I have just spent a week in England visiting family and friends as part of my annual vacation. For a bit of context, I am British by birth and still a UK passport holder, though I was not eligible to vote in the recent referendum because I have lived outside of the country for too long. The issue of whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union has been – and continues to be – extremely divisive among my fellow Brits and, confusingly, opinions do not fall out along usual party lines. Since the result, there is also a general sense that the country and indeed Europe as a whole is living through a pivotal historical moment and that the future course of the country and continent is currently uncertain.
Like many others, including most of my friends, I cannot help but be troubled by the rhetoric that accompanied the Leave campaign in the United Kingdom. Xenophobic pronouncements by some politicians seemingly gave the green light for latent prejudices to spring forth, as if the clock on race relations had suddenly been reset. While I and my family – an ethnic/racial blend – encountered no hostility on our travels, the media was awash with stories about hate mail in letter boxes, taunts on the streets, and businesses being vandalized or even set on fire. The fact that far Right politicians in Europe seem especially jubilant about the Brexit result should give pause for thought.
The idea that “the silent majority” has suddenly been given voice is gaining traction in the United Kingdom as well as in the United States, where Donald Trump in particular has been stoking divisiveness and fear. What do these developments mean for Out of Eden Learn? On one level, some of our educators are dealing directly with the ripple effects of Trump’s pronouncements in their schools, particularly in the United States but also elsewhere, including Australia. For instance, we are hearing that under the guise of taking a mainstream political position, some students are voicing opinions that involve making blanket, derogatory statements against racial and religious groups and even women. At one of our participating schools, Latino students were upset that their Trump-supporting classmates were effectively saying that they wanted to see them deported. One teacher I met in a non-Out of Eden Learn context spoke of a Muslim student at his boarding school hiding under her bed because she was terrified of leaving the campus. As yet, we haven’t seen anything negative posted on our platform; however, we cannot ignore the shifting landscape in which we are operating.
On another level, these developments call into question the very purpose of Out of Eden Learn. Back in 2013 when we launched the project, we intentionally designed a space that might serve as a counterpoint to the echo chamber effect of the Internet and the off-the-cuff nature of typical social media interactions. Over time we came to recognize the power of Out of Eden Learn as a model for cross-cultural inquiry and exchange. Increasingly, however, our work feels like a politically and morally urgent intervention. It would be naïve to think that participating in Learning Journey 1 of Out of Eden Learn, for example, would be powerful enough to override prevalent political or cultural narratives in the communities or families of our students. But we certainly hope that young people’s exchanges with other young people on Out of Eden Learn, as well as their experiences of intentionally slowing down to observe the world more carefully and to listen more attentively to others, might encourage them to develop more curiosity and openness about people and places that appear unfamiliar or even threatening to them.
Others are feeling a similar sense of urgency. We were recently invited to speak at an excellent symposium on cross-cultural digital exchange hosted by our peer organization Global Cities, attended by over sixty district leaders from around the United States and some European countries. Among the speakers was Michael Nutter, the former Mayor of Philadelphia, who cautioned us about the increasingly toxic nature of public discourse in the United States, as well as the pervasive achievement and opportunity gap in US schools. He referred to “global education” as the next great divide, framing cross-cultural digital exchange as far more than a travel substitute for poorer students. He made the point that learning to engage with and understand people who have different cultural perspectives to one’s own is becoming a critical life skill. Furthermore, experiences of cross-cultural interaction can help inure young people from exaggerated claims and stereotypical comments in politics and the media. Another speaker, Professor Fernando Reimers from our own Harvard Graduate School of Education, decried what he called a “crisis of aspiration,” whereby leaders often ignore the kinds of educational experiences that poorer children as well as more affluent ones will need in order to thrive and become effective citizens in today’s increasingly globalized word (1). Such comments point to the timeliness of Out of Eden Learn, as well as the need for us to be proactive in terms of our outreach to typically underserved populations.
But before we get carried away by the contemporary significance and moral rightness of our work, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. I was in conversation with a British friend about Brexit when we realized that we were not trying very hard to understand the perspectives of people who voted to leave. We also realized that our somewhat condescending attitude was exactly the kind of elitism that apparently infuriates those who feel ignored by existing institutions and left behind by globalizing forces. A recent New York Times piece entitled The Myth of Cosmopolitanism makes uncomfortable reading for those of us who consider ourselves above the fray of tribal-type thinking. When we ourselves are doing well in the contemporary context it is all too easy to deride people we might casually consider too prejudiced or uneducated to recognize that they are being manipulated by politicians playing on their fears and hidden prejudices. As a member of the Out of Eden Learn team, I need to be sure to follow the advice that we give others: I need to try to listen attentively to others’ stories and perspectives, as well as reflect on how my own story fits into a bigger picture.
Which leaves us with some interesting puzzles.
How can we create an online learning community that truly addresses the Internet’s echo chamber effect if our community is built on assumptions and principles, such as the value of promoting cross-cultural inquiry and exchange, that explicitly run counter to some opinions and attitudes that are currently mainstream in some of our participating countries? Relatedly, should we be responsive to developments in our own geographic location – the United States – when such dynamics may be less relevant for participants in contexts such as Kazakhstan and Singapore?
How do we expect participants to navigate the delicate balance between authentically expressing their points of view and demonstrating sensitivity towards others – particularly with regards to our forthcoming curriculum on human migration? How do we accommodate ardent Trump supporters, for example, if at all?
Are we really fostering open dialogue or are we pushing a particular worldview that favors our own wellbeing and livelihoods and makes us feel good about ourselves? How can we ensure that we are not being inadvertently elitist or exclusive in our approach? And at what point do we draw a line in the sand and say that prevailing public discourse has become so toxic that we need to adopt a more assertive stance –and position Out of Eden Learn as an attempt to intervene against the language of politicians like Donald Trump?
Note: Since I started to think about the content of this blog post, the United States has been beset by disturbing events that are refocusing US attention on the troubled relationship between the police and the Black community. While this is not my focus here, readers may be interested in an earlier post that considered the implications of Ferguson with regard to Out of Eden Learn.
(1) See Reimers, F.M. & Chung, C.K. (Eds.) (2016) Teaching and learning for the twenty-first century: Educational goals, policies, and curricula from six nations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.