Honors education as transdisciplinary & transformative global education cultivating global competence

global education, transformative learning, transdisciplinary, global competence, global studies

Given the significant variance in definitions of and approaches to honors education – which largely seems to be a function of the great diversity of institutions in which it is embedded – this is an attempt to conceptualize honors education as transdisciplinary and transformative global education fostering global competence in order to make it as relevant for the 21st century as possible, which will be defined by global grand challenges and our responses to them. Honors education thus would focus on real-world complex problem-solving in the broader context of problem- and project-based, active and experiential learning.

One key premise is that education in general increasingly lags behind the accelerating globalization of challenges, and therefore urgently needs to transcend its traditional approaches and disciplinary boundaries and fragmentation in order to forge a new, integrated global perspective serving as the backbone of global competence. The corollary is that the more global their education, the better students will be prepared to respond to the challenges of the 21st century – personally, professionally, and as citizens of a global society. In short, in the 21st century, ‘global education’ has become redundant: ‘If it isn’t global, it isn’t an education.’

Another key premise is that we cannot begin to effectively respond to global challenges if we do not have an adequate understanding of them. The traditional disciplinary specialization, fragmentation and compartmentalization of research, teaching, and knowledge management hinders an adequate understanding of global grand challenges. Even more conventional forms of inter- and multidisciplinary research and teaching no longer suffice. We need to transcend them through trans- and cross-disciplinary approaches that systematically go beyond the traditional boundaries of established fields. Both theories and methods need to become a function of the problems under consideration. Ideally, over time, departments would be replaced by more adaptive evolving research paradigms and programs.

Global competence may best be defined as ‘the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance’ (Boix Mansilla & Jackson 2011). And there is a strong consensus on what those issues are: Global grand challenges ‘such as the provision of clean air and water, food, health, energy, and universal education.’ All of these issues are most critically tied to the defining challenge of the 21st century to make global society if not sustainable at least resilient as it is increasingly faced with population growth, economic stagnation, resource depletion and environmental degradation.

If lifelong global competence is the goal of global honors education, transformative learning appears to have the greatest potential as the most effective means to achieve this end, while at the same time being an end in itself, akin to the ancient ideals of praxis and eudaimonia.

Transformative learning believes in the potential of education to foster personal and social change. It may best be understood as a form of teaching and learning that goes beyond learning for knowing (education’s traditional and still dominant emphasis on the intellectual mastery of a subject area), and even learning for doing (21st century skills movement), to include learning for being (dispositions such as values and attitudes), and ultimately combines all of these forms of learning into learning for transformation, defined as the lifelong transformation of the ways we relate to ourselves, others, and the world on a cognitive, social and emotional level, and in terms of empowerment, agency, and leadership:

Life is the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations. (Herbert Spencer)

From the plethora of arguments in favor of this emerging trend towards transdisciplinary and transformative global education in, of, and for the 21st century, I just want to briefly point out and weave together three recent reflections and recommendations.

At the end of July, on the Chronicle’s WorldWise blog, the always stimulating Nigel Thrift discussed five reasons why disciplines are becoming less and less important at more and more universities:

Universities are gradually changing how they operate as disciplines become less central to the construction of knowledge.

A week later, in the same forum, educational consultant David J. Smith illustrates how  peace building can be integrated into the curriculum in a way such that it avoids ‘global education light’ and instead leads to ‘deep global education,’ which cultivates not only a global perspective, but instills a lasting global identity in the students.

More fundamentally, back in the spring of 2009, Mark Taylor, chairman of Columbia’s Religion Department, published an op-ed in the New York Times that received a lot of attention. ‘End the University as We Know It‘ is a trenchant critique of some of the major dysfunctionalities of US higher education. He focuses on its counterproductive excessive specialization, and argues that in order to thrive in the 21st century, it needs to be ‘completely restructured.’

To make ‘higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative,’ he offers six recommendations, of which I will highlight the first two, which are most relevant in the context of the transdisciplinary and transformative global education and its focus on global competence to effectively respond to the most important global challenges of the 21st century. His suggestion as to how to organize a ‘zone of inquiry’ around the global water crisis is very similar to what David J. Smith has in mind for how to integrate peace building into deep global education.

Taylor essentially describes core features of the emerging field of global studies. It is tempting to frame this redescription of US higher education in the context of Hegel’s threefold philosophy of sublation (Aufhebung), as Hans-Georg Moeller does in The Radical Luhmann (2011) in regards to the latter. Just as Hegel attempted to sublate theology through philosophy – in the sense of overcoming, preserving, and lifting it to a higher level – Luhmann tried to sublate philosophy through theory. Likewise, just as global education intends to sublate international education, global studies seek to sublate International Relations and International Studies. The parallelism is striking.

1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises.

It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems. As the curriculum is restructured, fields of inquiry and methods of investigation will be transformed.

2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.

A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.

WKU Honors College courses such as Citizen and Self and Trends Shaping Our Future: From Local to Global, and the option self-designed studies, reflect this kind of global education.

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