Home / In the Spotlight / So, what is Global Education? by Liam Neeson and Eileen Mattingly


In a speech at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations several years ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan stressed that we live in a world of both increasing global competition and increasing global cooperation. He called for an education system that will allow our students to participate fully in that world. Educators at all levels have encouraged increasing emphasis on global education. However, we don’t always have a clear idea of what global education means. Does it mean teaching specific information or adjusting attitudes—or both—or something else?

Sometimes the quest for information can be very specific. Some of us are business or leisure travelers in need of travel tips, who must learn never to point the sole of a shoe at an acquaintance in the Middle East or to mishandle a Chinese business card or to make the thumbs-up gesture, which to us means approval but to some others is obscene. As a recent pair of videos made by the Peace Corps points out, sometimes appalling gaffes can be made innocently by people with the best of intentions.

Others of us are educators, who bemoan our students’ lack of knowledge about or interest in the rest of the world. A recent study showed that two-thirds of young adults in the United States cannot locate Iraq on a map. When asked to name the ocean that separates the United States from Asia, a quarter of the respondents were unable to do so. Ignorance about maps only scratches the surface of lack of knowledge of the cultures politics, history, and economy in other places around the globe. To strengthen our students’ knowledge base, it is clear that we must incorporate much more language training, world history, and geography into their studies.

Yet this obvious need for more international knowledge is competing with other demands on schools to meet national standards, particularly in English/language arts, mathematics, and science. Social studies and foreign languages (as well as the arts and even physical education) are being squeezed out by preparation for high-stakes testing in math and reading. The floor that the national standards movement was to put under our school curricula has, sadly, become a ceiling in too many cases.

To move forward, we need to have broader goals. We need to foster an understanding of others—their values, their customs, their worldviews, their governance, their products, their geography. We know we need to partner with others, negotiate fairly, trade with them profitably, visit them to expand our own horizons, and live with them in peace. We are concerned with economic development, human rights, sustainability, and conflict resolution. All of these goals require not just additional factual knowledge about other cultures, but also a better understanding of their underlying values and the ways that those values are manifested in behavior.

Just as important as understanding how people of other countries are different from us is the need to understand how they are similar to us, how they share basic human drives for safety, for family, for a reasonable prosperity, and for cultural survival. Too often, those who teach about other cultures understandably focus on differences, making people of another country into “the other,” or “foreign.” A balanced approach necessitates looking also at how we are alike.

Those of us who worked on making the film Schindler’s List found that the narrative power of film can be a tremendous teaching tool. Students in our media-saturated world gravitate naturally toward the story-telling power of film and can find not just information, but a different way of seeing ourselves and the world.

We have been working with an organization called Journeys in Film, which tries to connect students with other cultures, broaden their worldview, and prepare them for global competence by preparing curricula for teachers to use while showing carefully chosen foreign films in their classrooms. The films use appealing young characters and powerful storylines to introduce critical themes in global studies. The Cup, a film about a young Buddhist monk with a passion for World Cup soccer, explores the interface between centuries-old traditions and modernization. Children of Heaven introduces students to an Iranian family far different from some in that country whose threats fill the headlines. Whale Rider lets students explore issues of gender and discrimination among Maoris in New Zealand. All these films have interdisciplinary online lesson plans free for downloading that are aligned to national standards and that encourage students to become active participants, not merely passive viewers.

Other organizations are finding innovative ways to do this. Brilliant Scholars, will bring students from across the United States and from overseas to an eight-day academic summer camp to work with university mentors. The Alliance for Global Education has placed more than 1,600 undergraduates into programs for study abroad in India and China. There are smaller organizations, such as One World Education, a D.C.-based group that prepares lesson plans about international issues and publishes the work of student “ambassadors.” Multiple projects drawing on the power of the Internet exist for teachers looking to increase the international learning taking place in their own classrooms.

However valuable, these are costly ventures not readily available to the majority of students. Film is one highly accessible and relatively inexpensive way to expose students to the great issues facing them in a global world, while at the same time meeting the demands of a high-stakes education environment.

So, what is global education? It’s the teaching and learning not only about our own cultures and countries, but also about the cultures, history, geography, needs, governance, economy, and way of life of others all around the globe. If we can foster such knowledge in our youth, we can hope for more harmonious and productive relations with neighbors near and far.