The Crucial Lessons of Traveling

I couldn’t agree more with the following observation by The Atlantic‘s Amanda Machado, whose article “Traveling Teaches Students in a Way Schools Can’t” explores the often-neglected experiential side of education.

During my time traveling in these areas, I often traveled without access to hot water, Internet, air conditioning, or even basic electricity. I slept in rooms with spiders, mosquitoes and bedbugs. I rode on public transportation that rarely left on time and often broke down suddenly in remote areas. Stripped of my daily habits and expectations, I was forced to surrender the idea that I have a right to anything—including the luxury of convenience, or days when everything I’ve planned actually happens. And my minor travel hassles seemed even more petty when I realized that they represented larger systemic problems that locals must deal with every day.

But these trips didn’t only teach me to appreciate what I had; they also moved me to consider why I had it in the first place. I realized that much of what I thought was necessity was, in fact, luxury and began to realize how easily I could survive off of much less. I didn’t necessarily need hot water or a timely bus or a comfortable bed to be happy for the day. I didn’t necessarily need a jaw-dropping landscape or a famous archeological ruin or a stunning beach to make my travels worth it. Instead, most of the time, that fulfillment came from the people I interacted with—not the things I had or did. It came from eating soup with locals at a rest stop on a 12-hour bus ride, sharing a meal with Peruvian soccer fans while watching a match, or chatting with the owner of my hostel during his lunch break. Discovering that my best travel moments came from these subtle, personal moments instead of the grandiose, materialistic ones made me understand that living contently required little. What I originally thought I “took for granted”, I now rethought taking at all.

Before traveling, I also assumed people from developing countries would all want the advantages I had as an American. And yet, I discovered that the people in these countries didn’t necessarily feel like their lives were lacking. During my last visit to South Africa, I worked with John Gilmour, the executive director of LEAP schools, a charter network for low-income students. Gilmour told me about an encounter he had visiting a Cape Town township community before he decided to open his first school near there. A local showed him a street corner and told him, “This is my favorite place in the whole entire world”. Gilmour was skeptical and argued, “How could you say that? Look at the graffiti, look at the trash covering the floor, look at the unpaved road”. The other man responded, “No, look at the people”.

Stories like these are what continue to whet my appetite for more travel. Even if it is just exploring a neighboring town I had never visited before, I always find myself learning something new — especially when I take the time to engage with fellow humans.  Continue reading


The World’s Most Corrupt Countries in 2014

Transparency International, a Berlin-based nonprofit that monitors and reports on political corruption, has recently published its most recent edition of the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), a comparative list of corruption worldwide.

Defined by the organization as “the misuse of public power for private benefit”, corruption takes many forms — such as bribery, cronyism, embezzlement, and political repression — and is the scourge of the human condition, undermining everything from economic development to social cohesion.

Unfortunately, this age-old problem remains a pervasive challenge across the globe, as the most recent results show.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The CPI ranks countries on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). It is immediately clear that much of the world struggles with corruption on a vast scale — shades of red, signifying political malfeasance, dominate the map, punctuated by only a few pockets of blue, mostly concentrated in North America, Europe, and parts of East Asia and Oceania. (Although one should note the island of clean governance that stand out in certain regions, such as Chile and Uruguay in Latin America, Singapore in Southeast Asia, and the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East.) Continue reading

Once Upon a Time in Dubai

It’s amazing how much the United Arab Emirates has changed, especially its flagship world city, Dubai. It’s population has grown from a few thousand nomadic pastoralists to millions of urbanites from around the world living in some of the most modern cities Asia. At the rate it’s developing, who knows what the future will hold?

Click here to see Dubai in its simpler days.

Today, Dubai is known as a gleaming, glittering cosmopolitan oasis, crowned by the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. But it was not long ago that the city was as familiar with camels and dhows as it is now with Ferraris and indoor ski slopes. The regional oil boom changed everything: As the Gulf states found themselves flush with trillions in petrodollars, the tiny emirate positioned itself as a financial entrepot and regional hub for construction and tourism. While the global recession hit it hard, leading many to speculate about a “Dubai bubble,” the emirate has rebounded nicely — its economy is projected to grow by more than 4 percent this year after reinventing itself as a financial safe haven amid the Arab Spring, earning a spot on what the International Herald Tribune calls the New Silk Road.

The following pictures, taken in the late 1960s and early 1970s, show a society just on the cusp of the ambitious development that would soon be its hallmark. Above, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and the consitutional monarch of Dubai, leads a camel riding party in his youth.

Source: Foreign Policy (FP)

What America Can Learn From Finland’s Education System

Yet again, there’s more attention heaped upon Finland’s impressive primary education system, this time from The Atlantic, which explores what factors makes the Nordic country so successful in educating its youth (and whether it’s applicable here).

The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America’s school reformers are trying to do.

For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what’s called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.

Instead, the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.

As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”

For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.

And while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Paronen: “Real winners do not compete.” It’s hard to think of a more un-American idea, but when it comes to education, Finland’s success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.

Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings us back to the silence after Sahlberg’s comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don’t exist in Finland.

“Here in America,” Sahlberg said at the Teachers College, “parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It’s the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.”

Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his American audience heard it.

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

* * *

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.

In fact, since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland — unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway — was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.

That this point is almost always ignored or brushed aside in the U.S. seems especially poignant at the moment, after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement have brought the problems of inequality in America into such sharp focus. The chasm between those who can afford $35,000 in tuition per child per year — or even just the price of a house in a good public school district — and the other “99 percent” is painfully plain to see.

The question is, can this system be replicated to any degree in the United States, or is it too unique to Finland’s culture and society?

Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Teachers College, has addressed the effects of size and homogeneity on a nation’s education performance by comparing Finland with another Nordic country: Norway. Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish. The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country’s school system than the nation’s size or ethnic makeup.

Indeed, Finland’s population of 5.4 million can be compared to many an American state — after all, most American education is managed at the state level. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington, there were 18 states in the U.S. in 2010 with an identical or significantly smaller percentage of foreign-born residents than Finland.

What’s more, despite their many differences, Finland and the U.S. have an educational goal in common. When Finnish policymakers decided to reform the country’s education system in the 1970s, they did so because they realized that to be competitive, Finland couldn’t rely on manufacturing or its scant natural resources and instead had to invest in a knowledge-based economy.


Fazila Shirindil is a former student of Skateistan, a nonprofit organization that employs Afghan youth from the street, teaches them a new sport, and provides a place for boys and girls to play together. It serves as a necessary respite from the horrors of war and poverty. She has since become a skateboard instructor, and is seen here playing on a mini-ramp outside a guest house in Kabul in 2010, at the age of 12.

You can learn more about this amazing project in this beautiful slideshow from Foreign Policy.

A Slideshow of the World’s 75 Most Dynamic Cities

Courtesy of Foreign Policy:

Welcome to the era of the megacity. More than half the global population now lives in urban areas, and there’s no going back to the farm. With China leading the way, today’s global cities are surging ahead in population and economic heft, powering the world economy — and posing some very difficult problems for governments. But it’s not all about the Beijings, the New Yorks, and Tokyos. Drawn from the McKinsey Global Institute‘s index of the world’s 75 Most Dynamic Cities, some of these up-and-coming commercial hubs — including Belo Horizonte, Fuzhou, and even Philadelphia — may surprise you. How many can you honestly say you’ve heard of, or visited?

Check out this long and impressive slideshow here. Unsurprisingly, most of these cities are located in the developing world, namely China and India but also many parts of Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. While cities are powerhouses of culture, industry, and innovation, they can also become concentrations of poverty, crime, social dysfunction, and pollution.

Can this world accommodate any more urban sprawl? Some of these conurbations are seeing triple digit growth, a scale of growth that is almost unprecedented in history. What will be the consequences? We’ll need smart planning – but will anyone be willing to invest in it?

While we’re on the subject, check out China’s 29 largest and most influential cities, most of which are unknown to outsiders.

The Corruption Perceptions Index

The countries with the lowest rates of corruption, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index  for 2011 (the only source of its kind).

Other countries in the top 10 include Canada, Australia, Norway, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. The US ranks 24. Note that countries with big governments can be found all across the spectrum, from cleanest to most corrupt. Many of the world’s most secular societies also rank highly as well.

I think Canada and Australia are particularly impressive in their performance, since they’re far more populous, diverse, and geographically large than the others that rank highly. The trend seems to be that countries which homogeneous, small, and demographically compact tend to be less corrupt. But of course, it’s far more complex than that, and many other factors contribute.

Troubled World

The world is beset by so many dire problems that it’s difficult to even comprehend them in the first place, let alone figure out how to solve them. During the past two weeks alone, I’ve read about our oceans being emptied of life and acidifying, climate change intensifying, a looming global food crisis brought on by said climate change, and persistent economic troubles that are worsening inequality and poverty in dozens of countries.

While the world has always had it’s problems – and as a history buff, I’m well aware of that – they’ve never been on this scale nor have they even been this existential (save for the threat of nuclear war during the Cold War). The human mind wasn’t evolved to deal with issues of this magnitude, which most people can’t even piece together let alone bring themselves to solve. Heck, we have so many intractable problems affecting us on the local, state, and national level that most people don’t even think to begin on the largest scale of all.

How do we bring together a disunited world that is overwhelmed with too many other concerns and manipulated by elites who care little about these issues? Where do we even start? I thought I knew, but now I’m not so sure.