World Wide Ed
As Commencement Day approaches, advice to graduates can be found in words of congratulations in the yearbook, videos of past commencement speeches, and even articles that reveal what graduation addresses “don’t tell us.” At first glance, these pieces of advice seem to follow a predictable template that tries to illuminate, through examples both trivial and serious, how we should lead our lives going forth. A closer look at this reveals two types of advice that have fundamentally different implications on the meaning of happiness and the role of education.
The first type is perhaps epitomized by Steven P. Jobs’ famous commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005 that concluded with two imperatives: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” Through examples of the failures and ultimate success in his own life, he urged graduates to pursue their dreams by believing in themselves and aggressively overcoming obstacles. Although motivational, Jobs’s advice to graduates to strive for a life of the utmost degree of individuality seems to presume that the goal of education is to enable the pursuit of happiness through individual success alone.
In a recent TV interview, travel show host Anthony Bourdain shared his tips on finding “local flavors” when traveling abroad, suggesting that “drinking with the locals” is always a good way to start. While it is irrelevant whether Bourdain himself, someone known to travel extensively, is a true “global citizen,” it is interesting that the famous host epitomizes a common view of the values of travel and an understanding of other cultures.
Although being a global citizen implies extensive travel and some familiarity with foreign languages and conspicuous aspects of cultures such as food and drink, the concept should really be defined by one’s ability to engage with and adopt different perspectives meaningfully when viewing the world. This cannot be achieved without a thorough and serious engagement, both academic and otherwise, with foreign languages and cultures in a genuine context. Just as travel alone is not enough, I think that reading the Economist cover to cover every week is likewise neither necessary nor sufficient to make a global citizen. One must truly immerse oneself in a different culture in an intellectual and humble manner in order to gain the knowledge and perspective necessary to alter one’s worldview positively and fundamentally.
The high and rising number of students in American schools who do not speak English as their first language creates an educational challenge that is too often addressed with politics rather than science. Many education advocates propose providing courses in a student’s native language until their English proficiency allows them to enter standard classes, often several years later. Others extol English immersion of some type, either assisted or free-fall. The social, cultural, and scientific reality is that a more nuanced approach is both possible and necessary in order to ensure that all American students can flourish in an English-mediated academic setting. I believe that elements of bilingual education ought to be more widely and openly embraced in light of overwhelming evidence supporting its advantages, which have been consistently shown to benefit all students regardless of linguistic and cultural background.
The impetus for reform is derived from the fact that a large proportion of immigrant students from under-privileged socioeconomic backgrounds who speak another language at home (especially Spanish) do not compare academically with their monolingual counterparts and drop out at a disproportionately high rate. None of the commonly advocated policies have yet remedied this problem, largely because they fail to acknowledge the main thing underlying these statistics—that these students struggle in the academic environment because they face unique linguistic and cultural challenges unknown to their monolingual counterparts, which are not properly addressed by educational policies. It is not bilingual education per se, but rather the inherent inequality that exists in both the common systems of bilingual education now, which perpetuate segregation within schools, and universal English immersion programs, which too often overlook the unique challenges and opportunities of young bilingual learners, that causes the problem.
Before coming to Harvard, I spent a summer at a biochemical company in Monheim, Germany, working alongside other interns in an insecticide laboratory. Impressed by my colleagues’ knowledge, I assumed they were biochemistry students at university exploring a potential employer. I soon discovered, however, that they were students from advanced technical colleges completing the practical components of their programs. In fact, a majority of the full-time employees in my department doing work of a complex scientific nature had vocational rather than strictly academic qualifications. This is strikingly different from the norm in the U.S., where the minimum requirement for similar jobs is typically a bachelor’s degree.
This first experience at a German workplace gave me the impression that German society strongly values the variety of skills and talents that their education system is designed to produce—and not just in theory. The German system offers different vocational and academic options within a comprehensive structural framework, with many permeable options for students as they progress through secondary and tertiary education. For students preparing for higher education, for instance, there is the option of a purely academic pathway. At the same time, there exist multiple other vocational or combined tracks, each with different emphases on academic study, vocational theory, and practical training supported by employers. This pervasive structural incorporation of vocational training into the education system allows graduates with different skills and expertise to be respected in society regardless of the perceived “prestige” of their chosen professions.