States Opinion

Global and Competition: Two Dirty Words in Education

By Heather Singmaster — May 21, 2014 4 min read
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“I believe this map can help spark important conversations, and challenge partners to work more effectively to build a stronger pipeline of globally competent citizens.” That’s what U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said about Mapping the Nation, an interactive project that maps one million demographic, economic, and education indicators. Why? Because the world is global—and our education system is not. Heather Singmaster, project lead, reports on how the conversations are going.

For the past five months, together with the Longview Foundation, I have been traveling the country, using Mapping the Nation to have conversations with universities, teachers, parents, policymakers, non-profits, international trade specialists, and more.

In many cases we are speaking with those who already understand what the map is objectively telling us and are using Mapping the Nation to influence those in their communities and states that do not.

I was surprised to learn that as I energetically engage in these conversations, I have been swearing like a sailor! Two words seem to resonate across the country as dirty words: “competition” and “global.” I keep hearing that the message must focus on cooperation instead of competition and that global is perceived as a dirty word in many communities.

My mom taught me not to swear, however, I don’t agree that global is a dirty word.

No one can deny that jobs have been lost to outsourcing. But today far more jobs depend on international trade—one in five on average—and if you look at the data in Mapping the Nation, you can see that those jobs exist in every American state and county. Every billion dollars of exports supported 5,600 jobs in 2013. Not only are more than 38 million U.S. jobs dependent on trade, but even more are supported as part of the supply chain connected to companies trading internationally.

Where I may need to watch my language though is in the use of “competition.”

Dr. Stanley Katz, a recipient of the 2011 National Humanities Medal from President Obama, and a professor at Princeton University says the competitiveness argument for a global education is, “bad for education.” He explains, "... nobody’s against jobs ... but its shortsighted, in the sense that when undergraduate education in particular is focused on training a student to get her first job, that ignores the fact that in our current economy, anybody who graduates this year is probably going to have five or six or seven jobs in her career. And what gets her the first job, won’t necessarily get her the third job. I think we need to worry about the third job. That requires a more general education on a range of skills.” In other words, we need a more holistic education—he goes on to say we aren’t just training students in tools, but in habits of mind.

I couldn’t agree more. We need students to be lifelong learners—something we clearly articulate in our definition of global competence. We place everything in a global framework for education. Look at the global aspects of problem solving and communicating. Think about the various people you will be working and living with—they will be from around the world.

However, I think anyone who banishes the word “competition” is also being short sighted.

I compete in marathons not to win (although that would be nice!). I don’t run to bring harm to others. I compete to improve my own performance and myself.

I would argue that the same is true for global trade. We compete because of the opportunity it provides to improve our own performance and our own society.

Global markets give us the opportunity to create even more jobs here at home. Three-quarters of the world’s purchasing power and 95% of consumers lie outside of U.S. borders. This is a great opportunity for U.S. businesses of all sizes to expand internationally to the benefit of our economy.

To take advantage of these opportunities and create jobs, we need employees with the right skills. “As firms look to markets around the world, languages are becoming increasingly valuable. Employers are showing a growing interest in those skills,” says Dr Adam Marshall of the British Chambers of Commerce.

A study done for The Association Of American Colleges And Universities found that 97% of business executives surveyed identified intercultural skills, that is, “comfortable working with colleagues, customers, and/or clients from diverse cultural backgrounds,” as important, including 63% who believe these skills are very important. And 91% agree that “all students should have educational experiences that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different from their own,” including 57% who strongly agree.

As the education statistics in Mapping the Nation show, U.S. students aren’t studying foreign languages, and if they are, it is not to proficiency. Students aren’t studying abroad to interact with people from other cultures and widen their perspective. And classrooms across the land are struggling to integrate global into their professional development and curriculum.

But I swear it is a struggle worth fighting. The opportunities are huge and they are global.

To learn more or get involved, see MappingtheNation.net.

Heather Singmaster is Assistant Director, Education at Asia Society.

Follow Heather and Asia Society on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.