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Fernando Reimers: "Educating citizens in uncertain times"

Fernando Reimers is the Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice of International Education and Director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative and of the International Education Policy Master’s Program at Harvard University.

Thank you very much for this invitation. My goal is for us to have a dialogue about what it means to educate citizens in a world in which the political philosophy of liberalism, which has oriented much of the work of governments and of global institutions created after World War II, is increasingly challenged by nationalist populist movements.

The idea that all people should be educated is relatively recent in the history of humanity. It is primarily a product of the Enlightenment and as such, a product of liberal political thought. As part of the ideology of liberalism, public education promotes freedom and equality and is designed to educate citizens for a liberal political order.

By liberalism, I refer to the political philosophy founded by John Locke that gave pre-eminence to the ideas of liberty and equality. It is the foundation of the freedoms in which democratic societies are founded. Freedom of speech, of press, of religion, free markets, civil rights, democracy, secular governments, gender equality and international co-operation. It is precisely these ideas that are being challenged by the rise of populist nationalist movements.

Globally, access to public education expanded significantly with the consolidation of nation states and the expansion of liberalism in the 1800s, and again after World War II, as a result of the creation of a global architecture to promote the values of freedom and equality. The data in slide 1 is generated by Our World In Data. It shows access to basic education by population around the world. It is remarkable that 200 years ago, less than 1 in 5 people completed a basic education and now most people do. To me this is one of the most significant silent revolutions that humanity has achieved.

Globally, access to public education expanded significantly with the consolidation of nation states and the expansion of liberalism. Under liberalism, it was assumed that public education could serve democratic political and economic goals with limited trade-offs between them. Additional goals, such as advancing human rights and modernisation, were also seen as convergent with political and economic goals and for these reasons most governments advancing education as part of liberalism, saw limited trade-offs between the various goals of education.

The challenges to liberalism, from communism and fascism, created alternative goals for public education. These challenged the notion that individuals could be free to choose which education to pursue and emphasised political and economic goals while downplaying human rights and modernisation goals.

The tensions between the Soviet bloc and the liberal world caused some challenges to global institutions with respect to their education work. That may be the reason why the tacit education consensus of many of these institutions was, for a long time, focused on getting children in schools, rather than what children should be learning, or how their learning should align with their vision of a good life and a good society.

Consensus on these topics is difficult to reach in international institutions and in societies in which there is much political contestation. That may be the reason why PISA studies have so far focused on the domains of literacy, mathematics and science, and not on domains such as civics or global leadership. It is perhaps also the reason why organisations like UNESCO have found it difficult to advance human rights education around the world, even though they were created to do precisely that.

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©OECD/Michael Dean


Short biography

Fernando Reimers is the Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice of International Education and Director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative and of the International Education Policy Master’s Program at Harvard University.

Professor Reimers is an expert in the field of Global Education. His research and teaching focus on understanding how to educate children and youth so they can thrive in the 21st century. He studies how education policy and leadership foster educational innovation and quality improvement.

As part of the work of the Global Education Innovation Initiative which he leads, he and his colleagues have just completed a comparative study of the goals of education as reflected in the curriculum in Chile, China, India, Mexico, Singapore and the United States, published as ‘Teaching and Learning for the 21st Century’ by Harvard Education Press. Another recent book, titled ‘Fifteen Letters on Education in Singapore’, examines the lessons that can be learned from Singapore’s efforts building a robust teaching profession. In addition, his book ‘Empowering Global Citizens’ discusses why global citizenship education, aligned with helping students advance human rights and contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals is an imperative of our times.

His writings have conceptualised and defined the profile of a globally competent graduate in the 21st century. He chairs an annual Think Tank that brings to Harvard University leaders of thought and practice in global education around the world.

His interests include the design and promotion of innovations in Higher Education. He teaches a course on educational innovation and social entrepreneurship at the Harvard Innovation Lab, where students learn to develop innovative education organisations, and a course on educational policy analysis and research in comparative perspective which examines the core education policy challenges faced by governments around the world.

He is also active advising governments, international development organisations, universities, public and independent schools and other educational institutions to improve their quality and relevance. He is a member of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education where he chairs the Strategic Planning Committee which works with all Universities in the State aligning their strategic plans with the State’s Vision Project. He is a member of the US Commission for UNESCO and of the Steering Group of Education in Conflict and Crisis of the United States Agency for International Development and works with policy makers in the United States, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. He is a Fellow of the International Academy of Education and a member of the Council of Foreign Relations.

More information about his work is available here: http://fernando-reimers.gse.harvard.edu/

Twitter: @FernandoReimers

©OECD Observer July 2017