Introduction – “Rethinking Globalization”

By Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson

We began this book with the intention of focusing on sweatshops and child labor around the world. Like many others, we’d been outraged by stories of beatings at Nike factories in Vietnam, by images of children as young as six years old toiling over brand-name soccer balls in Pakistan, and by revelations that major clothes manufacturers pay workers pennies an hour in places like Haiti and Honduras while they charge top dollar at home.

But the more we focused on the larger “why?” questions, the harder it was to contain our teaching in simple “sweatshop” and “child labor” categories. It was impossible to separate our teaching about wretched conditions for workers around the world from all the factors that produced the desperation that forces people to seek work in those conditions. These factors include:

The history of colonial domination of much of the world that took self-sufficient economies and horribly distorted them.

The debt crisis, and how it has been manipulated by Western-led institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which bully poor countries with “structural adjustment programs.”

The free trade, “neo-liberal” emphasis of recent trade agreements like NAFTA, and now the World Trade Organization, that encourage poor countries to export their way to economic health and to specialize in the “commodity” of cheap labor.

Military interventions in places as far apart as Vietnam, Guatemala, and the Congo which have discouraged alternative routes to development. 

The more we taught about issues of globalization, the more we found ourselves telling our students: “Everything is connected. You can’t really understand what’s going on in one part of the world without looking at how it’s related to everything else.”

For example, in the Huaorani Indian struggle in eastern Ecuador (depicted in the role play, “Oil, Rainforests, and Indigenous Cultures,” p. 268), the debt crisis forces the government to aggressively seek sources of cash – like oil – to make interest payments to international banks. Transnational oil companies take advantage of widespread poverty to pay starvation wages to workers in terribly unsafe conditions. And like a bull in a china shop, they maraud through fragile rainforest ecosystems. In the quest for profits, oil companies treat people and the environment simply as resources to exploit. But not only are rainforests being ravaged, the indigenous cultures that depend on those rainforests are also in danger of being wiped out.

If oil companies successfully sucked all the oil out of the Huaorani’s territory in Ecuador – perhaps as much as $2 billion worth – it would power cars in the United States for only 13 days. Thus, the more we taught about issues in the Third World, the more it brought us home – home to an epidemic of consumption that links us to the poverty of others around the world, and links us to the growing ecological crisis that threatens the very existence of life on earth.

And casting a large shadow on the crisis in Ecuador and so many other poor countries is the legacy of U.S. military interventions – especially in this hemisphere – that have aborted alternative models of democracy and development. Globalization is not merely an economic phenomenon; it is accompanied by a big stick that has been wielded time and again, most often by the United States, to protect wealth and privilege.

This interconnectedness of issues was brought home powerfully in late 1999 with the mass demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, summed up by the celebrated placard, “Turtles and Teamsters: Together at Last.” What was so remarkable about the events in Seattle was that for the first time massive protests targeted not simply one single issue, but an entire constellation of grievances. The presence of U.S. steelworkers, Korean farmers, South African miners, French environmentalists, and Canadian teachers marching side by side underscored this new political awareness.

As we teach and organize around these matters, it’s vital that we emphasize the centrality of race. The development of European colonialism was sheathed in theories of white supremacy which sought to justify the slaughter of indigenous peoples, the theft of their lands, and the enslavement of millions of Africans. Today’s system of global inequality builds from these enormous crimes and is similarly legitimated, albeit more subtly, by notions of white supremacy. Vast imbalances of wealth and power still correlate heavily with skin color. Centuries of racism have normalized this inequality and have blinded too many people to its contemporary manifestations.


Much of today’s media coverage of globalization draws lines between “us” and “them.” “We” don’t have things like child labor and sweatshops. But of course we do. Indeed most knowledgeable observers believe that we have more sweatshops in this country than ever before – especially if we include the “sweatshops in the fields” for farm workers. So as we considered the big, interconnected picture in crafting this book, we tried to focus also on conditions at home. We especially didn’t want this to be a curriculum of pity. We hoped that students would consider that whether one works in a “sweatshop” or not, our lives here are directly affected by the global “race to the bottom” that pits workers around the world against one another. People here do have a moral imperative to help people everywhere. But we also have a personal stake in challenging the poor conditions around the globe that exert a downward pull on conditions here.

Early in this book’s development, one teacher made this point a little differently. She advised us not to focus solely on exploitation “over there.” “It’s not just happening in the Third World,” she said. “My kids are getting cheated out of hours at McDonald’s; they’re forced to work late, and managers disrespect them.” Despite important differences, the same essential market forces at play in Mexico or Indonesia influence life here as well – and often in much grimmer ways than are to be found, say, at McDonald’s. Globalization has so disrupted communities around the world that people’s desperation has left them easy targets for countless abuses. The traffic in women and children as virtual sex slaves is one of the more tragic examples. Immigrants around the world, including in the United States, labor in some of the worst conditions imaginable; and people die every day attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexican border.

One of our students recently took to heart our constant “everything is connected” refrain: “If everything is connected,” she said, “then you can’t change anything without changing everything. But you can’t change everything, so that means that you can’t change anything.”

Hers was a profound but troubling observation. In our teaching and in this book, we want to indicate that people’s efforts to fight for decent lives make an enormous difference. Throughout the book we highlight historical and contemporary struggles to address the diverse but interconnected problems detailed here. The world is a better place for these efforts, and they are vital sources of hope for the future.

But our student’s insight also needs to be considered. She’s wrong that we can’t change anything. But she’s right that we have to change everything, if by “everything” we mean the interlocking ideas and practices that make private interests paramount, and undermine the common good. This book is an argument for the necessity of holding in our minds and in our classrooms the big global picture. The world is a web of relationships. To be truly effective, every effort to make a difference needs to be grounded in that broader analysis. Likewise, every effort to teach about the world also needs to be informed by the bigger picture.

When we put “globalization” in the title of this book, we realized that we were promising readers, literally, the world. We did our best. But there are enormous areas that we may have touched upon but did not adequately cover here: the global AIDS crisis and public health issues, in general; many of the ways that globalization particularly impacts women and children; the vast and ongoing global migrations; the war against drugs and the military intervention in Colombia; the threat posed by global warming; the privatization of water; global housing shortages; issues of reparations for the slave trade and colonialism. Nor did we address as fully as we would have liked movements for global justice and questions about the social and economic systems needed to address the ills that profit-driven globalization creates.

As we neared publication, the world was stunned by the horrific events of September 11, 2001. On one level, these events brought into focus other limitations of this volume. We don’t directly address the issues of religious fundamentalism or terrorism. Nor do we feature articles that examine how globalization is playing out in the Muslim world – and how this might be related to the development of violent networks like al-Qaeda.

However, the events of September 11th are the clearest argument imaginable for the the kind of inquiry that we propose in this book: A deep global literacy must come to be seen as a basic skill in every school. It is more urgent than ever that students take a profoundly critical look at the direction the world is headed. How is the reach of the global market impacting cultures everywhere? What are the consequences of the vast and growing inequalities of wealth and power? Is this the best we can do? What alternatives can we imagine? Addressing questions like these is not simply important from an academic standpoint. It is literally an issue of survival.

We hope this book will join the conversation about how we can meaningfully teach for global justice. And we encourage you to contribute to this conversation, perhaps by signing up for the Rethinking Schools critical teaching listserv (instructions at

As we think about nurturing student success, let’s remind ourselves that yes, we teach to secure the future of individual students, but that future is intimately linked to the future of other people around the world – and of the earth itself.

Last Updated Spring 2001