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Intercultural Education for 21st Century America


Equipping students with critical thinking, creativity and communication skills is imperative to imparting global citizenship education.

What type of education is required to be competitive in the 21st century? In the United States, educators face growing calls to help develop “globally competent individuals.” These calls interlink with broader movements toward identifying and developing globally valuable skills. The Global Competence Task Force has listed three competencies: using knowledge to investigate global problems, working with diverse others and translating theory into action. The task force is a group of American state education agency leaders, education scholars and practitioners—under the auspices of the Council of Chief State School Officers EdSteps initiative and the Asia Society Partnership for Global Learning. 

Given the nature and complexity of challenges that we face collectively, it is becoming crucial that young people today develop abilities to critically think and act on a global stage. In the United States, liberal arts and critical intercultural literacy are fundamental strategies.


From liberal arts to global citizenship education

To move from abstract global issues to educational practice, we must recognize where society is today, in terms of human and social capital. With the development of “common” universal public schooling in American history, the country laid a foundation for global competitiveness throughout the 20th century. In line with this strength, the government still takes its role seriously, in facilitating the entry of a fresh generation of tech-savvy, creative young people into new lines of work in dynamic fields of industry and commerce, new energy and new technologies. As higher education with a traditionally broad, interdisciplinary foundation has been seen to contribute to economic success at the individual and societal levels in the United States, efforts are being made to invite more people, including less-advantaged members of society, to reap the benefits of a liberal arts education. 

This liberal arts education, which gives attention not only to vocational skills development but also to critical thinking, creativity and communication skills, is clearly aligned to a “global citizenship education” model. In today’s dynamic economy, math and science are not enough. The humanities, social sciences, and disciplines such as history, philosophy and sociology, can equip students with critical perspective and creative problem solving skills. 

To work with others in one’s own society or elsewhere in the world, people also require interpersonal and communication skills, as well as an education oriented toward greater social understanding. These skills should not only be considered vital in higher education, but should be developed at a young age, particularly in communities marked by different forms of diversity. Students at elementary levels should learn to understand their neighborhood and local community, drawing maps of their own small world, while students at higher levels should learn how to identify the characteristics and social composition of their society and those of others around the globe. 


Developing critical thinking skills 

Education for local and global intercultural coexistence deviates from a traditional vocational education, as it aims to develop the ability of young people to think clearly about complex social issues. Such critical thinking cannot be done by rote memorization or even report writing, but requires a student-centered educational approach, wherein students learn about social problems by engaging with others around them in dialogues. Through such dialogues, rather than textbooks, students can best learn about viewpoints of diverse members of society, and attain a real-world source of evidence, which is more useful in democratic, practical decision-making.  

A new kind of media literacy is also required of the American global citizen today. At the founding of the United States, its leaders worried about democracy’s possibility in a society where not all people were well educated and, therefore, unable to read a newspaper or speech transcript, or engage in critical analysis. Of course, this remains a problem around the world today as countries democratize while populations remain less than fully literate. With heightened stakes today, and the prevalence of the media in everyday life in the 21st century, media literacy must become an important goal once more. It can help people evaluate sources of information and evidence, compare and judge relevancy and validity, and engage in decision-making, in personal and professional life, in a more empowered way. At the national and international levels, civic participation that is meaningful and contributes to human flourishing depends on critical thinking skills related to evaluating and using information.


Crossroads in education

Today, the United States finds itself at a crossroads in education. The Common Core movement encourages education to become more similar across the country, from Hawaii and Alaska to Texas and Florida. On the other hand, the increased popularity of charter schools in the last decade could potentially change the country’s historical allegiance to a public, government provided quality education. These movements may impact how we think about individual and social welfare in the future. For example, there is a risk of forgetting soft skills in favor of fast economic payoffs. Ideally, education in the United States should continue to develop globally competitive and globally philanthropic generations. This requires intercultural education, which goes beyond the basic nuts and bolts, and focuses on investigating global problems, working in diverse groups and translating theory into action. 


Liz Jackson is an educational policy researcher and author of “Muslims and Islam in U.S. Education: Reconsidering Multiculturalism,” published by Routledge in 2014. 

Wesley Teter is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Hong Kong and former regional director of EducationUSA in India and Central Asia, supported by the U.S. Department of State.

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jayanand.khandagale's picture

Very informative!