What Makes Our Generation Different? (My piece on CDLS 2009)

During a panel discussion with William Bissell in CDLS 2009, we teachers were given the chance to grab the mic and ask a question. I look for speakers with style and grace, but more importantly consistency and honesty. The first two criteria draw me in, the second two make me think. Bissell satisfied both sets, so I couldn’t resist asking him about his most fundamental assertion.

He prefaced his talk on success in the global age by saying that all our assumptions about the world we live in are wrong. Among these assumptions are that economic growth is determined solely by GDP growth, that the sovereign nation state is the basic unit of international affairs, that education can be measured quantitatively, that a strong military guarantees security, and that we must constantly consume to keep the economy running.

He warns us that these outdated ideas may blind us to the new realities. He then relates a story about a Soviet school he visited during the height of the Cold War.

During a forum not too different from CDLS, Soviet students, teachers, and leaders all spoke about the coming of an even more glorious communist age. Not a single one of them spoke of a coming collapse of communism, Bissell recalled. Then the Berlin Wall fell the next year.

It was an anecdote designed to compel us to pay attention to the signs of the times. Thus he put forth his new ideas — that humanity can share in universal human values, our world is independent, and the mechanical world view is about to come to an end.

I agree with him, but I couldn’t help but ask — What makes us different from the Soviets who failed to foresee the coming of their collapse?

I find that the CDLS topics basically spoke of a new globalism where the demands are for people to move beyond their traditional parochial borders and think more globally. Only through that can we solve the collective global problems of climate change, terrorism, and redefining a new global economy. But what makes us different from the Soviets? That remains my question.

Bissell spoke from the gut, expressing a deep belief that he has gone around India and the world and has indeed seen that the world is indeed changing. He then rattled off a bullet list of anecdotes, but he failed to really build on his main insight.

But here is my answer — look at this picture:

CDLS 2009 was not just a meeting of minds, but of hearts. The delegates were student leaders and aspiring agents of change from different parts of the world. They exchanged ideas and stories about their countries, but they even more importantly exchanged names, phone numbers, and stories about weird teachers and crazy vacations.

For ten days, these young men and women realized that whether they be from the United States or the Philippines, India or China, they are more similar than they have been made to think. Indeed, they are citizens of one world.

A student from Pakistan couldn’t have put it better. During a more candid forum, he spoke up and expressed his thanks to the Modern School in this way —

I realize now that the partisanship between India and Pakistan remains at the level of politicians. But when it gets down to real people and real relationships, there is no difference. Our values, our hearts are the same.

There are many ways to define our difference from the Soviet students, teachers, and experts Bissell met in the past. Here’s how I put it.

One. That we can even speak of the past in such terms means that we are aware of our responsibility to the future. We know we can’t precisely foresee what will happen, but we can temper our expectations and learn from the mistakes of the past.

Two. Unlike the 1980’s when the rivalry between the USSR and the USA resulted in a lot of breast-beating and partisanship, the globe is not compelled by such divisive forces anymore. This is not to say nothing divides us. Terrorism, poverty, climate change, border conflicts, and economic interdependence can still generate wide debates. But the more we argue, the more we underscore the fact that we are all connected.

And hence, three — we are now aware of each other. From the democratization and openness created by the Internet to the forums and exchanges such as CDLS, there is a profound sense that we are not alone. We are indeed awakening in a new era of global consciousness that can potentially transform how the world works.

However, I am under no illusion that the opposite pull is just as strong. It would be difficult and a tad inappropriate to ask a family who can barely have three meals a day to look beyond themselves and contribute to the wider world. Ask that of the young children inflicted with AIDS in Kenya. Ask that of the families who live in the unstable regions from Afghanistan to the Gaza Strip. Globalization definitely has its discontents.

Yet now more than ever, there is a sense that there are genuine global solutions to the most devastating problems. Being too parochial can shut us off from the rest of the world, thus leaving us blind to the very possibilities that may lift us from the local quagmires we face each day.

Keeping an eye on what can happen next is the challenge of our young leaders, and I am glad to have met them in CDLS 2009. This is a challenge they take not with hubris, but with humility. That is what makes our generation different; that is what will set them apart.


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