To be published by Knowledge@Wharton in March, 2019

by Howard Blumenthal



From the author’s earlier Knowledge@Wharton article: “We are growing the world’s first generation of healthy, literate and globally connected kids. A mobile device is an ideal tool for curious children and teenagers to pursue a personalized learning path to global citizenship. Think beyond school, beyond traditional media. The internet is the fastest-growing educational institution the world has ever known.”


One year later, the author has interviewed and posted hundreds of Kids on Earth videos with children and teenagers who live in the small, lower income Bulgarian village of Oriahovitsa; the coal mining towns of Fleming and Neon, Kentucky; a suburban Philadelphia middle school with kids from Japan, Moldova, Mongolia, Russia, Israel, and New Jersey; several schools in and near Kampala, Uganda; and a teenage girl in Kosovo who cannot leave her home country. Plans include a Latino middle school in East Harlem and another in a Navajo region of northern Arizona, the small city of Suleymaniyah in northern Iran near Kirkuk and Mosul; a farm community in The Philippines; a school for the blind in the United States; and a kibbutz in southern Israel near Gaza. The list is long. After decades of middling interest, global citizenship education seems to be taking root in classrooms around the world.


With each interview, the picture of 21st century childhood diverges from pre-conceived notions, so conversations begin without prior knowledge of the 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 or 14 year old being interviewed. The poor “Gypsy” or “Roma” sixth grader prefers to be called Bulgarian, explaining, “I live in Bulgarian. I speak Bulgarian. I am Bulgarian.” When Donika walks to school with her friend Zlatka, she grabs a croissant for breakfast. She follows boy bands on YouTube, adores her history teacher, enjoys learning about physics and math, and carries her new Samsung phone everywhere so she can keep in touch with her mom. When the interview is complete, she hops a ride to a nearby shopping mall.


Kristian, also 12, goes to Fleming-Neon Middle School in Letcher County, eastern Kentucky, “our little special area.” He lives “the great life” on a hill, with “lots of animal noises” outside his trailer, a “metal house.” Mom, dad and sister live with an underweight “weiner dog” and Tucker, an enthusiastic border collie pup in need of training. The hills are alive with creeks, ponds, lots of rain, dirt roads, dirt bikes and four-wheelers, trees to climb, hunters with guns or bows-and-arrows, wild turkey, pigs, and deer. “I think killing animals is okay because you can eat them. You can make jerky. We can use the fur, and sew it.” There may be “some copperhead snakes in your backyard, but I wouldn’t recommend eating them.” As an adult, Kristian “probably will stay here,” but that “depends on the job I want to do. I want to become a pharmacist, actually. First, I was going to become an orthopedic surgeon, but…even though you’re making all that money, you really don’t have time to spend with friends or family. To become a pharmacist, you have to do four years of college, then at least four years of medical school. You have to get a doctor’s degree in medicine, but you can also go through a program…for six years, but it’s a little more difficult.”


Times past, the way to make a decent living in Oriahovitsa, Bulgaria was farming or factory work making large appliances or heavy transformers or sugary foods. The way to make a living in Letcher County, Kentucky was coal mining or driving a truck. Life as a child was risky. Mortality rates were high, medical care was insufficient, education was anemic, and the outside world seemed very far away. Today, eastern Kentucky children nervously wait for their jet-black, coal dusty dad to return home safely every night, but they’re certain they’ll become teachers, nurses, small business owners, doctors and lawyers. One girl will certainly become Governor of the State of Kentucky.


The kids tell the tales, and live the life, but they don’t sense the scale or scope of the massive global transformation that shapes their daily existence. For adults, the kids’ future in this century may be difficult to envision with clarity or precision.


In 2050, today’s ten year olds will be forty years old. By that time, all but two of the world’s twenty largest cities will be located in Asia or Africa (New York City and Mexico City)—not one will be in Europe. One billion people will live in the Americas, one billion in Europe, and one billion in Africa, with the other five billion in Asia.


By 2100, none of the largest cities will be American or European. By that time, the Americas (1 billion) and Europe (1 billion) will be minor players in comparison with Africa (4 billion) and Asia (5 billion). Less progressive nations fret about their own borders, and discredit the tremendous opportunity provided by immigrants. Forward thinking people build the future.


When a new student from Ethiopia takes a seat in an American classroom or British or Indian classroom, the other children see nothing unusual. They’re already learning beside children from China, Cambodia, Jamaica, Pakistan, Poland, Ghana, Vietnam, Egypt, Colombia, and Mexico. The new girl from Addis Ababa may be nervous, but similarities overshadow differences. There is the usual awkwardness when she visits her first friend’s house. The family is Korean, but dinner is pizza with a healthy salad option. Everybody seems to be speaking, or learning, English—without thinking too much about the future of their own native languages. After dinner, it’s time for LEGO. When asked, nobody knows its country of origin. Or cares.


At the start of the 20th century, free public education was a new idea. Compulsory education was difficult to justify for girls and for many ethnic groups.


At the start of the 21st century, everything is different. Children see the world, unencumbered, on their digital devices. They exchange ideas, play games with team members on five continents in eighteen time zones, and make friends without concern for political boundaries (with notable exceptions). Digital exchange programs schedule international and intercontinental classroom-to-classroom conversations—and teachers are learning to schedule and manage similar Zoom and Skype conversations on their own. In many parts of the world, several NGOs arrange constructive cultural and social adventures for middle school and high school students. The pageantry and extreme athleticism of the global Olympics is the pinnacle of hundreds of regional and international competitions for thousands of talented middle and high schoolers. High school marching bands routinely perform on other continents. Dancers and orchestras and jazz ensembles do, too. Semester abroad is now common for college students. Throughout the world, students from China, India, and dozens of other countries attend universities to prepare for a career they may or may bring back home. When kids think in terms of globalization, they’re not thinking about global markets or off-shore manufacturing. They dream about opportunities within reach.


As Kids on Earth travels the United States and the world, visiting schools and communities at every income level, it’s no longer surprising to find Donika and her new Samsung cell phone accessing the world from her hardscrabble village. Or Teo, who learned a lot about quantum physics by watching YouTube. Or Sianna, who grew up in a noisy household with foster siblings—and plans to raise her own family in the same way. Or Koh, who travels from Pennsylvania to Japan every summer to be with friends and grandparents, and enjoy onsen (natural hot spring baths). Or Ade, who moved from Nigeria to England and isn’t sure why his nationality matters. Or twelve year old Stanimir in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria, who’s ecstatic when he utters the words “German chocolate.” Natali lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia, but she will return to her native Georgia to start new European clothing brand and open a store for local fashion. She insists on equal pay for women, and fair treatment for all. She also insists we visit Tblisi to enjoy spectacular Georgian cuisine (a week later, The New York Times confirms her enthusiastic recommendation). A Nigerian parent born in Africa, is more likely to have a master’s degree than an American parent born in the United States.


As the United Nations continues to pursue its Millennium Development Goals, as we continue to educate girls, provide clean water and eradicate disease, connect nonprofits and NGOs to provide essential social services, build infrastructure, vaccinate, and deal with corruption through education, children will shine. Stories of engaging children and teenagers from Bulgaria (whose educational attainment for US immigrant parents exceeds Nigeria’s success) or Uruguay (“high per capita income, low level of inequality and poverty, and the almost complete absence of extreme poverty”) will share a familiar tone.


In time, the new focus will become interviews with educated children who no longer live in the slums of Metro Manila in The Philippines, and the teenagers who benefit from education, economic and social improvements in Lagos, Nigeria and Dhaka, Bangladesh. Closer to home, maybe there will be stories about freedom from want told by motivated children who have finally broken through 20th century racism, and now enjoy safe neighborhoods and a first class education. This will be a big accomplishment because 1 in 5 Black and Hispanic children currently live in poverty in the United States.


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