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Rethinking Globalization

Words are metaphorical, and may generate misleading images. When we say that the United States is a "developed" nation, the word paints pictures of a social or economic process that is somehow complete; it suggests a society that has fulfilled its natural destiny, that is as it was meant to be. Likewise, the use of terms like "developing" or "underdeveloped" to describe a country or culture, implies only a deficit status. It defines other peoples by what they are not, and establishes a Westerntype industrial society as the model toward which all societies are heading - or at least ought to be heading.

The "developing" or "underdeveloped" tags miss the ways in which other countries, other cultures, are already developed. So-called developing nations have thousands of years of traditional knowledge stored in their cultural patterns. For example, in another Rethinking Schools book, Rethinking Columbus, Philip Tajitsu Nash and Emilienne Ireland describe a typical elder of the Wauja people of the Amazon rainforest, who

The integrity of traditional cultures may be missed when we define development as increases in gross national product. Listen, for example, to the arrogance in the comments of the head of Nike corporate education when he told a reporter, "I think we're doing a great job quite frankly, to help evolve some of these cultures." He said that Vietnam's culture was "just emerging," thanks in part to Nike investment. He made these claims about a culture that was well-established centuries before the United States existed. Even to call other countries "poor," which we do in this book from time to time, hides the ways they may be rich in traditional knowledge and relationships.

More often in this book we use the term Third World to characterize the countries not part of the industrialized First World (the United States, Europe, etc.) or the industrialized Second World (the former Soviet bloc countries). It's an older term, one that gained wide usage after the 1955 conference of Afro-Asian countries in Bandung, Indonesia, and is still favored by many advocates for global justice - for example, the Third World Network (www.twnside.org.sg) - along with the newer expression Global South. Both terms acknowledge broad commonalities among countries, but don't carry the connotation that those countries are being held to the standard of thing-rich industrial societies, as is true with "developing" or "underdeveloped" labels.

The term we include in this book's title may itself be misleading. "Globalization" can imply that we are all mutually influencing one another, growing together, becoming a "global village," in the words of that unfortunate cliché. It can miss the profound imbalances in who determines and benefits from a "globalized" world. And it's a grand-sounding title that suggests that we've entered a new epoch of human history. More accurately, we're witnessing the quickening spread of the profit system as more and more areas of the globe are drawn into its orbit. Life throughout the world is becoming increasingly commodified. The scope of this development may be new, but the process is not. Thus when we use the term "globalization" in the book, we are referring to this profit-driven process, rather than to the potential of global networking for a better world, although some use expressions like "grassroots globalization" or "globalization from below" to imagine a more humane and ecologically sane connectedness.

The point is simply that language is political and metaphorical. Every time we speak to our students, our language offers them images that may communicate more than we intend. Thus part of "rethinking globalization" is rethinking the language we use to talk about the world.

— The editors

Last Updated Spring 2002