Op/Ed

Clippings: Global thinking isn’t good enough

Global thinking is supposed to save the world.

Throughout my life — and particularly as a student — I have been told time and time again that we just need more universal understanding, communication and focus.

We are, after all, “citizens of the world” and responsible for the advancement of international discourse, for “bettering” things for others, for increasing connection. My education has glorified phrases like “big-picture thinking,” “globally-minded” and “far-reaching implications.” I have been taught that for work, conversations and perspectives to matter, they must be relevant to as many people as possible.

Many of us are drawn to Middlebury College for this very reason, for its international focus and engaged interconnections. I count myself among this number. I’m an anthropology major — I live to learn about differing cultures, wildly variant and interconnected ways of relating. And there is something gorgeous and brimming with potential for terrific and drastic change in global(ish) smarts.

But what of the local view?

What of being able to navigate a town without Google Maps, knowing the names of the folks who work at the gas station and the post office or recognizing nuances in seasonal shifts? We may learn these things whether we try or not, but where are we taught to value them as the prerequisites to resilience, trust and transformation?

Though schools encourage community service and connection, the ultimate value and interest there is not in what we learn from local community, but on what we can bring to it. There’s an unnamed reciprocity in the community-engaged, hands-on learning that we all do, simply by moving through the world in the places where we live. But naming it matters.

By working in the Middlebury community this summer, I’m relearning the marrow-deep wisdom of approaching education, communication and change through a local lens.

There is power in specificity. It is exhausting and unsustainable to look from everyone’s perspective all the time — actually it’s impossible. But to develop a rooted, weedy perspective of one’s own, fraught with the paradox and contact of close community and deepened by true contextual awareness is worth so much more than the ability to generalize. If we can bring to the table the specific know-how of our neighborhoods, then we have something tangible to share, something real to relate to. It feels so good to begin to know somewhere, to be able to track the tangles between people and places, the generational stories that haunt current discourse. There’s mischief in this, and good trouble. Because who crosses the road, who walks into the store, who sells at the farmer’s market every week without fail, all makes a difference. This street-wisdom that grows from being claimed by a place has the capacity to spark transformation.

Learning toward a global knowing often feels trapped inside the mind-set of economic growth and linear time — it’s all about future potential. But when I pay attention to what’s really happening around me, I am called into present-tense action and care.

I have a hunch there’s a very good reason college doesn’t teach this. Because it’s not easy. You can’t get an A in being a community member. It requires accountability and consistent diligence — showing up with heart again and again. The globalizing view sometimes numbs out my capacity to be in my own community with my wits about me, and I don’t believe that’s a fair sacrifice. To truly want to be here can be a terrifying risk to the screen-stunted student who is required, by Zoom, to be everywhere else all the time. But inside the ramping crises of this moment, I believe that’s a risk more than worth taking. Let’s flip the angle of our focus, turn to the embodied near before we look to the media-mediated global. Because only in local community do I actually experience the interconnectedness that globalizing academia says so much about. And there is magic and radiance in this real, on-the-ground relatedness — power to belong in a story of here and now, power to center joy, nourishing care and even gritty hope in our everyday lives. It’s a goodness we desperately need.

Perhaps there’s a middling place, where the far and wide and the right here interweave and spiral into each other. Of course we need the stories from elsewhere, but those too are so much richer when they come from voices rooted in place and versed in their own localities. Then we have, well, ground to stand on, a where to be coming from. And if this place-based, site-specific knowing were named and valued inside my education, I fervently believe I could engage the world in healthier, stranger, more radical and tender ways.

The more urgent and scary our worldwide situation becomes, the more good it could do to be able to trust what’s just under our feet. With a keen and consistent attention to local knowing, we might actually have a chance at growing resilient community in service to each other and the earth — and isn’t that what education is all about?

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