Republicans: IB Program’s Global Citizenship is Irritating (January 15, 2012)

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Earlier today I enjoyed Sunday brunch with two high school classmates, Faith and Gary. Gary and I have been inseparable for the better part of 20 years, while Faith and I always kept in touch as we went off to college, started careers, married, reared children (her case), divorced (mine) and reinvented those careers (both). The three of us were all part of the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program as secondary school chums. The IB curriculum’s Swiss founders, presciently foretelling the coming of a flat, borderless economic, technical and social planet, engineered the program in 1968 with a goal of helping young people “develop the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world.” There are 3,318 IB schools in 141 countries.

IB, quite literally, prepares one for the multicultural complexities and rigors of life. There are no lazy U.S.-based educational standards to provide students with a free pass to college. I never worked so hard, with such a sense of reward. On graduation day in June of 1996, I held two diplomas in my hands: one from the Chicago Public School system and one from the IB Program. I knew I had earned both and had the skills to compete with any 18 year-old student from any nation. When I walked onto campus as a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, no slouch an institution of higher learning by any means, I was floored by the freedom and comparatively undemanding workload I enjoyed.

The goal of the IB Program, per its website, is to put young scholars through a “demanding two-year curriculum leading to final examinations and a qualification that is welcomed by leading universities around the world.” Indeed. I took no less than seven, three-hour long IB exams in subjects ranging from French composition to advanced biology to trigonometry, theory of knowledge and psychology. I completed a 4,000 word extended essay in the subject area of my choosing with the help of a faculty advisor, and satisfied the 100-hour requirements of CAS activities (community service, arts and sports). It was a full and diverse life, in addition to the AP exams, SATs and other milestones of the American high school career.

It’s quite true that with all my extracurriculars, scholastic demands and a steady boyfriend, I didn’t have an abundance of free time. But I lived smack in the middle of the City of Chicago and I didn’t have occasion to fall into any of the Windy City’s urban traps for wayward students either. Between the years of 1992 and 1996 when Gary, Faith and I were enrollees, Lincoln Park High School was the only institution within city limits to sponsor the program. Grade school students from all corners of Chicago prepped for the entrance exams, with immense peer competition for the roughly 120 spots. The program was expected to have a 50 percent attrition rate by the time all IB exams were completed. In other words, half of us were expected to fail.

The Lincoln Park High School of the early 1990s isn’t quite what it is today. Low-income students from nearby Cabrini Green outnumbered WASPy, middle-class types. Gang activity was a daily event and Chicago Police were no strangers to the hallways. Yet as a student of the IB program, there was no time or energy, not even the temptation really, to indulge in drugs, alcohol or violent pursuits. I simply had too much riding on my day-to-day effort. I came from a broken home and the IB program, quite frankly, was my ticket out. If my resolve should wobble, I need only remind myself the dropout halflife experienced by my non-IB counterparts.

All things considered and precociously exacting as my teen years were, it was the best situation in which I could have found myself, especially when set in relief against the structure-free, violently unpredictable, toxic environment of my family life. Academics and the other requirements of the IB program were an escape, one that required me to think broadly and forwardly with a clear-head.

Within this general and personal context, who on the planet could view the IB program through the prism of sinister anarchy and unpatriotic indoctrination? Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota), the Tea Party’s poster crackpot.

Back to brunch with Faith and Gary. Faith mentioned in passing that Ms. Bachmann had publicly decried the program this past summer as a force undermining American unity. I took the Internet upon my return home and found the following explanation from Mother Jones magazine: [Bachmann and other] “right-wing critics argued that IBO was quietly weaning kids off the antiquated notion of national sovereignty and American ideals and pushing them to become world citizens. (This, among other reasons, is why conservatives were so irked by Obama’s statement that he considers himself a ‘citizen of the world’). IBO students would be taught to revere the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and embrace a doctrine of moral relativism that values gay rights, redistribution of wealth, and the notion that the earth itself is a living organism.”

Well we can’t have that now, can we? If American students are to continue their competitive decline and complete their transformation into the ignorant, distracted sheep so valued by Big Business, Big Banks, Big Oil and a corrupt U.S. government, better to keep them away from lofty, radical notions that we’ve only got one race and one planet to protect.

A Generation X Bedtime Story (July 20, 2010)

Once upon a time, there were three high school girlfriends who planned to grow up and cut impressive business figures. All were students in a prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program at a respected Chicago Public School (that didn’t used to be an oxymoronic statement in the mid 1990s). Each had their own field of study where they planned to make their bones.

Ally, a lover of history and politics, attended the University of Chicago, and graduated in 200o with honors before entering the consulting field with a renowned Windy City firm. She worked long hours but traveled to many places and amassed a solid wad of cash that she hoped would prove to her conservative, immigrant parents that she had, in fact, made it. Meanwhile, she attempted to quash the persistent voice that periodically yelped, uninvited, “but I am not making a difference!”

Becky attended a respected Big 10 University, earning a Bachelor’s in English Literature, followed several years later by a Master’s. In the interim, she told herself that writing was just a hobby, certainly not lucrative enough, and that degree collection was just something to check off her “bucket list.” By way of distraction, she tried to content herself with climbing up the corporate ladder, having reached middle management at a giant non-profit, and the security that comes with it (high salary, 401k, and 5 weeks vacation time).

Carol also attended the University of Chicago, and stuck around after earning her B.A. to take up a law degree. Carol married young and started a family but balanced these demands with those of a well compensated, high power corporate attorney. Like Ally, Carol’s parents were also conservative, hard working immigrants, who looked at their daughter’s full plate and satisfactory income with a strong sensation of pride. But Carol lay awake at nights wondering if her young daughters would ever feel the same about all the time she spent away from home.

Ally, Becky and Carol, as close as friends could be, inevitably drifted a bit in their 20s. Marriages were celebrated, babies born, and relocations carried out. Through the time honored tradition of the 10-year high school reunion, aided by the social bonds of Facebook, the three women reconnected. On a Saturday night in July of this year, the ladies met at Carol’s place for a dinner party. Husbands and children (one of them the unborn baby that Ally is expecting in December) completed the former threesome.

But for these new family members and the obvious passage of time, Ally, Becky and Carol found that their dynamic was relatively intact. Conversation, laughs and intimacies came as easily as ever. However, when the inevitable question presented itself – “So, what are you up to?” – it was apparent for the first time that evening that in fact, a whole lot more than anyone suspected had changed.

Ally relayed the news that several years back, she had left consulting to return to school, earning her education certificate. She now lives in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Chicago, teaching math and science to middle school kids. She earns considerably less than she once did, but owned that if she had been honest with herself as an undergrad, this is the career she always wanted. The happy smile that set her face aglow, as she held hands with her husband and discussed the impending birth of their first child, served as testament that Ally had found what she was looking for.

Becky mentioned that she had toiled in a variety of corporate operations positions, with a number of successful outfits that granted her incremental increases in title and salary. Becky would begin each role, flush with enthusiasm, only to find herself curiously bored and burnt out in two years or less. One could, in fact, set their clock by this pattern. In May 2009, after the death of a very close friend, she indulged the long haranguing voice that told her life was too short to let this cycle continue. She left corporate America to strike out as a freelance writer by night, publishing in a number of circles, then took a huge pay decrease to manage communications and social media for a human service coalition by day.

Carol just returned to Chicago from Boston, where she moved with her family to accept a lucrative law firm position. She had lived on a property she co-owned with her parents, and could never understand why she wasn’t happier. A few months ago, Carol and her husband finally figured out that Beantown was a dead end. Carol resigned, sold her share of the property and returned to the Midwest. Her hubby accepted a full-time position which covered the family’s immediate financial needs, and Carol was able to tell her daughters that she’d never miss another minute of their lives.

Meet Ally, Becky and Carol – the anti-hippies. Whereas the flower children of the 1960s have been castigated for fomenting the freewheeling, idealistic social revolution of the time, before promptly “selling out” and morphing into the very institutions they once decried, it would seem that certain members of Generation X are playing out this drama in reverse. Raised in the 1980s “Me Decade,” they went through their formal education with tunnel vision, like good little disciples of Gordon Gekko. “Make money, earn awards, plan for retirement,” was the mantra, and they sure did their best to stay on the train to financial and professional glory.

But at some point, independently, and often in separate parts of the nation, these three woman took a good look inside and realized that unhampered ambition may have been good for the bank account, and great for the bragging rights of their folks, but awful for their souls and life satisfaction.

For years now, the death of idealism has been mostly accepted as fact. But the conversation which exposed these changes in destiny gives pause, followed very closely by excitement. Is this idealism in its new form? Not the college-aged anarchistic and rootless version, which is destined to burn bright before blowing out. What we find instead is a slower, more methodical, but eventually, more certain feeling that we must do more for our communities, our families and ourselves?

It seems there is hope yet – hope for more than a predetermined greedy, lazy, shortsighted, and selfish path through life. Lives are changing one mid-30s crisis at a time.

Sleep well.