do not deny them? This is our challenge. Can we all sit at the table and hold each other, eye-to-eye, in deep human regard while not backing away from the tensions between us? In fact, the world philosopher Jurgen Habermas argues that communication without domination is the challenge of our times. Domination can be brutal and overt or far more subtle. Even the demand that we all speak English distorts the capacity to comprehend each other and the opportunity for each to express him- or herself fully. Our ability to come together, to create wholeness without diminishing difference, may determine not only the quality of education that the next generations receive but also whether we pull together in a shared human project to enable life to thrive on this planet.
If you would like to hear more about our first “One World Dialogue” in India, Thomas Steininger and I will be speaking about it for the Meridian University Integral Voices (free) series. Our topic is Integral We-Spaces: A New Context for Global Dialogue? It’s on Monday, June 15, 2015 from 10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. PT. Click the link to register (scroll down the page to see the info) and get the dial in info.
Also my deep thanks to my colleagues in this venture: Mary Adams, Steve Brett, Sri Pingali, Thomas Steininger, and our friends and colleagues from India.