The role of teachers in creating global citizens

10 Feb 2017 |

Almost a year ago, The International New York Times arrived with a front-page article entitled, “How to Explain Trump to Your Children.” At the time, I wrote the text below and chose not to publish it out of concern that it might be too political. Let me explain why I have changed my mind.

I am an American living and working in Dubai with my Iranian-American husband and my Iranian-American children.

I’ve been asked by many if Trump’s immigration ban affects my family. As American citizens, my husband and boys should not have a problem re-entering the country, but the immigration ban affects us all – American or not.

I’ve had to reassure my children that they are still welcome in the country of their birth, the country that welcomed their grandfather, a teenage, orphaned shepherd from Northern Ireland with less than $20 to his name.

As a family, we’ve spent more time this year talking about checks and balances, and the rights and viewpoints of others than I could have predicted.

One might assume that, by default, my children are global citizens, and to an extent this is true. They have friends from all over the world and they identify with their Iranian heritage as much as their American. Yet, I need to be as intentional as any other parent in instilling global competence in my children, and so do their teachers. More than anything, it underscores the role of schools and teachers in developing empowered, informed, and empathetic global citizens – everywhere.

March, 2016

“It’s not Trump that I need to explain to my children, but his popularity. And it’s not just my children who are demanding an explanation for the Trump Phenomenon, as an American living overseas, I seem to be explaining Trump’s popularity to everyone I meet.

To my colleague when she said, “Americans are obsessed with celebrity culture.”

To a woman I met at a conference when she asked, “Do you think it’s his candour and tough talk that Americans like?”

To my neighbour when he asked, “Is this is the end of American democracy?”

While these views are widely shared about Donald Trump and his supporters, they do very little to explain the passion he evokes among his base and among those who oppose him. These caricatured understandings will also do little to help us heal as a nation after this election.

Taking an empathetic viewpoint during an election is challenging but it is exactly where we need to begin. 

At the 2016 Global Education and Skills Forum held in Dubai, Fareed Zakaria spoke of a “world of anxiety with a two-track reality.” He went on to argue that for those with an education and access to capital, the world is full of increasingly accessible opportunities. But for those with neither, the prospect of a middle-class life is increasingly elusive.

Even more concerning is the loss of identity and the fear that is brought on by a life that is radically different from the life people thought they would lead. When we seek identity, we look for superheroes and villains, black and white answers, anything to bring back what is lost and to understand what is. Decisions become emotional, rather than reasoned. These are dangerous conditions in a democracy.

As Mr. Zakaria pointed out, Trump’s rhetoric speaks to people who feel left behind in our changing world by suggesting that “the world sucks, and it’s not your fault.”

To an extent, this is true. Trump’s success has emerged from a triangulation of failures – our failure to prepare today’s workers for a knowledge economy; our failure to prepare people for citizenship; and our failure to have inclusive, candid conversations about race, gender, and privilege.

It will take education to restore the conditions for thoughtful political participation in the United States.

Skills education is the low hanging fruit, which is precisely why policy makers are quick to call out for kids to code. In fact, we can begin to close capital gap by equipping people for many jobs in a knowledge economy – with or without a college education.

Technical skills, when taught within a design context, can also be deeply empowering. People begin to see themselves as capable of turning ideas into reality and shaping the future for themselves and their communities.

Skills education alone, though, will do little to prepare the next generation for democratic engagement. The ancient Greeks knew this – as did 19th century French philosophers – and many others who came between. We need to teach students about civic participation; to teach them logic and philosophy; and to teach them to grapple with ethical questions long before they can vote, and maybe before they can code.

So, when my children or my colleagues ask about Trump, I try to remind them that the problem is not and has never been Trump.  Hate him or love him, Trump has evoked conversations on citizenship like no other candidate before him. Whether we approach these conversations with reason and compassion, and teach our children to do the same, is up to us.”

These are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official position of the Varkey Foundation.