A historical Perspective in Defining International Education

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A Historical Perspective in Defining International Education

In this article I ponder the historical view of the field we know as ”international education”. As international education proceeds into the 21st century it is becoming more apparent that as a potential field of research it suffers primarily from a lack of definition. However, this apparent lack of definition could be related to the lack of a comprehensive standard history of international education, especially covering the first half of the 20th century. I hope to be able, in a summary fashion, to give some indication to researchers where they may begin to look for the many historical precedents in their defining of international education.

Brickman’s (1950) effort at establishing a bibliographic baseline of the historical antecedents of international education was the first substantive scholarly historical project related to the 20th century. Brickman’s annotated bibliography of the history of international education indicated a rich field of documented research, activism and curriculum efforts that could be traced back to the middle of the 19th century with historical roots to the time of Comenius (in UNESCO 1957). Scanlon (1960) usefully assembled a series of revealing historical documents related to international education. Scanlon and Shields (1968) later confirmed that no comprehensive effort had ever been made to construct a scholarly approach to the history of international education. This complete lack of historical documentation has resulted in the perpetuation of a mythology surrounding not only the history of international education but also the meaning and definition of international education in terms of research and curriculum efforts.
The current view suggests that the roots of today’s international education have risen from the ashes of the second world war and have been largely a western undertaking and product. This view of international education is not supported by the deep historical record of activities from the 1850s onward. As well, the definition of international education seems to be based on a complete lack of a commonly accepted focus in the field, and is also not supported by the rich history of large-scale attempts to offer a conceptual definition of international education. Even at the dawn of the 20th century, a Hungarian educational researcher, Kemeny (1901) outlined a proposed framework of what he termed “international education”. This included comparative education studies, international teacher conferences, international standards of curriculum design, human rights education and anti-racist education. Further efforts related to peace education in the first decades of the 20th century and efforts in support of the League of Nations in the 1920s produced a wide variety of activities and sentiments.
In a comprehensive survey of international education programmes, institutions and activities by Harley (1931) of Stanford University, we can find a number of attempts to define international education. Specific frameworks of international education on a wide scale were also seen through the work of the World Federation of Education Association (WFEA, 1926), which was established in 1923 and operated until the opening hours of the Second World War. Of special interest was the establishment of an international education committee by the WFEA in 1939 as a result of an international curriculum development plan (The Herman–Jordan Plan) that was developed by the president of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, in 1923.
The next significant document that addressed the meaning and definition of international education was Rossello’s (1943) history of the “forerunners” of the International Bureau of Education in Geneva. Building on such works as these, and on the concurrent rise in the global activities in international education in the 1950s and 1960s, UNESCO, from its earliest days, took an active and quite natural interest in international education (which was, even then, widely understood to be equivalent to “education for international understanding”). Over the next two decades, various levels of UNESCO experts developed conceptual approaches to international education that resulted in an operational definition being adopted by UNESCO (1974) This may be considered as the only large-scale effort to provide a definition of the term “international education” by a widely recognized international educational body. The definition, agreed at UNESCO General Conference level, combined the elements of international understanding, cooperation and peace with the range of focal points of international education under the overall rubric of “education for international understanding”. The same document outlined the following relevant educational objectives for international education:

  1. a curriculum with a global perspective

  2. understanding and respect for other peoples and cultures

  3. human rights and obligations

  4. communication skills

  5. awareness of human interdependence

  6. necessity for international solidarity

  7. engagement by the individual in the local, national and global scale (UNESCO 1974 p 2).

Two other UNESCO documents are of special interest in the development of an operational definition of international education: document no. ED 142, Paris, 1955 and document no. 17c/19, Annex II of 1972. These can be found on the UNESCO web site (www.unesco.org)

Another landmark attempt to approach the problem of defining a conceptual framework for international education was undertaken in 1969 by James Becker. The first chapter of his report ,a full 60 pages long, was devoted solely to the problem of defining international education. It should be noted that this report, which was sponsored by the Foreign Policy Association based in Washington, DC, came face to face with a mythology at the level of the nation-state that was largely reinforced by an abiding sense of self (as he reported it) on the part of the citizens of that nation. Global interdependence gradually undermines the mythology of self-sufficiency and this erosion of a narrow civic mythology results in strident attempts, as Becker relates it, to save or return to a former state of national pride. This also results in a reluctance to view human processes in a global context. As Becker noted:

We confront the hard and complex question of what basic purposes underlie and guide our efforts to educate young humans about the world into which they have been cast. Can the underlying purpose of international education be restricted to the development of an aggregated fund of knowledge about the different elements that make up the world, or, should our ambitions extend to the development of some understanding of the world perceived as a totality? (Becker, 1969)
The implications of this conceptual approach to the problem of defining international education are, in principle, clear. A definition appropriate to the needs of the time should illuminate the global interconnectedness that characterizes the contemporary world, and point to a form of international understanding required by the citizen of the future that must comprise some understanding of the world perceived as a whole.
Becker, JM. 1969. An Examination of Objectives, Needs and Priorities in International Education in U.S. Secondary and Elementary Schools. Final Report. (Eric DocumentED 031612).

Brickman, WW. 1950. “International Education”. In Monroe, WS (ed.), Encyclopedia of Educational Research. Macmillan.

Harley, JE. 1931. International Understanding: agencies educating for a new world. Stanford University Press.

Scanlon, DG. 1960. International Education: a documentary history. Columbia University, Bureau of Publications.

Scanlon, DG and Shields, J. 1968. Problems and Prospects in International Education: Teachers College Press.

Comenius, J A (1957) John Amos Comenius, 1592-1670: Selections, UNESCO, Paris, cited in Scanlon, DG. 1960. International Education: a documentary history. Columbia University, Bureau of Publications.

Kemeny, F (1901) Entwurfeiner Internationalen Gesammt Akademie: Weltakademie

Rossello, P (1943) The International Bureau of Education, in Forerunners of the International Bureau of Education, (Tran.) Marie Butts, Evans Brothers, London, pp114-118, cited in Scanlon, DG. 1960. International Education: a documentary history. Columbia University, Bureau of Publications.

UNESCO (1974) Recommendations Concerning Education for International Understanding, Co-operation and Peace and Education Relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: adopted by the General Conference at its eighteenth session in Paris, November, 1974. UNESCO, Paris.

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