Nurturing Global Thinkers for a New Decade

Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of Mir Hossein Mousavi and one of Foreign Policy magazine's 100 Top Global Thinkers, leaves a press conference in Tehran, Iran, June 7, 2009. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

By Veronica Boix Mansilla

The new decade is in. We are pleased to see new periodicals pile up on top of our holiday magazines announcing lists of 2009 "Top Ten" images, people, ideas, and gadgets. Yet there isone "Top" selection worth revisiting and celebrating: Foreign Policy's (FP) first special issue of Top 100 Global Thinkers. As an educator and frequent readerof FP, I see this as a forward-looking theme—best viewed in the context of budding nationwide efforts to nurture global competency among our youth and prepare them to thrive in an increasingly interconnected world. Who are the top global thinkers of today? What qualities of mind and heart do they exhibit? In what ways might they embody “expert versions” of the minds our youngsters will need?

Unambiguously, global thinkers understand particular global issues in depth. Consider Ben Bernanke’s (Global Thinker #1) informed avoidance of a U.S. economic collapse or Thomas Friedman’s (#21) sharply worded columns on the climate crisis. Their accomplishments do not stem from a wealth of isolated “problem-solving skills."  Rather, they reveal substantive understanding of the history of the Great Depression and the science and economics of climate change. Global thinkers are able to employ and combine the intellectual tools of disciplines such as history, economics, environmental sciences, or religious studies to inquire about complex problems and understand them in depth. It follows that nurturing global thinkers among our youth requires that we cease to view the disciplines as collections of established facts to be remembered (and tested). Rather we must view them as intellectually robust and provisional lenses to examine the world we inhabit.

Foreign Policy's global thinkers are also able to recognize perspectives—others’ and their own. For instance, in Kofi Annan’s (#30) recent pledge for an environmentally sustainable Africa, family farms, not Western-style industrialization, become the way forward—away that capitalizes on local worldviews to unleash meaningful development. Preparing our youth to participate in home, neighborhood and work environments of increasing diversity requires that we help them appreciate that in most cases world views differ in legitimate ways. We will need to help our youth understandhow cultural practices, economic organization, natural environments, and individual choices shape human world views and how such views shape experience in turn—including their own.

Further, global thinkers communicate effectively across cultural, national, linguistic, informational, and ideological barriers. Few illustrate this quality of mind more pristinely than Pulitzer Prize-winner Samantha Power (#80), whose advocacy for a new American foreign policy of dialogue and perspective-taking has permeated the administration’s conciliatory discourse on foreign affairs. Here, too,nurturing a globally conscious generation demands that we prepare students to communicate effectively with audiences that differ on the basis of culture, geography, faith, or ideology.

Perhaps most inspiring, Foreign Policy's disparate individuals have come to view themselves as actors and contributors in the global sphere.Contributors range from Vaclav Havel (#23), leader of democratic revolution in Eastern Europe, to Helene Gayle (#52) presidential advisor on HIV/AIDS; from Zahra Rahnavard (#3), a leader of the Green Revolution in Iran, to Fernando Henrique Cardoso, (#11) a forceful critic of the war on drugs. These globally minded individuals identify opportunities for creative action—they assess, consider, seek advice, plan, revise, change their minds in the face of evidence, and act. Just as we may want our students to, these individuals are able and willing to speak up in defense of global well being. In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010, in Haiti, no one epitomizes informed and heartfelt creative action better than Paul Farmer (#83), whose has dedicated his life to a committed form of medical practice in which "doing no harm" is simply not enough.

How will we form individuals who understand issues of global significance with disciplined detainment and interdisciplinary insight, who recognize and respect perspectives including their own, who communicate across social and geographical fault lines, and act based on evidence and considered judgment? Preparing a globally competent polity stands as a high aspiration for the decade we begin. For this reason, I've been working with Asia Society andthe Council of Chief School Officers to develop the first broadly consensual definition of global competency—an effort that includes collaboration with 26 states and an unprecedented database of student work samples on the subject.

So, we welcome the decade well positioned. We remain inspired by the men and women who have chosen to contribute to our complex and globally interconnected lives and we prepare to bring a world of understanding to every child in the nation.

Veronica Boix Mansilla is a Principal Investigator at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Bernard Schwartz Associate Fellow at the Asia Society, where she is focusing on the study of global competency and the educational demands of our changing world.