Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Educators Need to Respond to a Changed World

I have been traveling in Turkey this past month and while there had a chance to think through the issues the world is suffering which might be characterized as "a highly stressful period" here are just a few items:

• Japanese Earthquake /Tsunami
• Nuclear Power Plant melt down
• Libyan uprising
• Ivory Coast uprising
• Syrian crackdown

Apart from the usual worries about higher inflation, oil prices and general instability of the US and most of the European economies teetering on a double dip recession—we have got to wonder whether this is going to be the pattern for a while—just a general increased turbulence. Continuing with the turbulence metaphor the question arises-- is this like flying through a stretch of 'bumpy air' or is this is going to a fairly permanent state for the rest of the 21st century world-- a constant shift from crisis to crisis? My short prediction is yes—we are entering a period of extended crisis.

Two main factors seem to be driving this new semi-permanent state —our relentless pursuit of cheap energy, even at the expense of our own safety and the expanding thirst for democratic freedoms particularly from young people trapped in states whose rulers made a devils' bargain to provide cheap oil to the west in exchange for a lifelong grip on power. The comfortable part of the west --that receives most of its information through the corporate media --have cocooned ourselves in our nice cars and homes with the belief that there are few consequences for this state of affairs—we are lulled by infotainment shows and share (bolstered by the high tech gadgets we are so tempted to buy) an exaggerated belief that our ever expanding technology prowess will eventually resolve all problems favorably. What we are failing to recognize are two other very destabilizing factors- —a dramatic rise in population particularly within the Muslim world, and a new generation coming to maturity who lack the fear that virtually paralyzed their parents equipped with new tools of 21st century literacy and organizing--cell phones and facebook accounts together with improved English speaking ability. In Turkey 50% of the population is under 28 and there are similar numbers in the rest of the Middle East. In Turkey also many of these young people have moved to large cities like Istanbul (now over with a population of 13 million, also making (according to Wikipedia "the largest metropolitan city in Europe) believe they are entitled to a better future than their parents' generation. In the west we are good at reporting the daily headlines not as good at recognizing the big picture and how it has changed.

What are we to do? First admit that our institutions, particularly governmental and international bodies, educational and media organizations were built for a different world and are almost as overwhelmed with change as those Tepco Nuclear engineers who assumed they could deal with the emergency even though they well knew they had built the plant on one of the most active fault lines in the world— (the so called "ring of fire"). There had been no planning for a tsunami (a predictable outcome of an earthquake on the sea bed). We can expect more of the same kind of news reports we are currently receiving from Japan about other major areas as stories from once far away places such as the Middle East, Asia because of our globally interconnected world cause reverberations throughout societies that previously saw themselves as insulated affluent enclaves. These new stories have no neat endings--that begin with uncertainty and and end there too--a case in point today--they are flushing radioactive water into the oceans and polluting the air with the same poisionous smoke. Result? We are not told. These are the new 21st century news stories--narratives that follow no predictable curve. In the case of the Japanese Nuclear plant meltdown it is as if we were captive in a cinema watching an awful end of the world Stephen King movie but guess we are not--this is real. Our willingness to close off part of our minds to the reality is perhaps more evident with regards to the Middle East --did we honestly believe that dictators could exist in the same age as Facebook, Twitter and cellphones?

As educators we have some special responsibilities here too--to point out where the prevailing assumptions no longer match current realities and to not provide our students with easy answers--how ever tempting--but with a series of questions that we all have to confront about the world we have so comfortably remained closed to for too long. More about this set of new 21st century challenges in subsequent blogs.

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