Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Which role does education play in preparing the public leaders of tomorrow?

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An interview with Joseph Nye


Today’s world is complex and highly interdependent. To deal with this complexity, we need new Governance structures to be established. And we need young leaders who are able to think out of the box, to work interdisciplinary and to find socially sustainable solutions. Which role does education play in preparing the public leaders of tomorrow? Manouchehr Shamsrizi, student of the Master of Public Policy at HUMBOLDT-VIADRINA School of Governance, has asked Joseph Nye, a political scientist and the former dean of the Kennedy School of Government, for his opinion.

“In today’s world you need a broad base of education”

Manouchehr Shamsrizi: In a changing environment, in global crises, in all this increasing complexity, what role does education play for us as a young generation?

Joseph Nye: For a world that’s constantly changing, in an age of information revolution and globalization, you need an education that gives you a broad perspective rather than just technical skills. I often say that it is a little bit like building a pyramid instead of building a tower: If you have a certain number of blocks of education and you pile them up quickly, one on top of the other, you reach a very high tower quickly. But if there is an earthquake, meaning a major social change,the tower will fall. In contrast, if you build a pyramid with a broad base, it will take you longer to get to a high level, but you will be much more resilient when the earth shakes.

MS: How does this broad concept of education differ globally? Would you say it has to be adopted to fit the Asian, European or US context? 

JN: You need to have awareness of other cultures and other civilizations. Whether you start in Asia or Europe or the US, it is very important to have some sense of the other. You cannot understand your own country until you actually lived abroad and seen it from the point of view of another country. So it is not that the education system of one or the other is the only way to do things. It is that you have to be aware of the way in which other people do things.

MS: In the US, we see a lot of Government schools which is something new for us in continental Europe. Now that we are trying to push this pyramid model more, we are coming up with Governance schools. What do you think about this transformation?

JN: I think programs like your MPP at HUMBOLDT-VIADRINA make good sense. It is becoming more typical and I think what is interesting is that these schools try to combine an understanding of Social Sciences and History and Culture with the awareness of the impact of real policy systems.

“Students need to become tri-sector athletes”

MS: Many of my fellow students did not choose a classical career path in Government, but are trying to change policy in other sectors as well. Is this multi-sectoral approach an adequate answer to today’s challenges? 

JN: I think that is indeed the right answer. I often told students of the Kennedy School that they should consider themselves public leaders. Public leaders are those who think about how you add value to the public good, whether you are in the private sector or the non-profit sector or in the Government. In today’s world, students will be involved in more than one sector in the course of their lives. Therefore, they need to train themselves how to be a leader in different contexts in different circumstances. Students today need to be tri-sector athletes or tri-sectoral entrepreneurs, being able to lead and create public value in different sectors.

MS: Should teaching about digital technologies play a larger role in education? 

JN: Absolutely! I think it is essential for students today to realize in this current information age being able to understand not just the internet but larger context of cyber power. I do not think it is necessary to be a computer expert in the sense of writing code for yourself, but I think you have to understand the basics of how the cyber world works and how it interacts with the social world and with the political world. In fact, I am teaching a course at the Kennedy School on regimes for cyber power and I taught it this morning at the beginning of our new term. It is overenrolled; students are realizing the importance of this subject.

MS: What do you think about the open online course idea? Should schools and universities open themselves up?

JN: We are right in the early stages of this. It is not going to be a world in which all will be online or all will be in direct traditional teaching but it will probably be some hybrid of the two. Right now, we are experimenting, also at Harvard, and trying to find the best ways to combine the two.

“Learn how to cope with unpredictable earthquakes” 

MS: Another topic is life-long learning, which we are also trying to push with our MPP-program. It is not common in continental Europe – but how important is this idea of continuing education?

JN: I think it is very important, because in a world that is going to see major changes, you do not just take one stock of education at a young age and use that for the rest of your life. You have to keep renewing that stock periodically. In education, there are always benefits from the interaction between different generations. The Kennedy School has a program for mid-career students who then join the classroom with younger students. Each of them brings something different to the learning process.

MS: If you look at all these upcoming earthquakes you mentioned earlier, which three earthquakes do you think young people can have the biggest impact on?

JN: It is not that there is one earthquake that you can predict, it is the ability to cope with earthquakes that are unforeseen but predictable in the sense that they will occur, you just cannot predict what shape they will take. Understanding how people have reacted in previous periods of change is a very useful tool for dealing with upcoming changes, which we cannot specify, but we know will occur. For instance, now we are going through an information revolution in the same sense that we saw an information revolution after Guttenberg invented the printing press. It is not going to be short, it is going to take a long time to go its way through and it comes out in all aspects of social life. When one is living in a period of revolutions, it is the ability to deal with the unexpected that is particularly important.

MS: If you would not have chosen your current career-path, would there have been another kind of career you would have looked into? 

JN: I suppose if I had not become a professor doing teaching and writing I probably would have gone into Public Service or Foreign Service. It is worth remembering for young people that sometimes these choices happen by accident or opportunities occur which are unexpected. I did not start my education planning to be a professor. But it turned out that way and I am not unhappy with the way it turned out.


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Ole Wintermann Twitter: @olewin

Hi all – my name is Ole, and I’m the head of In my opinion, the Internet is going to play an essential role in coping with global future challenges. Currently, I see economic globalization and global governance as the two most central issues. These trends, and how they interact with others like demographic change and security, make the lives of people around the world complex and insecure, and make it tougher for political and economic decision-makers to make good long-term decisions. We need new rules and methods for decision-making. Dear politicians: please consider all of us when you make important choices. It’s our world, not yours. Please follow me also on my personal blog