magazine text block
I was 17 in 1970s Los Angeles, driving to a concert in my father’s aging but well-kept Chevy Impala, my friend Chip in the passenger seat. Our afros were picked to perfection.
And then the distinctive blue-red strobe of an LAPD squad car appeared in my rear-view mirror.
While I handed over my driver’s license to the officer hovering outside my window, another policeman standing several feet behind the passenger’s door began shouting at Chip: “Get your hands where I can see them — now!”
Chip did not realize the officer, whose voice had become increasingly menacing, was shouting at him. I whispered, “Chip, he’s freaking. Put your hands on the dash!” Chip did, and fortunately we were treated to nothing more life-changing than the public humiliation of being roughly frisked, legs spread and hands on the hood in the middle of Crenshaw Boulevard.
When the cop finally said, “Alright, get going,” my initial panic transformed into indignation. I asked why we’d been pulled over. “You look like someone we are looking for,” he shot back.
In that African American neighborhood near L.A. High School, everyone looked like someone the police were looking for. That we were all suspects spoke not of lawlessness, but rather of a mindset among police, the sharp tip of the dominant culture’s spear. This mindset automatically categorizes differences among people in appearance and culture as threats against which to be protected or leveraged for exploitation.
Too harsh a verdict? Tell that to the families of Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, and the countless other Black people assaulted and killed by police, including George Floyd. In a supreme act of white supremacy, police officer Derek Chauvin stopped the breath and the life of George Floyd last May, never for a moment thinking that he was not in full compliance with the law and the norms of our culture — a culture that sanctions dominance of white people over all others.
How can we understand the through-line of American racism that stretches from the Virginia colonies in the 1500s to Minneapolis in 2020, with daily stops across the country? What must happen to change its course? Evolution provides a useful lens from which to begin.
magazine text block
Dominance vs. Egalitarianism
From an evolutionary perspective, all that matters is survival. Whether or not a species survives and thrives depends on how it adapts to the context in which it exists. For humans, the locus of adaptability has shifted over time from physical characteristics to mental capacities. Put simply, nowadays, human survival depends on how we act based on how we think.
At the risk of oversimplification, how we as humans think can be dichotomized into two competing world views. At the core of one view is the understanding that in the natural order of things, there are winners and losers. Some people are stronger, smarter, faster, or in myriad other ways capable of achieving hegemony over others. In this view, it is legitimate for them to do so — it’s just the way things are and always have been. We can call this “the dominance paradigm.”
The competing worldview, which we can call “the egalitarian paradigm,” recognizes that people and societies differ in profound ways. But these differences do not require or legitimize dominance of one person over another or one group over another. Instead, the way to think and act toward others is to consider them on a level with ourselves, equally deserving of that which enables anyone to survive and thrive.
Globally, we find ourselves in an age defined by the dominance paradigm. As in the past, inequities in power and privilege today lead to gross disparities in the resources required if not to survive, then to live with some semblance of well-being. These growing excesses in inequality are justified by a view that it’s just the natural order of things for some to have more than others, be it wealth or power or both.
The Black Lives Matter uprising is, at its heart, the unleashing of the pent-up rage against the dominance paradigm, manifested in America as white supremacy, by Black people who have been systematically subjugated for hundreds of years. The literally heart-stopping terror George Floyd experienced in his last seconds of consciousness is shared across centuries with those Black boys and men hung from cottonwood trees in full public display. Floyd’s murder, undeniable through the ubiquity of iPhones, YouTube, and police body cameras, has catalyzed a rebellion against the norm of white dominion.
Another example can be seen through one of the most disturbing aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are literally millions of people in the United States for whom the reality of this threat cannot penetrate their psychological defense mechanisms. These people seem to believe it is impossible for there to be something that supersedes their individual right to act as they see fit. They seem unwilling to comprehend a situation in which their own survival requires acting for the common good, and calls into question their ability to manipulate the world as they desire. So that thing — the virus — must be a hoax.
At the root of both systemic racism and denial of the pandemic is a willingness to jeopardize the lives of millions upon millions of human beings. As with denial of the urgency of climate change, at work is a worldview which left unchecked could lead to our extinction. If there is no change in this mindset, where will we be at the dawn of the 22nd century? Will we “be” at all?
magazine quote block
magazine text block
Education for the 22nd Century
If there is to be a 22nd century worth living in, we have to both think and act differently. Our survival requires the ascendency of an egalitarian world view and the subordination of the dominance paradigm. We must act to enable human beings from the earliest stages of development, as their minds are forming, to construct reality from a more egalitarian than dominant perspective.
The way to do that is through education, although done very differently than in the past and at present. What’s needed is education for a 22nd century. Not to prepare for the 22nd century, but to get us there.
What will differentiate 22nd century education is its intention to develop in all youth an egalitarian mindset. If we are to survive as a species, education on a global scale must develop in youth the disposition to act more toward the common good than toward individual gain or group hegemony.
What does education for a 22nd century look like? For nearly two decades, the Center for Global Education at Asia Society has advanced education for global competence as an approach to student learning that connects rigorous disciplinary and interdisciplinary study to the development of cultural humility and understanding. It provides at least a start toward education for a 22nd century.
Education for global competence requires learning and applying critical reasoning, curiosity, and problem-solving skills to understand the world in its full complexity; to see how the local roots of issues like racism and the pandemic are sown by broader global forces. It requires engaging children in experiences designed to develop empathy and to counter the innate psychological mechanism of “othering” that is at the heart of the dominance paradigm. It’s developing the ability to recognize and respect cultural norms that may require shifts in how we relate to and communicate with people from different backgrounds. Education for global competence develops a disposition in youth to take action and to apply cognitive and social-emotional skills in ways that balance the value of achieving goals with the cost of achieving them, for people and the planet.
If we could look inside classrooms practicing education for global competence, we would see students learning about the roots of American racism in 15th century global economics and understanding the civil rights movement of the 1960s by comparing it to the fight against apartheid in South Africa and the struggle for nationhood in India. Students could address the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal of providing affordable and clean energy in science class by creating a solar oven using everyday household materials, and comparing designs with students in another country through virtual interactions. We would see courageous teachers organizing safe spaces for students to tell the story of when they first became aware of differences among people based on skin color, dress, language, or religion, and facilitating their reflection through writing or the arts: What have they learned? How will it change their future interactions?
Education for global competence is the vanguard of how we think about education and organize students’ learning ecosystems. This goes far beyond just schools — it also includes local communities and global virtual interactions. It is not just another kind of education reform. It is a new kind of social movement. Arguably, developing in children a mindset not bent on domination but on the common good is the social movement required in these times. It’s about creating the underlying foundation that motivates specific actions toward environmental and social justice. It’s how we evolve.
It's how we ensure that George Floyd and all those victimized before and after him did not die in vain.