Academic journal article Harvard International Review

Education for Improvement: Citizenship in the Global Public Sphere

Academic journal article Harvard International Review

Education for Improvement: Citizenship in the Global Public Sphere

Article excerpt

The establishment of public education systems was the result of the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement in the 17th and I 8th centuries which espoused the power of human reason to improve society, and which promoted the use of science to understand the natural world and the place of humans in the world. Immanuel Kant defined the Enlightenment as the human transition from an era of ignorance to an era of reason with a consequent expansion in human freedom. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the key philosophers of the Enlightenment, proposed the twin ideas that the legitimacy of a social contract depended on the extent to which it was accepted by those it governed, and the idea that education prepared people to accept the social contract or to build a new contract.


These ideas of the Enlightenment, particularly the challenges to the abuses of power by the State and Church, and the promotion of tolerance and of social progress as a result of reason and individual freedom, influenced the revolutionary movements for Independence in North and South America. Many of the leaders of these movements for self-rule, such as Thomas Jefferson, understood that the education of all people was indispensable to prepare them for self-rule and to participate in the public sphere.

It is this novel view of social progress as the result of the collaborative dialogue and work of ordinary people that undergirds the need for educating all persons. At its core, the project of the Enlightenment replaces the aspiration for salvation in the afterlife with the aspiration of reducing human suffering through individual and collective agency in this world. Education for all is therefore instrumental to preparing people to improve the world, to reduce human suffering. This is the idea of the "public sphere" which allowed citizens to shape, discuss, and spread Enlightenment ideas, informed simply by reason and evidence generated by science. The history of public education has cosmopolitan roots. It is therefore reasonable to assess the success of public education in terms of the extent to which it prepares people to understand the world and improve it.

Citizenship in the Global Public Sphere

Globalization, the result of increased and accelerating integration across nation-states resulting from trade, travel, and telecommunications, requires increased capacity for people to understand global affairs, to have the ability to work productively across cultural divides, and to recognize and address global challenges. The Enlightenment notion of the "public sphere" has become global; individuals need the capacity to participate in such a global public sphere and collaborate in reducing human suffering and advancing the pursuit of happiness.

A cursory examination of the state of the world confirms the need for much invention and engagement in the "global commons." Whether we focus on income inequality and social exclusion, poverty, hunger, health, conflict, or environmental sustainability, it is evident that there are many areas in need of attention in order to advance human well-being and global stability. This need has been recognized in the past, most clearly after World War II when a group of global leaders worked to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a compact that would contribute to global peace and stability.

The creation of the UN helped advance the institutional transformations to achieve the aspirations drafted in the declaration. The inclusion of the right to education in the declaration, for example, and the creation of UNESCO to focus on that right, transformed the structure of global educational opportunity, providing most children around the world the opportunity to access basic education. More recent initiatives to advance the global commons include the Milennium Development Goals, a global compact to eliminate extreme global poverty.

The exponential increase in advances in scientific knowledge and technology has significantly enhanced the technical means to address these global challenges, although effective leadership to mobilize these resources is often lacking. …

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