Global Citizenship Education:A New Educational, Pedagogical and Political Narrative in the World System?

By Carlos A. Torres


The five-year Global Education First Initiative launched by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is the right platform to trigger an improved drive for accomplishment of internationally-set goals for education in 2015. Carlos A. Torres, Distinguished Professor at UCLA, believes that the time is ripe for a new narrative to steer the world in the right direction towards fulfilling its commitments to education.

The Global Education First Initiative

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.) -Walt Whitman

The world of education, though taken by surprise, very much welcomed the 2012 initiative of the U.N. Secretary General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, entitled The Global Education First Initiative. This initiative was described in UNESCO documents as the following:

“Launched on 26 September 2012, the Global Education First Initiative is a five-year initiative, sponsored by Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations. A global advocacy platform at the highest level, it aims to generate a renewed push to achieve the internationally-agreed education goals set for 2015 and get the world back on track to meeting its education commitments.

In the Secretary-General’s own words, “When we put Education First, we can reduce poverty and hunger, end wasted potential – and look forward to stronger and better societies for all.”

This is the first time that a UN Secretary has launched such an ambitious project on education in the UN system. Because it focuses on education, UNESCO is playing a major role in designing and implementing the initiative. The following are the initiative’s three pillars: 1) putting every child into school, 2) improving the quality of learning, and 3) fostering global citizenship.

While the first and second pillars are quintessential to the work of education as a field of teaching, research and practice, the third pillar is particularly relevant for the goals and purposes of our work, pursuing an education for peace and sustainable development, or in the terminology of Paulo Freire, an education for liberation.

Pondering the importance of this concept of global citizenship education that is now at the center of the world’s conversation, I am reminded of the prophetic words of Paulo Freire, concluding his now classic oeuvre, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he said: “If nothing remains from these pages, we hope that at least the following will endure: our trust in people, our faith in men and women, and in the creation of a world in which it will be less difficult to love.” (Freire, p. 184).

I am absolutely convinced that the quest for global citizenship education is based on these two simple, but powerful premises: trust in the people, and the trust that we can build a world in which it will be less difficult to love.

What follows are my reflections after I attended UNESCO’s technical consultation on Global Citizenship Education, September 9-10, 2013, in Seoul, the Republic of Korea. The meeting was organized and sponsored jointly by the Asian Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding, a UNESCO Type 2 Center, and Korea’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Following the critique of neoliberalism that I had advanced in other places (Torres, 2011; 2013) I will argue that the concept of global citizenship education needs to be framed in the context of a new narrative about education. Moreover, I would claim that the UN Secretary-General’s Initiative must be framed as a new common sense in education. This new common sense should be able to transform the traditional canons of culture and civics, citizenship education, as well as global education concepts that have become shifting signifiers — implying different things to different people — into a new horizon, which has not been yet fully clarified.

The third pillar of the Initiative is now being negotiated within the intellectual and institutional space of UNESCO and the UN systems. Like any negotiation, the concept of global citizenship is subject to polarizing forces, diverse and divergent interests, ideologies and, by implication, contestation. Tensions, conundrums, paradoxes, and contradictions signal the complex configuration of any project of this magnitude. It is a project that will be negotiated in the globalized environments of the world system and international organizations.

These negotiations involve a constant dialectical interplay of national, state or provincial, regional and municipal governments, in addition to the ecology of the local, heavily compounded with the presence of national and transnational social movements. At least one element seems to be very clear: the need to remove theoretical ambiguities in the definition of this project. Fortunately, this conversation is taking place with new voices and new narratives, with a possible new common sense emerging in education.

Do We Need A New Educational Narrative?

A call in the midst of the crowd. My own voice, orotund sweeping and final. – Walt Whitman

The time is ripe to launch this project. Any astute observer will agree that there are powerful forces at play in rethinking educational sciences. At the same time, current hegemonic ideological models are being challenged. This contestation contributes to forging a new consensus and new policy directions in education.

The quest for global citizenship education is based on these two simple, but powerful premises: trust in the people, and the trust that we can build a world in which it will be less difficult to love.

The dominance of positivism has remained challenged for over more than three decades by a variety of models. Despite positivist epistemology, there is little resemblance between the logic of the natural sciences and the logic of the social sciences (Torres, 2009a). In recent years, a tension has become more evident between conventional scientific research, oriented towards hypothesis testing, theory development (dominant in universities), and evidence-based research to inform action and policy (dominant in international organizations such as OECD, World Bank, etc.). Not surprisingly, these two contrasting paradigms collide. The possibly insurmountable tensions between the policy and the research communities have not prevented causal analysis to remain the dominant model of scientific work. This model is under heavy attack by other epistemologies.

Similarly, over the last two decades, there has been an extraordinary effort to focus on comparing test scores internationally, which makes cognitive learning the quintessential mission of schools. In a formidable rebuttal to this perspective, Hank Levin, in his book More Than Just Test Scores, points out:

“Around the world we hear considerable talk about creating world-class schools. Usually the term refers to schools whose students get very high scores on the international comparisons of student achievement such as PISA or TIMSS. The practice of restricting the meaning of exemplary schools to the narrow criterion of achievement scores is usually premised on the view that test scores are closely linked to the provision of a capable labor force and competitive economy. In fact, the measured relationships between test scores and earnings or productivity are modest and explain a relatively small share of the larger link between educational attainment and economic outcomes. What has been omitted from such narrow assessments are the effects that education has on the development of interpersonal and intrapersonal skills and capabilities that affect the quality and productivity of the labor force” (Levin, 2012, page 269).

Not surprising, in light of the economics of education evidence, reported by Hank Levin in this article and by other scholars, the emphasis on achievement scores and cognitive learning has been called into question. This new narrative seems to be emerging in international quarters, though it was quite alive and well, in some universities confronting the neoliberal tradition.

Occasionally, we reach a scientific impasse with scholars and policymakers unable to communicate crossing their paradigmatic fortresses. A most welcome outcome of this tension is a growing methodological plurality, where dominant stochastic (random processes usually involved in the collection of random variables) and conventional statistical models are being challenged, or at least being contrasted or supplemented by alternative methodologies. Such methodologies include observational models, mixed methods, exploratory data analysis, action research, and phenomenological or qualitative research of diverse orientations.

Another outcome of this tension is the growing perspective of ‘intersectional studies’ that links diverse ‘variables’ and spheres of social action while simultaneously bringing together qualitative and quantitative methods, or at least mixed methods of some sort, to aid in the explanation of a phenomena. This intersectionality, coupled with heavy doses of intersectional analysis and interdisciplinary work (now more consolidated in distinguished disciplinary departments of social sciences and education) is leading the field closer to an understanding of relational analysis in education (Ross 2002: 407-432).

Perhaps it is my own obsession, but when one begins to analyze a specific problem with specific focus on the different dimensions of an issue, it is imperative to do so relationally, to analyze the other dimensions that we typically deal with, in education. We are constantly relating the economic, political, and cultural domains or spheres of praxis and knowledge, with questions connected with ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, class, and many other ‘variables’ of the analysis. Thus, adopting a relational analysis is fundamental to teaching and research and obliterates, by definition, specialization as the only basic attribute of good science, “bean counters” as the only strategy to understand reality, and instrumental rationality as the only viable course of action.

The hegemony of statistics and research from above on what some scholars of feminist persuasion call ‘soft’ objectivity, particularly in studies of opinions, expectations, and aspirations, has been challenged via models of standpoint theory that guides towards a logic of inquiry ‘from below” (Harding, 2008,pages 114-122; 200-202). While male-centric models of inquiry have not been fully debunked, particularly in international organizations, enamored with metrics of any kind (if it breathes, sneezes, or moves, measure it), educational researchers, utilizing such methods, cannot run the show as easily as they did in the past.

Pari passu, in a male-centric, androcentric, logo-centric, and Euro-centric, dominated world, governments tend to have strong doses of statistical fetishism in their policymaking. Although I suspect that statistical data – or for the sake of the argument, research findings of any kind – only reach policy implementation when they get to the right hands, of the right person, in the right decision-making position.

Nobody will argue against the need for empirical data and empirical studies, in education, or in pursuing a research agenda on global citizenship education. What is objectionable is the predominance of rational choice, the testing movement, and the fetishism of achievement scores, which have affected education in different ways. The culture of scientism is a discourse of science that needs to be carefully inspected.

This culture of scientism, which could also be termed “scientificism,” separates culture from knowledge, dissociating power from human interest as well. Science, then, emerges as a powerful and unchallenged principle of social rationalization, which serves only analytical goals, though eventually could be implemented in specific policies. Thus, science seems narrowly defined as a mixture of positivism and instrumentalism, and defended on the grounds of statistical rigor and objectivity. (Torres, 2013, page 94)

A new rationality and new narratives are gaining ground in educational research, departing drastically from educational patterns that we witness, and being associated with top-down neoliberal models of globalization. Still, public education has been called upon to develop a new labor force to meet rapidly-changing economic demands, presenting policy dilemmas on issues concerning the privatization and decentralization of schools (Arnove and Torres 2007). This movement includes raising educational standards and placing stronger emphasis on testing and school accountability.

Decisions based on economic changes have espoused new visions for school reform in universities as well. These reforms, associated with international competitiveness, are also known as ‘competition-based reforms’ (Carnoy 1999; Torres 2009a, 2009b).

Another element of this new narrative puts into question the possibility to fully dissociate the normative from the analytical, in the construction of scientific thought. This issue raises the importance of the notion of a good society guiding intellectual, theoretical, meta-theoretical, and empirical analysis.

Today the ‘politicity’ of education is recognized in ways that will surprise even one of its principal advocates, Paulo Freire, who argued in the early 1980s about the nature of this relationship (Torres 2009). Yet, it is important to recognize that this new narrative finds it ‘impossible to avoid the historicity of thought and the policy prescriptions that emanate from a particular mode of theorizing.’ After all, not all social constructions are equally powerful in their logical configuration, methodological rigor, or solid empirical proof; hence, the need for serious analytical and scientific work. (Torres, 2011, page 180).

There is no question that this new narrative will impact the definitions of global citizenship education that will emerge from the workings of UNESCO.

The next round of conversations took place at the First UNESCO Forum on Global Citizenship Education, organized in Bangkok, Thailand, December 2-4, 2013. Several ideas were discussed. Some of the participants in this First Global Citizenship Education Forum believe that no global citizenship can be accomplished without linking it to economic citizenship.

Global citizenship cannot be achieved without the bare essentials, including the right to a job, education, medical care, housing, and life-long learning. Some of the basic principles of global citizenship education models include not only respect for human rights, but also new models of social justice education and a planetarian citizenship for environmental sustainability. The role of migration and diversity, cognitive democracy, and enhancement of the proliferation of public spheres, are all preconditions for school reform, promoting global citizenship education and new perspectives in lifelong learning that move beyond the simple premises of increasing competence to compete in growingly globalized markets. The Second Forum on Global Citizenship Education, to take place at the UNESCO Headquarters at the end of January 2015, will continue the conversation, focusing on the contributions of Global Citizenship Education to world peace.

Many of us have been engaged in the conversation about global citizenship for a long time. These new developments are indeed a splendid opportunity for educators, practitioners, community organizers, social movements, youth movements, and universities, as well as the many specialized institutes of UNESCO and UNESCO Chairs worldwide, to work in closer proximity, supporting theoretically and practically, the new ideas purported in the First Global Education Initiative developed in the United Nations system, and in particular, UNESCO, which is charged with the responsibility in developing the program.

The same concept of global citizenship education is a real intellectual tour de force that should be carefully addressed by educators worldwide. The time is ripe for this conversation.

(The Blue Dot)

Prof Carlos Alberto Torres, Distinguished Professor of Education, Associate Dean for Global Programs, and founding Director of the Paulo Freire Institute at UCLA. He is one of the world’s leading academics in the area of Global Citizenship. His research interests include political sociology of education, social theory, and the life and work of Paulo Freire. Prof Torres is also currently the President of the World Council of Comparative Education Societies.

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