74 Interview: Harvard’s Fernando Reimers on the Crucial Need to Teach Kids to Be Strong Global Citizens

See previous 74 interviews, including former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, former education secretary Arne Duncan, and researcher Kirabo Jackson. Full archive here.
A year and a half ago, Harvard University professor Fernando Reimers noticed a concerning trend in the United States: an increase in hate, particularly in school bullying.
“If I can be frank, I associated a lot of that increase to the last campaign,” said Reimers, Ford Foundation professor of practice in international education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “I have the impression that President Trump — I don’t think he invented this hate, but he capitalized on it and he made it worse.”
Reimers realized he needed to do something about it — something he should have done years ago. A scholar of global education, he had created a curriculum at the request of a private school to teach students about their diverse global neighbors and the role of global citizens in facilitating world peace and sustainable development. He decided this was the time to release that curriculum, “Empowering Global Citizens,” to the world.
Now, Reimers and his team of graduate students just published a new open-source book called Empowering Students to Improve the World in Sixty Lessons ($1 Kindle edition is free for Amazon Prime subscribers). It’s inspired by feedback from teachers who used the original curriculum but who can’t devote several hours a week to teaching the subject. Using project-based learning, this new book gives kindergarten through high school students five lessons per grade to teach them how to create a sustainable future in a diverse cultural world, one that is being brought increasingly closer by technology.
Reimers shared with The 74 his perspective on the duty that public schools have, in a politically divided country and world, to instruct students on empathy, collaboration, and being globally minded. At stake, he says, is world peace.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you define a global citizen?
A global citizen is someone who understands how their lives are influenced by globalization: how we associate, how we organize, how we work. It has also made us aware of challenges that we share that cannot be resolved within the boundaries of a nation-state. The best example is global warming, but it’s not the only example.
Global education is about helping people care about some of the global risks that we face and have the skills to make a difference in some of them. In some ways, I think public schools were invented to produce that. It’s just that when they were invented two centuries ago, globalization was not what it is. So of course, the bar has been raised in terms of what it means to do the job of what public schools were always meant to do, which is to help people become a little bit more cosmopolitan, to get outside their shells, outside their communities, and develop a bigger view of the world.
How do you think the United States as a whole is doing when it comes to educating global citizens, compared to other countries?
It would seem that we’re doing a lot worse than Canada, for example, which does not surprise me. When I look at the way in which schools look at cultural differences in a place like Canada, they tend to see that as an asset. They don’t tend to see kids who come from different countries as a problem. That’s not how most of our schools see themselves. We still are fighting the wars of 200 years ago, thinking that if a child comes to school and their parents speak a foreign language, this is a problem that the school has to fix. I’m not suggesting that children should not learn to speak English. In most countries, high school graduates have a lot more proficiency in speaking one or more foreign languages than they do in the United States.
In the U.S., we still have the mindset that is really not supportive of producing global citizens. We have too many people who tend to think of global citizenship as an either/or. If you’re interested in global citizenship, it’s because you’re not enough of an American. I would understand that 200 years ago, when there was this insecurity on the part of a new nation, that you kind of had to demand that people would give up any other identity. But the country’s been around long enough that I don’t think we should fear that if someone calls themselves an Asian American or a Hispanic American, you should doubt their loyalties to the country. I would hope that we’re sophisticated enough to understand that identities are complex, that people can be American and women and Catholic and black and that all these things make them a more interesting person. Another person can be American and a man and Protestant and gay, and all these people are all-American and none of these things is taking anything away from being American. That’s part of what global citizenship needs to do: produce people who feel in their gut comfortable with this notion of diversity.
There are countries we could learn a lot from because their own processes of instability have caused them not to take democracy for granted. One of the countries that has made great strides in developing very good curriculum and programs to promote citizenship education is Colombia. You might say, “That’s paradoxical. Colombia has had five decades of civil war.” Perhaps for that reason, they have understood how important it is to make citizenship education as important as language or mathematics education. You look at India and you look at their curriculum, and the emphasis on peace in their curriculum is remarkable. It’s a vast country. It’s one of the largest education systems in the world, and so obviously the fact that they have those aspirations doesn’t mean that they are living up to those aspirations in all of their schools.
You wrote that “even though children across the world have greater access to education than they’ve had at any time in the past century, and globalization is bringing humanity closer together, we have also been pushed further apart.” Why is that?
There is a group of the population that feels very threatened by the reality that we now are in contact with ideas and people and media from very different cultures and origins and religious backgrounds. My sense is that there’s a segment of the population that embraces that and is ready to embrace it, and there is a segment of the population that feels somehow that their own identity is threatened. I suspect that these rising nationalisms that you see around the world, in India, in the recent presidential election in the U.S., in the U.K., in some of the forthcoming elections in Europe, are an expression of that.
Imagine a PTA where you have a group of parents who would say, “Yes, it would be lovely if our children learned to speak other languages. We should be teaching Chinese and Arabic.” And I can imagine another segment of parents who would say, “Absolutely not. Teaching Arabic is going to take away from the identity of our children as Americans and being American means you speak English and English only and I object to the use of resources to teach Arabic.”
You also said educators should learn about education practices in other countries to make sure their teaching strategies are effective. Why is this important?
One of the most significant silent revolutions that humanity has experienced over the last century and a half is the construction of the public school. It’s a remarkable invention, better than the polio vaccine, honestly. Because 150 years ago, 1 in 5 people could complete a basic education, and now most people can do that. We should be figuring out, what are different places doing to sustain that institution? How do they prepare their teachers? What do they teach? When they say they want to prepare people to participate economically, what do they teach them?
Don’t draw just on the lessons of schools in your local community for inspiration, but look elsewhere. You can borrow good practices. There are countries that do that already. I’ll give you an example of a country that intentionally builds into their programs of teacher preparation and of principal preparation the development of skills to borrow from other nations, and that’s Singapore. Part of your training includes a short stay in another school in another country. What you’re expected to do in that country is to identify at least one innovation and to study it well. To understand, what is that innovation contributing? Why is it significant? Why has it been able to scale? When you come back to Singapore, you share what you learn with everyone else.
In some ways, that idea is not foreign to us. When Teachers College created the very first school of education in a university in America about 100 years ago, the founders believed the same thing. This was a time when the country was in the midst of a huge influx of migrants and when schools were expanding so that many of the kids coming to school were reaching grades that their parents hadn’t been to. So the theory of the president of Teachers College was, “We’re going to have to prepare teachers who have the flexibility of mind to find new ways to teach these kids whose parents are Irish or German or Italian and so on.” The reason to help teachers learn from other countries is to develop a flexibility of mind, a creativity, that would allow them to become more innovative in serving their students. There is good evidence in the field of the study of creativity that one of the benefits of having teams that are culturally diverse is that they tend to be more creative; they tend to come up with many more solutions to a problem than teams formed by people of the same cultural origin.
Do you know how well the U.S. does at trying to adopt best global education practices, or are there other country leaders that do a better job of that?
If I look at business schools or schools of public health and schools of education, business and public health are a lot more global than education. They have global built into them. Many of the case studies that are used to teach students business are situated in different countries, and I think if you were to ask any dean of a business school today, “Could you develop people who aspire to lead in business and not [teach] global?” they would see that as a contradiction. They would say, “No. There’s no way to be a leader if you are not global, if you do not have a global mindset.” People are hired on that basis. Increasingly, the same is true in public health. That is not necessarily the case in schools of education. Schools of education can still get away with being very provincial, very U.S.-centric. And it’s not because we don’t have access to those ideas. We have access to all the knowledge in the world. But maybe we have not yet concluded that education is also a profession that would benefit from a global body of knowledge and evidence and practice.
You made a powerful statement in an article that said world peace is at stake if we don’t teach global citizenship education. Can you explain that?
Historically, the idea that every person should be educated was produced at the end of a period in Europe, The Thirty Years’ War, a religious war where people killed each other because they had different religious faiths. A man who had become a refugee for that reason, John Comenius, he had a minority faith in his community and that caused some of his neighbors — that would be the equivalent of our white supremacists, our KKK of the time — they set his house on fire. He became a refugee. This guy who was a writer, a philosopher, he asked himself, “Why do we do these horrible things to one another?” This guy said, “We should educate everybody so that people would have the skills to work out their differences with others in peaceful ways.”
A similar idea reflected in an important document for education is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the end of World War II. They said, “Why did this horror happen?” If you read Article 26 in the Universal Declaration, it says in order to have peace in the world, we have to provide every person a fundamental education.
So let’s come to the present and let’s look at some of the divisions in American society that we have. I think at the core of many of these divisions is a fundamental inability for people to see the humanity they have with another person. We have a different skin color, preach to a different god, or in a different language, come from a different background. We can’t see that we’re fundamentally the same. How we’re going to get to see that is through educational experiences. By educational experiences, I don’t mean reading the same book, although that can help. I mean being together in the same school, being together in the same sports team, collaborating to produce a play or some kind of a creative project together, working together on a science project. When you get together with another person in an experience that is formative, that causes you to re-examine “Who am I in relationship to others?” Seeing the common humanity we have with others gives us peace. We fail to do that. We built these wonderful education institutions and then we segregate kids by race, but that defeats the whole point of why they were created. Or we fund them in such a way that we are producing de facto segregation even if it’s illegal to do it. It’s as if we have forgotten why we built these institutions in the first place.
I think that this particular time in American society, it’s so important that we go back to those questions of asking ourselves, “Why did we create public schools?” Some people don’t give half a thought to the question. [They] think schools exist to prepare people for a trade, and that’s not true. They have that goal too, but schools fundamentally are about preparing people to live in a democracy. Democracy does not work if we don’t have the skills to cross all kinds of lines of differences and collaborate with others in making it work.

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