My First Words as the World Turned

Around 4 o’clock this morning, as I was keeping my 1 year-old son entertained during his newly shifted sleeping hours (7pm to 3am), a message bubble appeared on my phone. With Trump’s victory still fresh in everyone’s heads, a former student of mine dropped me a line asking, “Written your thoughts on 2016 yet?”

I quickly replied that I’m still reflecting on it and in the meantime shared a piece from The Guardian on the death of globalization and the triumph of racism. I indicated that its ideas were something that were bouncing around in my head only that I haven’t pinned them down on. He then continued that he was interested in what I thought since he vaguely remembers me as being “big on the promise of globalization, and an avid consumer of the so-called liberal commentariat.” Moreover, this now personally affects him as he is in his 20’s and an immigrant into the US.

Watching over my son, I began typing a response. Then it started to feel cathartic. Here was I sent —

In some way I’d say there had been an evolution that came with having to put on the years. A lot of my optimism for globalism then was hinged on the potential of technology as a ‘flattening’ force but even in my work in education I came to see how that wasn’t really true. I am now a staunch advocate against e-learning, for example, in the sense that there is this notion that technology should replace the teacher. But even topical projects such as providing tablets in schools or building computer labs for indigent communities — sadly I’ve seen more failures than successes and have come to see that the way to approach education is to go back to the basics — the teacher student relationship — and innovate around that to make it more effective overall.

My politics has moved on to a similar direction. Whether it be market failures or governance failures, what I look for then is how the institutions propped up to respond to those concerns have failed and how they can be made better. I’m not against globalization per se, but now I’m cognizant that perhaps we don’t have the institutions ready and running to make the most of it, to manage the risks and to maximize the gains. Government and the market are not there yet.

So in a broad sense, I get Brexit. I get Trump. I get Duterte. I may not like it, but I know that so many dominoes had to fall first to get those guys to where they are. At the least, there has been a breakdown in the institutions and they simply caught on the anger and rage against that.

At the end of the day, liberalism is about how we, collectively, allocate justice. And that is the work of the social contract. At my most optimistic, I’d say that we’re still perfecting that work but what these events are also telling us is that there is a cost to waiting and taking our time. And this leads to injustice, and this means liberalism has failed. So we have work to do, and urgently so.

And now as I look at it 12 hours later, there are a few more things that come to mind by way of clarifying and closing the loop on some ideas.

On technology in education — I don’t dismiss technology as a tool in the classroom; far from it. What I dismiss is the notion that a teacher can be not present and that screens or computer prompts would suffice. At least in the context of basic and secondary education which I worked on, I would still hold that the imparting of values, civic virtues, and the formation of character cannot be outsourced to technology. But by all means, there can be laptops, tablets, smart screens, or what have you. However, this comes with a caveat: that such projects must come with a plan to keep them sustainable, effective (read: students learn and teachers use them competently and confidently), and reliable. There are great projects where technology is successfully deployed in the classroom. The challenge is scale given the intensive capital, training, culture shifts, and continuity costs that come with the endeavor. My approach has been to always start with the teaching relationship, appreciate its unique dynamics and needs, and identify ways to enhance and strengthen it with tools and technology. And then it hit me: I surmise that this tension is what industries on the verge of globalization and liberalization struggle with, some more violently and even more painfully.

On what Institutions I refer to — Broadly speaking, all social structures shared and held in public to support the social contract. We start with the family. We consider faith communities and school. Then there is government, its many agencies, units, and departments. And then the market — any place where buyers meet sellers and exchange — civil society, and the media. I view institutions as organic entities that are rooted in social context, culture, and norms. They can change, they can be challenged, they are always developing and shifting even if at a pace that we don’t easily see or realize until they do — like our planet’s shrinking polar ice caps.

The cost of change — It must be such a privilege now to say things like: “Change doesn’t happen over night.” “Change takes time.” “Change begins with each one of us.” Brexit, Duterte, Trump — these are all revolutions from the peripheries. There are elite elements to them, yes, but the tide that rose came from the countrysides which have been long neglected by the imperiousness of the cities.  For far too long, wealth, privilege, education, comfort, and technology have been overly monopolized by the urban areas, concentrating power and opportunity in the many at the expense of the more. The change we’ve seen these past months did not come from the hip, the connected, or even the millennial. It came from those who have been forgotten but wish to be no longer.

The work that is to be done There is much for all of us to unlearn and learn if we are to make sense of the world that is emerging. There are no easy answers and it seems that there are to be more disruptions and upheavals in how things used to be because we can no longer afford business as usual. I, too, am humbled at the rapidness of the change we’re seeing. It is questioning a lot of models and beliefs about how we thought the world worked. But as an anchor we look at the ideals and structures that have withstood the test of time, and that for the longest time mankind only sought one thing from one other — to belong, to be connected, and to be loved.

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