Should IR be Taught at High School?

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On Saturday, April 21st, high school students from around New England came to Yale’s campus to participate in the International Relations Symposium at Yale (IRSY).

While many high school students interested in the field of international relations pursue their passions through Model United Nations, or speech and debate, this conference diverged in its focus on solely international relations education. Students attended lectures, seminars, simulations and workshops in areas of study ranging from international security to development and human rights. While my perspective may be slightly biased — as I was one of the Undersecretaries-General charged with organizing the conference — I remained struck by the uniqueness of the IRSY experience. As a high school student who had always been interested in global affairs and diplomacy, I was never able to attend any sort of event remotely similar to this. Throughout the conference I found myself itching to take off my staff name tag and duck into one of the lectures or seminars to be a student again for a few brief seconds. However the very structure of this event raised an interesting question; should international relations be taught in high school?

To answer this question it is necessary to first put it in context. There is an abundance of opportunities for learning about current events around the world, however frequently the resources available for analyzing these in a structured environment are few and far between. While there are notable exceptions, Model UN programs offer many students the chance to gain a greater familiarity with diplomacy and many schools (including some represented at IRSY) have elective classes revolving around foreign policy, it is rare to see the kind of structured analysis of contemporary issues which is often taken for granted in IR programs at the college and graduate school levels. For instance, while history and social studies provide invaluable background information, they tend to stop short of addressing issues such as the global consequences of rising China, or the regulation of drones under the laws of war. This is not a condemnation of traditional secondary school curricula, rather it hopes to demonstrate that some of the most pressing issues affecting our lives today are exactly the challenges which the field international relations is best equipped to tackle. Given how rapidly the world is changing , it may be necessary to begin teaching international relations simply as a matter of staying ahead of the curve.

Of course, it is unlikely that every high school student who participates in a program on international relations education will go on to dedicate themselves to diplomacy, there is value in IR learning as it forces students to confront ambiguity. One of my favorite classes in high school was a history course taught my senior year on Israel-Palestine. I appreciated it not only because the subject matter remained incredibly relevant, but also because it broke with how I traditionally conceived of a high school class. Rather than revolving around the memorization and recitation of facts, the class centered around causes of conflict and pathways towards peace. Any “solution” we came up with inevitably had flaws, rooted in historical and contemporary issues, which inexorably led to the unravelling of whatever carefully laid peace plan we had developed. While frustrating at the time, I felt the class challenged my critical thinking skills in a way I had never experienced before.

Although this is just one anecdote, it speaks to the challenge at the heart of international relations as a discipline; to continually attempt to solve problems for which it appears no solutions exist. Precisely because it deals with complex issues such as the drivers of poverty, why wars start and how states fail, international relations promotes and even demands debate among its students. The lack of a clean endpoint, when individuals can retire and say definitively that they have reached a consensus means that international relations helps foster the kind of nuanced thinking which is so valuable at every stage later in life. From teaching individuals to address counterarguments, or how to change their own positions based on new information, international relations has the potential to instill an innovative mentality among students which will serve them well no matter their future path.

Now comes the matter of practicality, for even if an international relations education generates such profound benefits for students, it is no small feat to add an entirely new discipline to the high school course offerings. To do so would require hiring new faculty, allocating funds and restructuring schedules or even cutting other important programs to make room for additional IR classes. As a result, in trying to bring more variety to the high school curriculum, the introduction of international relations may in fact lead to less depth across all subject areas. This is where programs such as IRSY become invaluable as they possess the resources necessary to consolidate experts and practitioners from a number of different fields in one place to teach.

Furthermore, these programs ought to be expanded both in terms of their availability and accessibility. Institutions of which focus on international relations ought to look beyond their at times narrow focus on college and above to see the incredible potential which exists among high schoolers. Universities, think-tanks and government agencies should all make an investment in providing international relations education to high schoolers. A re-emphasis on the values of international relations learning will hopefully serve to galvanize interest on the part of these actors and inspire more programming in this field directed at high school audiences.The interest exists, as was readily apparent in the faces of every one of the students who chose to wake up early and spend their Saturday in classrooms studying and discussing IR, what remains to be seen is whether the opportunities will continue to be created.

The question then becomes not whether international relations should be taught to high schoolers, but how can high schoolers be brought into contact with those best equipped to teach?

Thanks to all of the IRSY secretariat members, staffers, lecturers, teachers, workshop and seminar leaders whose incredible work made this conference a joy to work on.