Harvard Dialogues on Global Education

Inequality and global competency

by Natasha Kumar Warikoo
Assistant Professor
Harvard Graduate School of Education

Much has been made of the importance of global competency for American youth to participate in an increasingly globalized economy, and to understand politics, the environment, and technology from a global perspective.  These agendas are important and necessary.  However, I would argue that they are not sufficient.  Professor Reimers, in his posting, warned against 'global education light' that focuses on an annual 'world cultures day'.  I want to express a different kind of warning, which is that global education without a discussion of the important moral and political issues related to inequality, both domestic and international, will blind youth to the inequalities, past and present, that plague our world. 

Let's start with inequality in the United States.  I won't reiterate the significant and stubborn trends of inequality based on income, neighborhood, race, and ethnicity that affect youth's life chances.  Schools have been quick to address new immigrant communities with 'global education light', enjoying potluck dinners and dance festivals.  But, how can we critically engage students in discussions of justice, fairness, and moral responsibility in an increasingly connected and globalized world?  Global education needs to be intertwined with global responsibility.  This can be from a young age.  Recently, my daughter's class collected "pennies for peace" to raise money for schools in Pakistan.  Projects like these must develop age-appropriate activities designed not only to develop students' understandings of life in other parts of the world, but also to begin to address questions like the one my four-year-old raised: "Why do we have money to buy pencils but they don't?" in honest, authentic ways.  And, the more that socially responsible students are empowered to see themselves as agents for change in a globalized, unequal world, the better off we will all be.  So, one day my daughter might set her sights on social change such that a "pennies for peace" program will no longer be necessary. 

Finally, the more that students can connect personally and locally to global issues in authentic ways, the more real and impactful it will be.  One means for this is through their and their friends' family histories of migration.  24% of children in the United States have an immigrant parent--that's 14.5 million children.  The study of migration has multiple important and fascinating dimensions--inequality, cultural change, human rights, and much more.  Educators should seize on this opportunity for real, global education heavy, with the goal of developing students into global agents for change and social justice.