Making the human species truly human is the basic, comprehensive aim of all education (Morin, 1999:42)
This brief reflection sets out to examine the problems of the concept of globalization and of global focuses, especially in the field of education, meditating on the relevance and implications of this trend towards greater globalization at the local level. How meaningful and useful are the criteria stemming from this trend at the local level, in the so-called developing countries where the situation calls for approaches of a different kind. How effective are the competency-based approach, testing standardization and an emphasis on productivity and efficiency, among other things, when it comes to tackling small-scale problems at the local level?
In an attempt to answer this question, after first presenting a brief framework regarding globalization and its impact on la education, we go on to describe some local experiences that enable us to question the range and relevance of some of the proposals stemming from the trend towards globalization when it comes to responding to -and being compatible with- local needs, stressing the way in which local experiences have succeeded in providing relevant, high-quality answers without having to adapt to approaches deriving from globalization, and, indeed, resisting such approaches.
Considerations regarding the globalization of thought
The globalization process has been accompanied by dizzying changes in the areas of technology and communications, and while this process is more evident in the economic sphere, above all it constitutes a new cultural order that has given rise to processes of standardization and homogenization.
Various cultural features that are inherent in globalization merit highlighting, including the instrumental line of argument whereby everything, including education, becomes a tradable commodity and is predominantly evaluated in terms of efficiency and productivity, with quality being conceptually linked to competitiveness and to the potential of education to serve the overriding interests of companies. In all these processes, the main emphasis is placed on the concept of competency, as related to employability and job-market access, as a strategy aimed at achieving higher levels of efficiency and productivity. Nowadays, people refer to competency acquisition and competency-based evaluation, rather than to learning, with education being deemed relevant in insofar as it plays a productive role in a context of instrumentality.
Anything that does not fit within the above parameters, which are often set in other parts of the world and defined by international organizations, is viewed skeptically. What relationship is there between all these criteria and local contexts and needs? What are we to understand by job-market entry in the context of projects that offer support to young people? How are we to view the various other functionalities and implications which pertain to such programs, but are not envisaged in the efficiency-based criteria that determine the apportionment of funding?
The globalization of culture has led to central cultural models being introduced at the local level in a way that destroys local cultural frameworks (Ortiz, 2005). There has also been a certain amount of technological globalization, though not everybody has access to it. At the economic level, fragmentation predominates rather than globalization; the ‘transnationalization’ of the economy occurs alongside impoverishment and the deepening of differences. The use of the term, ‘global knowledge’ lends legitimacy to knowledge that is produced at the center (emanating from Western Europe and the United States). Though we believe that global knowledge also includes critical discourses, such as those of Bourdieu or Bernstein, what is the use of resorting to these as theoretical frameworks, if they then take precedence over local voices. Why should we not conclude, as does Walter Mignolo (cited by Walsh without specifying the source), “that the body of thought produced by the Zapatista revolutionary movement is more relevant to the social and historical situation of Latin America than that produced by Jurgen Habermas”?
We refer below to three educational environments that serve to exemplify some of the implications of promoting the aforesaid new criteria as a part of the said process of educational modernization, in the context of which, as Mignolo points out, “intellectuals in Latin America strive to be ‘modern’, as if modernity were a destination rather than a justification of the coloniality of power” (Mignolo, cited by Walsh without specifying the source).
The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), approved by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1994, lays the foundations for turning higher education into a type of commercial service. The references of these strategies are grounded in the northern countries, which are seen as the sole arbiters of what is deemed to constitute quality and of which models should be adopted worldwide. Hence, the globalization of knowledge has led to the homogenization of diplomas and certificates, with professional competencies being standardized and evaluated using similar procedures. Many people have followed market trends and devoted themselves to selling educational products, or designing standardized evaluation systems or sole accreditation systems that end up by imposing a dominant framework. In this regard, some people are wondering whether we are not going back to a régime under which all educational systems are based on equivalences to the European one, rather than a democratic régime based on the revalidation of studies and diplomas, where systems vary in keeping with the social and cultural differences between the different parts of the world - in other words, whether we are returning to a system involving control by certain countries, which, at the present stage of world organization, will dominate educational business (Dias, 2010).
In contrast with these trends, the public nature of higher education and the need for it to respond to social needs and provide high-quality learning/teaching were acknowledged at the World Conference on Higher Education. An outstanding case in this regard is China, where priority has been given to training that is aligned with national interests, with a national project being specified at the outset, based on which the universities are seen as participants in this strategy. To this end, the Chinese university system must come up with clear aims, implement a rational structure, adopt effective practices and promote a favorable environment. Nevertheless, there is a need for autonomy and academic freedom.
A ‘Master’s-Degree-in-Pedagogy-of-the- Subject’ program, aimed at teachers and people working in community-development programs, which is being run in a Mexican rural area, serves to illustrate the irrelevance of standardized norms. Some aspects of this program lead one to reflect about the notions of quality and relevance. There is no limit on the number of participants (everybody is welcome so long as there’s still room); there are no grades – just general impressions of how much people are getting out of the course, with diplomas being given only to those who want them. The fundamental aim is that the students should grow as people and make advances in their professional development. The program is a relatively open one -in which there is no regular-attendance requirement and stress is placed on responding to the participants’ interests- which basically sets out to further the development of the students as pedagogical subjects.
Such a post-graduate program raises serious questions about the criteria that might be decisive at the moment of apportioning financial support. In this regard, programs of this type would not be able to satisfy demands that participants in them should have successfully completed previous courses, that there be a ceiling on the number of students, that the stress be placed on competencies, that certain grades be achieved, that there be a given number of teachers with set qualification levels, and that the program not be altered in any way, and so on, and compliance with such demands would be inimical to the basic objectives of responding to the students’ interests and making adjustments to suit varying contexts.
The relevance of the concept of competency
One of the most relevant repercussions that the globalization of knowledge has had for education is the appearance of the notion of “competency”. Competencies have played an intrusive role, to the point where they not only underlie the design of job-training curricula and programs, but also seek to be applied (almost as a matter of vogue) at every level, including the pre-school one, and end up influencing evaluation criteria, the certification of learning, and the revalidation of studies. Nowadays, not subscribing to the competency-based approach is tantamount to rejecting modernization in education (Ibarrola, 2008).
On-the-ground educational research is driving a serious debate about the ambiguity and polysemy of the very concept of competency, finding great variation as to how the latter is understood in different institutions. Ursúa and Garrtiz Ruíz (cited by De Ibarrola, 2008) identify ten different definitions for the professional competencies alone, and, for almost fifteen years now, researchers have systematically recorded the enormous difficulties faced by educational institutions when trying to implement programs based on this new principle, the gradual adjustments that have been made in some cases, and the “simulations” that have arisen in others.
A lively debate is underway in Mexico regarding the concept of competency, which is associated with the neoliberal economic model, with educational reform that has not produced real change, and with attempts at homogenization that stifle or underplay diversity. We believe that what has coalesced in Mexico is a constructivist conception of diversity, which sees the latter as a complex construct made up of different behaviors, modes of thought and attitudes - i.e. competency is conceived of as a horizon rather than as a consolidated experience, as a structure that drives cognitive resources, so that conceptualizations that differentiate between attitudinal and other types of competencies might be deemed simplistic or fragmentary. For example, there is a tendency to conceive of competencies as forming families (generic, basic, social, etc.).
While the latest educational reforms in Mexico place significant emphasis on competencies, other sectors (e.g. academia, the NGO’s) have questioned their validity and permanence. There is a tendency to believe that competencies predetermine and fragment reality, instead of reaching research-based conclusions about young people, adults and changes in the world of work. It seems to us that meditating about competencies in today’s Latin America is like designing a curriculum from the confines of an office, turning one’s back on reality rather than examining it and taking it as a starting point.
The competency concept is of little help in analyzing educational and job-training problems, concerning itself with ‘what should be’ and with the ideal tenets of curriculum planning, but oftentimes being far removed from reality and of little use in analyzing the relationship between education and job training in marginalized sectors of society, since it encourages a type of homogenization that is alien to, and fails to take into account, the realities and practical potential of such sectors.
It bears asking whether the competency-based approach doesn’t imply, and embody, a stress on productivity and efficiency that ends up subordinating educational considerations to economic ones. For what relevance do competencies have in local contexts where it is a matter of recovering people’s know-how and ways of doing things in order to create a locally based curriculum? The competency focus promoted by the international agencies is of no help at all in this regard. For how can we conceive of job planning based on universal competencies that are defined in accordance with a globalized economic model, rather than starting at the local level and focusing our planning on the needs expressed by the people involved, based on their problems and realities? What are the implications of unbridled application of the competency-based approach in contexts where logic and necessity militate against it? To what extent do we thus end up denying reality and flouting process, or simply going through the motions for the sake of homogenizing and generalizing a criterion that is clearly based on a different rationale?
The field of evaluation has likewise been affected by international norms and standards that are based on a prevailing logic that focuses on the impact, efficiency and productivity of programs. While the underlying conceptions are ones of evaluation as a neutral process basically aimed at ascertaining effects, we propound others that are more in keeping with the prevalent realities in the sectors where many non-formal educational programs are run.
Though the main aims of educational programs for women in the countryside are that the participants should learn a series of specific skills (e.g. sewing, handicrafts) in order to improve their living conditions, these programs nevertheless have other repercussions -such as providing new opportunities for socialization, creating motivation that leads those involved to develop micro-enterprises and go back to school, helping to empower women, bringing about new dynamics within the family, and bringing gender issues to the fore- that are apparently not easily seen, and get passed over at the moment of evaluation. All of these things form part of the hidden curriculum underlying such programs, which should be included within the scope of their evaluation.
Though incorporation into the job market has been adopted as one of the criteria for evaluating job-training programs, what do we mean by ‘job-market incorporation’ and, indeed, by ‘job’? It bears asking whether the quality of job-market incorporation should be evaluated based on criteria of efficacy and efficiency - i.e. in terms of stability, wages, social benefits and qualifications- or whether it wouldn’t be better to measure it in terms of the quality of the incorporation, the time it takes and the discontinuities in the process, and its ability to produce learning in other areas and expand the world vision of those involved on multiple fronts. Likewise, we should not forget other types of apparently secondary effective impact, such as reenrollment in school, incorporation into society and the development of self-esteem, which lead one to reflect on the educational nature of work and its potential to provide opportunities for ongoing learning in a context where the participants recognize their own productive potential.
Quality and relevance
There are tiny, simple, local experiences, in both developing and developed countries, that speak volumes about the minimal usefulness and relevance of those criteria and concepts that have mushroomed in recent years within the context of the prevailing trend towards the modernization and globalization of education. Without a doubt, one of the issues most affected has been that of quality in education and how we conceive of it. Though quality and relevance were previously concepts that went hand in hand, they have recently tended to drift apart. The quality of a program used to be measured in terms of its relevance within the different contexts in which it was implemented, and this relevance had to do with the degree of responsiveness to educational needs, local situations, etc. However, in recent years educational quality has tended to be more associated with productivity, performance and grades obtained in standardized tests. In many cases it matters little whether the program responds to social needs or not -i.e. whether it is relevant- and emphasis is placed on the productive use of resources, high grades, and so on.
Local considerations are inevitably linked to relevance - i.e. the extent to which programs can be adjusted in keeping with local contexts, their diversity, the populations at which they are aimed, and socio-economic and cultural issues. It is precisely this diversity at local levels that tends to be overlooked by the new international standards and guidelines and we need to question the extent to which competency-based approaches, standardized tests, evaluation by objectives, planning frameworks, etc., can respond to realities that are not in keeping with this instrumental, rationalistic logic.
At this point, it is worth mentioning some specific programs. Middle-level technical courses have been criticized as being unfocused, financially wasteful and lacking job-market linkage, among other things. However, while acknowledging some of these misgivings, commentators have remarked on the social and political value of such courses, and on their often surprisingly useful contributions to young people’s career advancement. These job-training courses enable those who have difficulty in going on with their secondary-level studies to gain fast entry to a job market which, though often precarious, enables young people to find development paths that help them to come up with viable developmental options as they periodically shuffle between study and work. We are talking about young people who study a special trade (e.g. mechanics) that will enable them to get a job and earn enough to be able to go on with their secondary education, and others who, after studying a special trade, continue their education while working at the same time. Though technical courses do not adhere to criteria of economic and productive logic, they do follow another logic that produces unexpected benefits for a sector of the population that sees them as its last chance.
In another area, contradictions frequently arise between efficiency-focused program emphases versus real contexts where other concepts of productivity and interests, and different notions of time, prevail. There is a very real distance between the logic of strategic planning and the working logic of rural indigenous communities. For example, a Tzeltal community in the state of Chiapas faces a break between an indigenous rationale based on a long-term notion of time, the family as a productive unit, the house or homestead as a hub for the cultivation of the milpa (i.e. family corn patch), the exploitation of the surrounding forest, livestock rearing , and the growing of coffee and other subsistence crops on the one hand, and efforts to set up a coffee cooperative that is oriented towards the global market and towards procuring the best possible price on the other hand. Similarly, while the Tzeltal community adheres to its concept of the good life, it also benefits from the technical rationalism of step-by-step planning, targets, results and profits.
Choosing to design programs with a local focus means adopting local logic. Such programs need to be designed in a way that rescues or makes use of the cultural yardsticks of the local groups, rather than rejecting the latter in accordance with external criteria and trying to impose rationalistic modes of thought and behavior. The homogenization of models deriving from globalization militates against diversity and the acknowledgement of differences, and also against an assessment of quality and relevance that is in keeping with local contexts. Education should incorporate diversity so as to take stock of diverse realities that require different responses. There can be no doubt that the proliferation of homogenizing approaches hampers our understanding of inner processes and blinds us to other important socio-cultural considerations that intervene when projects are implemented.
A necessary focus on the local
Along with the globalization of knowledge, and as a form of resistance to the latter, there has been a renewed emphasis on nationalism and ethnic identity, with unaccustomed value being assigned to what is local (Sonntag & Arenas, 1995). Hence, new alternatives are springing up, reflecting the need to consider different options in the context of a divergent vision that is open to new creative possibilities and rejects homogenization.
Though nobody wants to be left out of the globalizing process, at the same time it is becoming essential to respect local realities so as to come up with solutions that are relevant and of optimal quality. It is a meter of finding new options vis-à-vis a modernization that comes from the West and responds to different realities and different logics.
In the view of Sonntag & Arenas (1995), finding ourselves, as we do, deep inside a network of intercultural transactions, it is difficult for us to examine local manifestations from a viewpoint dominated by -or based on- dichotomies such as ‘man-in-the street’/elitist, traditional/modern, and national/foreign, so that people are talking about the need to take a new look at social complexity, from a different viewpoint. If one wishes to make education more egalitarian and carry out research that is capable of deconstructing realities that have become second nature, giving more say to people who have been rendered invisible, it is essential that we examine the local with one eye still on the global; otherwise, as Latin Americans, we run the risk of limiting our research to the local, while they –the ones from the north, the ones from the center- focus their research on us (Bonaventura de Sousa).
We need to do research into the local from a Latin American viewpoint, uncover what is hidden, and rescue local wisdom, respecting local time instead of trying to change it and using the available networks to share the said wisdom, creating conditions in which the abstract, self-serving discourse of the international organizations ceases to be the sole legitimate one. It is therefore important that the international networks not become channels for the stock discourses of the international organizations, and for the viewpoints commonly expressed at international conferences. As Sousa Remarks, we need to create a new concept of the international, an internationalness conceived from the viewpoint of the South -or an epistemology of the South- which includes India and Africa.
We need to listen to women who take part in community-education programs, to students in technical-training centers, to indigenous people who attend intercultural-education centers, to rural teachers who take part in on-the-spot graduate programs, and to young people who neither study nor work, building a body of theory that is based on them and erected jointly with them. This does not invalidate existing theory; rather, it is vital that the latter be engaged in a dialogue with local knowledge, since it is no mere coincidence that the bulk of existing pedagogy, sociology and anthropology has been created from the center. We should, then, profit from the rich reserves of knowledge that is based on local realities, and keep a close eye on other kinds of impact that occur beyond the bounds of economic and instrumental rationality.
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Dias, Marco Antonio. 2010. ‘¿Quién creo este monstruo? Educación y globalización: sus relaciones con la sociedad’. Revista Iberoamericana de Educación Superior, Vol.2, No.1.
Dussel, Inés. 2010. Entrevista con el sociólogo brasileño Renato Ortiz. La mundialización de la cultura.
Ortiz, Renato. 2005. Mundialización: saberes y creencias. Barcelona: Gedisa.
Sonntag, H. & Arenas, Nelly, 1995. Lo global, lo local, lo híbrido. http:/www.unesco.org/most/sonntspa.htm
Walsh, Catherine. Las geopolíticas del conocimiento y colonialidad del poder. Entrevista a Walter Mignolo.
*Extracto del libro Knowledge, skills and development: Global frameworks and local realities in higher and technical education, ponencia del Dr. Enrique Pieck G., del INIDE/UIA. Actualmente en vías de publicación.