A Global Education

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When it comes to travel recollections of Christmas Day 2009, I imagine most folks will recall the day for the now-infamous incident in which a young Nigerian recruited by terrorists attempted to blow up a passenger jet headed to Detroit.

As one who happened to be flying to Detroit the same day as that terror drama unfolded , my memories will resort back to the great education conversations I had with three teachers from around the world  whom I had the pleasure of meeting the day of my travels.

The first educator was an elementary schoolteacher from, Helsinki, Finland. His name was Mr. Saarinen, a name I recall because of the fact that he related that he has the same surname as the architect of Dulles Airport where we were both headed in an airport shuttle that afternoon.

One of the most interesting facts Mr. Saarinen shared is the fact that Finnish youths finish high school in the ninth grade and that college is free. Small wonder the Finnish have some of the highest college degree attainment rates in the world.

Saarinen said so many foreigners were migrating to Finland to take advantage of the free college there that the government has taken steps to start charging them tuition, particularly since there’s no guarantee the foreign students will stay in Finland to benefit the country with the education they received there.

The conversation made me think that Finland might start to view its higher education as an export. I checked with a Finnish newspaper and found an article that shows the Finnish are already thinking along those lines.

Saarinen also related that the Finnish government is trying to put more of an emphasis on teaching students the arts instead of just math and science. Employers, he said, don’t want human calculators. Rather, he said, they want students to get more exposure to the arts so that employers can tap into their creative side.

Which brings me to Teacher #2, who hopped into our airport shuttle somewhere in a more upscale part of Northwest, D.C. I never got her name, but she related that she is an art history teacher at a private high school in Washington, D.C.

Feeling an obligation to bring her up to speed on the conversation I was having with Mr. Saarinin, I related how the Finnish are trying to promote the arts to tap into the creative side of the human being.

“That’s because without the creative side you don’t have a human being,” the art history teacher said.

I had to agree. The one thing that distinguishes the human being from other creatures is our ability create.

After saying my goodbyes to the Finnish and American teachers I met in the airport shuttle, I went through the standard security checks, still completely unaware that the young Nigerian who had apparently been recruited to blow up an American jetliner headed to the same city I was headed to had already tried and failed at achieving the horrific deed.

As we took off from Dulles Airport, I learned that the passenger to my right would be the third teacher I met that day. She was actually a student teacher from Germany, but she was already responsible for her own elementary school class. Among other things, she teaches geography and math.

The most interesting thing the German teacher told me about the German school system was that students are divided after 4th grade into one of three types of schools based on different career paths, which she described roughly with her limited English skills as service, manufacturing and academics.

I looked online and saw that she was referring to these three types of schools: The Hauptschule , the Realschule and the Gymnasium, which are more or less how the German teacher described them.

I asked her how students could know at such an early age what kind of career path they should pursue. No child, she said, can know for certain at age 10 or 11 what he or she wants to do for a living enough to lock onto a certain type of study to prepare them for a particular career.

I asked her if there were any benefits she could see to having such an approach and all she did was let out a chih, chih, chih – the sound people make when they’re trying to let you know they’re working on getting you something and will get it to you as soon as they get it themselves. In this case, an answer never came.

Which was just fine by me because, between all the conversations I had with the three teachers that day, I was just happy that I had been left with a curiosity that had been whetted enough to make me want to learn more about the educational systems abroad, not just in Finland and Germany but throughout the world.

When I landed in Detroit and learned about the thwarted terrorist attack and later  more about the man allegedly behind the attack, I thought of how he had had a global education that most can only dream about – attending the British International School in Lome, Togo, and the Sana’a Institute for the Arabic Language in Sana’a, Yemen, earning a degree in mechanical engineering from University College London and attending a master’s of international business degree program at the University of Wollongong in Dubai. What a shame he failed to use it for good.

Jamaal Abdul-Alim covers College & Careers with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He can be reached at Jamaal@youthtoday.org