“The Danger of a Single Story“ is the title of a very popular TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, from 2009. But not only. This post is about our latest Erasmus+ course, which took place in Horažd’ovice (yes, every time I google and copy/paste it) in the Czech Republic in November 2017.
Despite not having the most original title – I have to admit
I have no shame it probably helped us to get some visibility – the training dealt in a very original way with the topics of Global Education and active citizenship for youth workers.
First of all, what is Global Education? The definition can be a very controversial issue in itself, and my point here is not to engage in that argument. Wikipedia tries a very general approach, saying that it’s
a complex idea that is taught to enhance ones meaning of the world.
while UNESCO’s definitions are a bit more complete:
- Global Citizenship Education is nurturing respect for all, building a sense of belonging to a common humanity and helping learners become responsible and active global citizens.
- GCEd aims to empower learners (in formal, informal and NFE) to face, assume active roles, resolve global challenges, to become more proactive contributors, to more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, secure world.
We could go on, but let’s say it’s enough, for now.
It’s not a classroom discipline, but a general approach to knowledge (and life), which includes and combines competencies and attitudes like critical thinking, active citizenship, systemic thinking, a constructive approach to solving problems and conflicts, accepting diversity, interculturality and sustainability.
Mmmh… sounds like the perfect globalist agenda, right?
<political rant mode / on>
I don’t see how ideas like reducing violent conflicts, understanding other cultures and adopting rationalism – rather than raising walls, increasing military spending and bombing each other, believing to be fundamentally right – have to be labeled as “liberal” or “leftist” and cannot be accepted just by any decent, thinking person, regardless of political views. But that seems to be the case, in these times of stupid forced polarization. The “right” seems so desperate to find an identity in these fast-changing times, that tries to cling (as it seems) to every nationalist, identitarian, xenophobic and basically any narrow-minded, old style idea out there. Biological testament? Are you crazy? Nobody can choose when to die. When to kill others, sure. No gun control, too soft for us. Migration? Only if for slavery. Prostitution? Yes, but keep it illegal and don’t tell anybody. Old style is our style. And – ah! Environment. Especially this: I will never understand, even if live 200 years, why the so-called ‘conservatives’ don’t seem to be able to embrace greener ideas, and keep supporting the dirtiest fossil fuels (following the mantra of growth-profits-jooooobs!), even denying the overwhelming evidence of climate change. CONSERVATIVES! If there is anything worth “conserving”, it’s the environment! There will be nothing left to preserve if we fuck that up!
<political rant mode / off>
Whatever. I just needed a minute. I feel better now. Let’s go on.
We can just say that Global Education includes a lot of different, challenging stuff.
“Different” and “challenging” would also be two good words to describe our course. The group that decided to join the program was motivated, competent and engaged. It was maybe, to be expected, given the topics (… you never know!) but anyway it was a pleasure to work, learn and live together for a week with that bunch of people.
And still, the week wasn’t entirely conflict-free. But to be honest, it was not that we wanted an easy ride. Critical thinking means to constantly challenge assumptions, values and stereotypes (our own, and the group’s), and even if sometimes with tongue-in-cheek, that’s what we tried to do all the time.
Especially controversial were the sessions in which we tried to provoke some reflections on how our personal bias and values frame the way we perceive the world and interpret basically everything we see, hear and experience otherwise. For example, we divided people into smaller groups, gave them some bad quality, blurry pictures with captions (same picture to everybody, but different captions): things like “local marriage in Slovakia” or “hanging of a criminal in Ethiopia”. Then asked each group to build stories with more details, starting from that material.
The results were interesting. While some stories were humorous and didn’t try to be taken too seriously, all contained elements that helped us to reflect on biases and how ready we are to build elaborate stories, starting from scarce (if any) received information. And how much those stories can tell, about ourselves.
Yes, we were manipulative and cheeky. We wanted to stir things up a little: in making our global omelette, we actively tried to break a few eggs. I could say that it worked.
Another very controversial activity involved a fictional “lifeboat”: imagine you are among the few survivors of a shipwreck, and your lifeboat can only take 6 more people on board. Here is a list of 10 rough profiles (doctor – athlete – drug addict – etc): who do you save? How do you base your decision? Are you even willing to decide? Tough.
We worked hard to set the frame of our work. We wanted to create an environment where it was common practice to challenge ideas, not people. This is an attitude that requires a lot of practice – oftentimes, settings educate us the opposite way: every discussion becomes a mortal fight where one of the opponents has to be completely defeated. And in our course, we tried to practice it.
(Experiment only for the brave: open the comment section under a random Youtube video. For stronger results, choose a “political” topic. Now try to post a personal opinion, slightly more articulated than a generic “like”. Take a side, challenge some idea. See what happens).
To understand storytelling, we explored story structures, including a few good sessions on the Monomyth.
We wanted to bring together an experience that was provocative and pattern-breaking, in a “as safe as you can get” environment. But not 100% safe. If you follow my work, you know I don’t believe in making things too easy and comfortable. Our culture of “safe spaces” is making us complacent, lazy and very thin skinned.
On the other hand, I believe that learning means having to deal with a blanket that is always too short, no matter how one pulls it. All the more if we are dealing with topics such as personal values, critical thinking and inequalities.
In general, things played out nicely. In working with stories and narratives, we wanted to reflect on how important even simple words are, and how many conscious or unconscious choices we make when we tell a basic story (expressions such as “as we all know…” or generalizations like “everybody is always…” build frames, and inevitably reflect assumptions and our personal values).
Of course, we dedicated also a session to understanding – and deconstructing – the famous TED talk that inspired the whole course.
Powerful, touching, very effective, no doubt.
And, can it be challenged? Is the speech completely immune to the defects it tries to address – such as stereotyping, generalizing? Is the point of view of Ngozi Adichie not, perhaps inevitably, influenced by her upbringing? By the opportunities, she has undoubtedly had – growing up with well-educated parents in a household with two incomes; completing her education abroad? Does all this put her in position to speak for an entire country, or even – something she criticizes herself – for a whole continent?
I am not in any way devaluing the messages of her testimony. I am trying to say, that every time we “tell a story” (hence, my definition of storytelling: no more, no less) with whatever medium and in whatever manner, we are inevitably filling in a few blanks. Point of view, context, assumptions, background and frames. We all do it naturally because it’s part of what makes us human.
We give such a great importance to recognizing patterns, we tend to see them anywhere. Just like we see animals and mythic characters in a starry night sky. We make up stuff all the time. We are born storytellers, and our brains keep doing that – telling stories – even when we are not conscious. Especially then.
“Global education” means also this: to become increasingly aware of these mechanisms, how they are formed and how they function, and actively work step by step to contrast them.
Another key element of the program consisted in working to understand the mechanisms of fake news, their possible connections with toxic narratives and hate speech, how they are created and how they can be deconstructed.
In doing that, we utilized the excellent Council of Europe publication “We Can! Taking actions against hate speech through counter and alternative narratives” (available online for free here), and we examined some real scenarios, like “Immigrants steal our jobs” and “Muslims are taking over Europe”.
Our work tended to understand the underlying structures that support such
unfounded bullshit ideas, debunk them and propose counter (or alternative) narratives that can effectively contrast them.
Of crucial importance was also the work to understand values, how they are developed over time in communities, and how can they change. In this sense we analyzed Schwartz’s work on Basic Human Values culminated in the “Value circumplex” (1992), summarizing the possible “universal values” that can be present in a community at a certain time, and studying their interrelations and the way they can change.
Some values are adjacent, which means they support each other; others are in opposition, and they follow a “seesaw effect”. This means that if one goes up, the opposing ones will go down. Like in a playground.
By understanding this, it’s easy to realize that if we want to provoke a change in a target community – and move for example from “Power” to “Benevolence” – we cannot achieve it by stimulating, say, a sense of authority, showing social power (for example, trying to establish moral superiority: “I am right, try to open a book sometimes, you ignorant!“), or projecting a public image of strength. These subcategories are part of the “Power” group of values, therefore by enforcing them, we only reinforce the Power side of the continuum.
You see? This is why nobody ever wins an argument on Facebook. It’s impossible to convince an
idiot extremist of the wrongness of their ideas, by hammering them on the head with equally strong and authoritative arguments. People just get more entrenched in their positions, and at the end of the day everybody is tired, frustrated, violence in the system is increased, and it all has been a big waste of time.
And yes, they should try to open a book sometimes, but how to inspire people to learn stuff – if their only experience of “education” is the authoritarian, judging school system?
The week was crowned with the group designing their own activities on Global Education, and a very fruitful afternoon of Open Space, in which many participants could propose their own activities to the rest of the group, having their chance to shine.
All things considered, it has been a very rich learning experience, exploring topics and areas that are not easy to master – but are more and more relevant in the world we live in. We will for sure continue working in this direction. It feels good, it feels right and it can really help to make a difference in building a better world. Maybe, or maybe not.