Happier, healthier, wealthier?

By Sharon Stein and Vanessa Andreotti

The image that leads this post, which we describe as a kind of cartography, was inspired by an international education conference that we recently attended. When we first learned that the conference theme was entitled,  “Things we should be talking about in international education,” we were excited about possible openings for the kinds of reflexive, complex, and difficult conversations that we had been advocating for in the context of international education. The conference invitation noted about the international education sector:

“Our sector casts a long shadow and there may be other things we should be talking about: climate change and the culpability of our sector with its large carbon footprint; how globalization and its well-intentioned offspring internationalization have spawned the populism and nativism we are so offended by; fake news and the abhorrent lack of inculcation of critical thinking; how cosmopolitanism, inter-culturalization and indigenization have on the streets already overtaken internationalization as prima facie rationale for what we do; housing, mental health, campus suicides, student support and stewardship; culture, sexual assault and predatory behaviour; nature vs. nurture and male violence, the great majority of which is directed towards other males; regional growth and rural engagement; our addiction to unsustainable growth; reconciliation and residential schools; fentanyl, opioids and binge drinking; our complicity in the brain drain, the scourge of globalization; our culling of the top economic strata from the global South’s burgeoning middle classes (our emerging markets) to fill our classrooms, quotas and coffers; our wilful ignorance of the demography and elitism of study abroad, building programs and pedestals for the 1% to springboard their careers.”

While this text and the tone of the conference’s opening session gestured toward pressing ecological, economic, and political challenges, and the potential for international education to either mitigate or worsen these challenges, by midday the orientation of the conference turned sharply toward emphasizing unprecedented levels of wealth and well being, with the only perceived challenges being the possible interruption of the continued spread of this good news gospel and its accompanying material gifts. This tone continued with the keynote presentation of a prominent Canadian politician.

The tone of the keynote sounded eerily like the “Everything is awesome” song from the Lego movie, also echoing a refrain that has also been recently articulated by those seeking to reframe a seemingly endless stream of bad news and concerned assessments about the many challenges of the present.

Perhaps the most well known of these recent texts is Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, which Bill Gates has declared as his “new favorite book of all time.” From the book publisher’s description, in this book, “Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West, but worldwide. This progress is not the result of some cosmic force. It is a gift of the Enlightenment: the conviction that reason and science can enhance human flourishing.”

While for some this text is a welcome intervention, it has also been met with a series of critical responses. With this image, we offer a pedagogical cartography of responses to the assertion that “everything is awesome”, through which we seek to invite active engagement with the blindspots of this assertion in ways that might supplement the more point by point accountings of its inaccuracies and oversights. To illustrate the possible uses of this cartography, in addition to the image itself, we offer a series of possible guiding questions for educational engagement around the issues it addresses.

The image shows a speaker on a podium making declarations about the overwhelmingly positive state of the world, while  voices below him raise various concerns that contest his depiction of reality. This is not meant to be a comprehensive representation of all possible responses, but rather a selection of replies that would likely be most legible, if perhaps disagreeable, to the speaker. Indeed, there are many more voices that would likely be unintelligible to the speaker. One way to engage people around this image in a way that extends and complexifies what is already represented, might be to ask:

  • For those who agree with the speaker, what does his perspective offer?
  • Which/whose dissenting voices are likely to be intelligible to the speaker, and why;
  • Which/whose dissenting voices are unintelligible, why, and what might they be saying;
  • What are the effects of this selective hearing?

Similarly, the list of disavowed issues that surround the speaker is hardly comprehensive, so it can be generative to ask which issues are missing, and which are the most important in their own context.

By creating an opportunity to ask where different positions come from, what they presume, where they lead, what they enable, what they foreclose, and which positions remain absent or invisibilized, social cartographies can challenge presumptive authorities without either seeking to replace them with a different authority or advocating an absolute relativity of positions. Further, by challenging learned desires for consensus, coherence, and quick resolution, cartographies can help build the stamina that is necessary to sit with the contradictions, complexity, uncertainty, and ambivalence that are involved in learning and unlearning ways of knowing, being, and relating with and in the world. Ultimately, rather than prescribe solutions, this supports people to make their own (better informed) decisions about how to respond to complex global challenges within their own situated contexts.

Download image here.