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Max Kirsch ties together human rights, anthropology, and IB course development (part two)

In 2014, the IB introduced the new global politics course and invited Max Kirsch, pilot global politics examiner, to tell us why it is such and important and dynamic subject. In this second part of the interview, Max tells us more about the nature of the new course.

MaxMax Kirsch is Professor of Anthropology and UNESCO Chair in Human and Cultural Rights at Florida Atlantic University. He has taught at Florida Atlantic University, the City University of New York, Oberlin College, and was Associate Dean of the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science at the New School for Social Research in New York. Oxford University Press will be publishing his companion volume for a new Global Politics course being offered by the International Baccalaureate from 2015.

What is the nature of the global politics course? 

In global politics, a political issue is any question of global interaction that permits, invites and calls for critical examination. Political issues populate the agendas of politicians and policy-makers; they occupy the minds of CEOs of global corporations and local social entrepreneurs; they are discussed in news broadcasts and over a cup of coffee; they motivate art; they are deeply rooted in history and culture; and they are a significant part of our daily interaction. Importantly for the central unifying theme of the global politics course—people, power and politics—political issues reveal how power is distributed and operates in a social organization and how people think about and engage in their communities and in the wider world on matters that affect their well- or ill-being, including survival.

Political issues are found at all levels of global politics. Taking the example of climate change, a political issue at the global level could be the degree to which the UN’s limited ability to enforce legally binding action on its member nations inhibits the world as a whole from making progress towards combating climate change. A political issue at the international level could be how the fact that many developing countries have already experienced the impact of climate change has affected their position in international climate negotiations. A political issue at the regional level could be the challenges that the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has faced in formulating a common climate policy. A political issue at the national level could be the impact of a particularly strong typhoon in the Philippines on the central government’s decisions and policies on disaster prevention. A political issue at the local level could be the ways in which a recent typhoon in the island of Leyte in the Philippines has changed people’s dependency on outside assistance and hence the society’s power dynamics. A political issue at the community level could be the mechanisms and degree to which a group of particularly active Filipino emigrants is able to change the lives of their families and relatives in the post-disaster Philippines.

The global politics course assumes that a productive way to observe and analyse changes in our world is through the actions of people, power and politics. Together, they add up to an integrated whole that is not a monolith but a starting point for the discussion and analysis of the way the world has changed and what the future may bring. It has been designed with options for teachers and students to explore their own interests and those that may change in time.

What challenges does the global politics course’s concept-based approach present to teachers and students? 

I don’t know that I think that the course’s concept-based approach presents special challenges to teachers and students. It has been developed through the use of concepts and suggestions for the use of examples and case studies that can be adapted to the specific interests of the teachers and students participating in the course. It allows the teachers and students to apply their own knowledge and present examples that they are familiar with in a creative way. It also encourages synthesis. Concepts are abstract; case studies are concrete. Case studies illustrate concepts. They are interwoven throughout the syllabus to concretize the abstract nature of concepts so that students can visualize what a concept represents in a particular context. There might be areas where case studies are not necessary and others where there might be more than one. For example, a case study might be an illustration of changes in pollution internationally and the teacher might decide to include local changes in pollution that shows how the local is tied into the global while making the subject relevant for students studying, say, industrial pollution and the debates around its increase in developing counties.

The selected concepts for global politics and the four core areas into which they fit—international relations, human rights, development, and peace and conflict—present a broad framework for considering a wide range of definitions and ideas about our current world, and allow the integration and multi-disciplinary explorations of events and questions that a traditional elaboration of subject matter might discourage. Other IB subjects are being reviewed with a concept-based approach as they look towards a rapidly changing disciplinary arena. It is nice to think that perhaps we have started a trend that will broaden and deepen student learning and assessment that allows for the incorporation of teacher and student input and analysis and encourages the presentation of their points of view.

What is the one big thing you want students to take away from studying the global politics course?

We would like students to understand that politics has changed, that it is a very important part of our daily lives, and that their engagement is central to developing a better world. Students can have an important part to play in the determination of their own and society’s development.  Civil society is a central concept: the participation of citizens in the formation of their futures. There are rights and duties at every geographic level and also organizations outside the formality of structured government that will determine how our futures will evolve. The concept of civil society dates back to the early thirteenth century as a way of describing the transition from the feudal household economy to public commodity exchange relations.  The term is used to demonstrate the public sphere outside the control of regulatory forces, and the movements that have occurred to assert agency in social organization. Our global politics course follows this through from the international and global geographic levels to local and individual participation and action.

I am often asked in my own teaching whether there is any hope for the future, given the deluge of daily crises enhanced by new communication technologies and the sometimes seemingly hopeless challenges that people now confront on a daily basis. My answer is always that it depends on them: there is very little room for apathy in our current world, and their participation and engagement is no longer a choice if we hope to construct a world that considers the needs of the many rather than the desires of the few. There is an on-going struggle for all humanity to achieve a cooperative global system, in balance with the rest of nature. Our hope is that the global politics course will help students understand this.

Read part one of this interview.