In 2005, Thomas Friedman published his game changing book The World is Flat. In the eleven years since, globalization has continued to shrink the world and speed communications, change, and the very fabric of our lives. Despite this, or perhaps because of this increased speed and connectivity, there is a growing desire among politicians, academics, and everyday people to find ways to slow down and create real connections with the ever growing world around them.
As a teacher, I often wonder at how quickly my students’ world changes and how quickly they are expected to adapt to every new change. I also often wonder at the strange combination of worldliness and naiveté they possess: they are experts at technology, can deftly balance the opinions and ideas of multiple Instagram posts and twitter feeds, but often don’t have any real understanding of how people just a few miles from them live or how the beggar on the street corner got there. In my AP Human Geography class, we are learning about population demographics, trends in economic and social development worldwide, the conflicts between nations, and more. But what my students can’t find in the textbook is how real people live in the widely varying conditions we study in our book. As one way to address this, we have joined National Geographic’s “Out of Eden” project in which the author and reporter Paul Salopek, has undertaken the task of walking around the world following our ancestors as they migrated out of ‘Eden’ through Asia and into the new world. He posts what he calls milestones every 100 miles of walking; he takes a panoramic picture and posts a brief caption that puts what he sees into perspective. For milestone 31 from Azerbaijan, he writes of how the oil industry has paved over traditional Azerbaijan and yet some of its history and culture survives. This project is truly the antidote to our fast world where people post updates several times a day. His walk, milestones, and other posts encourage us to stop and really see the world around us. This is a task that can only be done when we put down our phones and take the time to look.
In our geography class, we have joined what is called a “walking party” and been matched up with four other groups of high school students. The groups are in California, Utah, Austria and Egypt. Every two weeks, we are given a project or prompt to get students thinking about their own world, sharing and then communicating with each other. The very way these students from around the world respond to the same prompts helps us to see the essential ways in which we are the same, and the interesting ways in which culture and local surroundings makes us different. One assignment asked students to draw and post maps of their neighborhood and write about it. While the maps varied widely, they were also similar in that clearly, students around the world are interested in the same things — local places to find food, friends’ houses, childhood hangouts, and the sites of important family memories. This a kind of flatness Friedman didn’t talk about — that of our shared humanity.
Through this project, we have also looked at many of Paul’s “dispatches”: pictures and brief reflections on what he has seen and the history of the place he is in. He moves slowly through the landscape around him and spends time talking to the people who are rooted in each place. Their comments and his pictures remind us both of the scars left by history and the kindness of others. This becomes clear in conversations that can’t happen on Facebook or twitter as, for example when Paul spoke to a Kurd living in Armenia who felt guilt over the genocide of Armenians by Turks and said once he apologized to an Armenian for what his ancestors had done but realized that even that gesture can’t be enough. Or in another post of Turkish soldiers cutting the border wires to allow refugees through to where local villagers handed out what food and sustenance they could.
In what is called his “Map Room,” students spent time looking at clustered groups of pictures from individual places. Jerusalem was of particular interest as the line of pictures tells the story of the intertwining of eons of history and the demands of modern politics, technology, and daily life. These pictures show us how Friedman was right in arguing for a leveling of the playing field in which, at least in commerce, all countries and citizens would have an equal opportunity. Clearly in Jerusalem, in Azerbaijan, in Armenia, in all the places he has walked, the global playing field is not yet flat. The people he walks and talks with, the neighborhoods, potholed roads, and dirt paths he traverses, all illustrate this. But these are not the slums and starving children the news reports. Paul posts pictures of and relates conversations with these people in ways that introduce us to the way in which the richness of their lives goes beyond or around the pace of globalization. The textbook’s numbers and charts cannot address the full truth of these people’s lives.
Today’s world may indeed be fast, but by spending time journeying with Paul and our walking party, we have been reminded that if we slow down and look and listen, we can make the world slow down long enough for us to know one another better. In following Paul’s journey and getting to know the members of our own walking party, our class is slowing down long enough for these students to learn what they need to know so that when they are launched into college and the work force, they understand the faces and stories behind the numbers and statistics of the problems they will set out to solve.
By Claire Concannon
Mrs. Concannon is an Upper School English and Social Studies teacher.