The global pressure on education

Invited to participate in the external review of a Japanese university’s program to systematize its globalization thrust, I found myself in Tokyo this past week meditating on what the term “globalization” means for education.

Japan is probably the best place to observe how a nation attempts to adjust to the emergent realities of a globalized world while it jealously guards its distinct culture and identity. In many ways, Japan remains a closed society, tightly bound by a culture wrought during more than 150 years of deliberate isolation. Foreigners in Japan constitute no more than 3 percent of the population. It is never easy for a “gaijin”—literally an “outside person”—to live in Japan, no matter how well he or she is able to speak its language. Similarly, there is probably nothing more difficult for the average Japanese than to live outside his or her country.

This internal coherence is a source of strength as well as of weakness. Destroyed and defeated during World War II, Japan drew heavily from the willingness of its people to sacrifice for the nation’s good to rapidly rebuild its economy. By the mid-1980s, so robust was the Japanese economy that the government of Japan vigorously urged its people to internationalize, “to make friends with imports”—to buy more things from abroad that were of comparable quality but cheaper than Japanese-made goods. But this was an internationalization that still very much drew its motifs from Japanese pride and nationalism. The main purpose of that campaign was really to rally support for Japanese capital’s investment forays abroad.

In academia, internationalization was promoted by way of organizing more field trips to different countries where students could learn and appreciate other cultures, taking in more foreign students and faculty members, offering more courses in the use of English for different contexts, and teaching Japanese students to speak for their country while they are abroad.  Strangely enough, while all these have become part of the internationalization program of many Japanese universities, I am told that the number of Japanese graduates who are willing to work in the overseas offices of Japanese companies is declining. Fewer still are those who would seek foreign employment on their own.

I think the phenomenon of globalization is something altogether new. All over the world, there is a growing recognition by governments of the need to produce graduates equipped with global competency—individuals who not only can live and work in foreign cultures but can also navigate the complexities of a world society. Here, I think, lies the crux of the issue.  Global society does not distinguish nationalities, ethnicities, and races—nor does it seek to bridge them. It simply transcends them, just as it ignores the social hierarchies created within national cultures. Global society is not segmented into nation-states. Rather, it manages the complexity of the modern world by spinning off a number of autonomous and functionally-differentiated global spheres—like the economic system, the scientific system, the mass media system, the art system, etc.

We may not see this yet in politics or in law. But globalization is very much evident in the economic system, whose processes are becoming less and less controllable by national governments. Today, we can reasonably say there is only one modern economy, and it is global in character. As education frees itself from its traditional religious and/or nation-state moorings, it increasingly takes its cues from this world economy. This is why the pressure to globalize is being felt everywhere in the field of education. Japanese industry worries that its own universities are turning out graduates who cannot function in the global system.

While Asian universities are still primarily talking of sending out more of their students abroad for short-term international exposure, the big universities of the West are exporting their faculties and curricular programs through joint programs with local institutions. Forced by financial necessity to go global because of declining subsidies, Western universities are banking on the prestige of their academic brand names to keep themselves afloat. They are the true purveyors of globalized education.

National governments everywhere are used to keeping a tight grip on their educational systems. But, in the age of the Internet, it is no longer easy for them to define the horizon and agenda of education. This is the reality.

The global pressure on education is exerted primarily by industry but is also coming from families. It takes the form of a demand for high-quality graduates with global knowledge, skills, and values, who can find high-paying jobs and pursue stable careers in the world economy.  These are highly mobile individuals who do not speak for any country and, if they are at all anchored in any tradition or culture, they are not expected to bring these affiliations to bear on their jobs  Their engagement in the global economy is purely functional. The global society does not recruit them as whole persons but only as performers of highly-fragmented roles.

The challenges this poses to schools everywhere are immense. The old universities are wont to think of themselves as sources of not just knowledge and skills but also of wisdom.  They see their task as the formation of human beings with solid ethical values, people who not only can find their way in a complex world but also can be relied upon to help make it a better one.  That vision is becoming rare in a world that values global competence but not global citizenship.

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