Global Competency: Educating the World

By Reimers, Fernando M. | Harvard International Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Global Competency: Educating the World


Reimers, Fernando M., Harvard International Review


The recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai raise four questions for an educator. First, how did the education of these perpetrators shape such hatred that they could take the lives of hundreds of unarmed civilians? Second, how were the individuals who enabled these perpetrators' actions educated, and why would they turn a blind eye or enable these terrorists to plan their attacks? Third, in what ways do the teachings of history and geography foster limited and intolerant views between India and Pakistan? As the responses of ordinary citizens in both of these countries demonstrate, biased national views constrain the options for leaders to pursue negotiated avenues of cooperation and perhaps increase the risk of military conflict between these nations. Lastly, to what extent has the education of citizens worldwide prepared us to understand the sources of these attacks, their potential consequences, the likelihood of growing global instability, and the appropriate courses of action for the international community?

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Schools and universities around the world are not adequately preparing ordinary citizens to understand the nature of global challenges, such as terrorism, climate change, human-environmental interactions, world trade, demographic change, and global conflict. Because of the growing interdependence of nations, resulting from trade, increased frequency of communications, and migratory flows, the ability to understand these modern global challenges is critical. The failure to develop this skill of global citizenship will contribute to growing conflict and undermine the economic competitiveness of nations in which the global competency deficits are most acute.

Political violence is prevalent around the world. Much of this violence stems from people's inability to tolerate those with different views and interests or to work out their differences in peaceful ways. Most of these conflicts have a global dimension, and the international community's reluctance to stage appropriate and effective interventions enables the continuation of these conflicts. In a recent study of the major episodes of political violence from 1946 to 2007, the Center for Systemic Peace documented that during the last decade, 98 conflicts took the lives of 3,565,000 people around the world. Two-thirds of those conflicts persisted longer than a year. The number of people affected by conflict is a multiple several times higher than the number of people who have lost their lives in them.

The need for global competency will only increase as global challenges expand. A recent report of future scenarios prepared by the National Intelligence Council forecasts significant global challenges over the next fifteen years, including a transformation of the international system built after World War II, an unprecedented transfer of wealth from the West to the East, massive pressure on natural resources resulting from ongoing economic growth, and increased potential for global conflict, particularly in the greater Middle East.

The Tri-Dimensional Nature of Global Competency

Global competency comprises the knowledge and skills that help people understand the flat world in which they live, the skills to integrate across disciplinary domains to comprehend global affairs and events, and the intellect to create possibilities to address them. Global competency also includes fostering an attitude that makes it possible to interact peacefully, respectfully, and productively with fellow human beings from diverse geographies.

This involves three interdependent dimensions. First, there needs to be a positive disposition towards cultural differences and a framework of global values with which to engage these differences. This requires a sense of identity and self-esteem but also empathy towards others with different identities. A globally competent person will view cultural differences as opportunities for constructive, respectful, and peaceful transactions among people. …

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