Thursday, March 29, 2012

About Elisabeth

My aunt Elisabeth grew up in the far northern region of Germany, close to the Danish border. Her family and other relatives resided just north of that border in Southern Denmark, and depending of which decade and which war we are talking about, that population has always been either Danish or German. Germany has had strained relationships with many of its direct geographic neighbors, as we all know, and one of the central questions after World War II was how to move forward, how to heal wounds, and how to create a modern, open, and welcoming society. Political leaders in several countries started work on shaping a continent with fewer conflicts, more economic weight, and with greater mutual understanding.

Remember post-war Germany and her neighbors: What is now western Poland had been part of Germany. The Alsace is bilingual and bicultural because it has switched back and forth between France and Germany throughout modern history. East Germany was a Soviet satellite state for many decades, and backward looking Sudeten German land ownership and relocation disputes with the Czech Republic still play a role in reconciliation efforts between both countries.

I grew up in West Germany, went through their public education system, and prior to coming to the U.S., I taught in their schools for about a dozen years. While I don’t intend to paint a na├»ve and false picture of harmony in contemporary German and European life, I will say that the transformation from outright hatred and distrust of one another, of atrocities and war, to today’s society in just a few decades is absolutely astounding. Many factors contributed to this success, some having to do with wise policies, some with wise leaders, and others with economic necessities. Looking back, though, education and the power of human compassion are at the heart of this transformation.

Political leaders did what they could: Education policies and guidelines ensured that students learned about the world. They ensured that we learned world languages as the key to healing and communication with others. The original impulse to do that was not economic, it was not to get better paying jobs. The original impulse was to heal and to promote understanding. Student exchange programs were created, especially between France and Germany and the U.S. and Germany. French high school students lived in German homes just ten years after their fathers and grandfathers had been recruited to shoot one another. German kids were exchange students in England, France, and the U.S. Textbook commissions with specialists from different countries made sure that students received unbiased information about neighboring countries in history, geography, or literature classes. And a young man by the name of Marcel Reich-Ranicki advanced to become the most influential literary critic in Germany, appearing frequently on German television and in major publications. As a young Jew in Poland, Reich-Ranicki had fallen in love with the German language and literature and was able to distinguish between Nazi atrocities and the majority of Germans he chose to live with after the war.

And what did Aunt Elisabeth do? She married a British “occupation” soldier right after the war and moved to England with him and their children in 1951. She taught in an elementary school in a small town in Yorkshire, where she still lives today. I asked her a few years ago if that had ever been a problem—a German woman teaching English kids right after the war. She looked at me as if she did not understand the question. “No,” she said. “Why?”

These kinds of stories motivate me in my daily work trying to strengthen global education in our schools. Perhaps knowing something about the world helps with employment and job opportunities. But most of all, we need to create the kinds of conditions in our schools that make stories of compassion across countries and cultures possible. False notions of exceptionalism and superiority—and the resulting isolationism—are counterproductive. As Howard Gardner says, “What is needed more than ever is a laser-like focus on the kinds of human beings that we are raising and the kinds of societies—indeed, in a global era, the kind of world society—that we are fashioning.” (1)
(1) Boix Mansilla,Veronica and Anthony Jackson. 2011. Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World. New York, NY: Asia Society and Council of Chief State School Officers. (p. ix)