By Chris Chipello
Move over, New York.
McGill’s Faculty of Education is hosting the Comparative & International Education Society’s 55th Annual Conference at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel, and the event has drawn a record 2,200 participants – surpassing the previous high of 1,800 in New York in 2008, according to CIES President-Elect Ratna Ghosh.
The gathering, May 1-5, marked the first time the conference was held in Montreal, the site chosen by Prof. Ghosh in her role as incoming president of the Society. Along with a team of her McGill PhD students, she spent the past year planning the event – and a year before that laying the groundwork.
Prof. Ghosh sat down with the Reporter to outline the scope and highlights of this major gathering of professors, educational researchers and policy makers from more than 150 countries around the world – even as she smoothly fielded a stream of last-minute requests over her crackling walkie-talkie. (Q: Should we pick up the taxi fare for the keynote speaker who just arrived? A: Yes; Q: A gentleman from an international organization would like to discuss possible collaborations; can you meet with him? A: In the seating area outside the conference rooms, in 30 minutes…)
The sprawling program includes 550 sessions on a broad array of topics related to education around the globe.
Monday’s sessions, for example, included a series of panel discussions on “Canadian Education in Perspective,” including “Religion and accommodation in Québec schools” (chaired by McGill Prof. Denise Lussier); “Education of First Nations and Inuit in Canada” (chaired by McGill Prof. Steven Shane Jordan); and “History teaching and citizenship and education in Canada” (chaired by Association for Canadian Studies Executive Director Jack Jedwab).
Among Wednesday’s features was a “Tribute to Jackie Kirk” series, with presentations by the chapter authors of a forthcoming memorial book dedicated to Kirk’s field of work: gender, education, conflict and peace. (Kirk, an adjunct professor in McGill’s Faculty of Education, was killed in 2008 in Afghanistan when gunmen ambushed a vehicle carrying aid workers from the New York-based International Rescue Committee.)
The conference has also included sessions on the implications of upheaval in the Middle East and “Education in emergency situations: the case of Japan” in the wake of the recent earthquake.
As an overarching theme for the conference, Prof. Ghosh chose the Sanskrit saying “Education is that which liberates.” The aim, she wrote in her welcoming letter to conference participants, is “to focus on education as a vehicle for liberation – not only from ignorance and poverty, but also from fear, vulnerability, injustice and social inequality.
“We in comparative education have a special obligation to see that the process and content of education eradicate ignorance and intolerance, and enable individuals to develop agency and voice. The ultimate product of education should be to produce engaged, critical and responsible citizens who can live peacefully in this world we all share.”
The idea of education as a liberating force also seemed particularly appropriate against the backdrop of Quebec, Prof. Ghosh told the Reporter. “Quebec society was very different before the Quiet Revolution. One of the important things that happened during the Quiet Revolution was that education was kind of liberated from the Church, and it liberated the people.”
Prof. Ghosh, one of a select few non-Americans to be elected president of the U.S.-based CIES, is a native of India who since 1977 has been a member of McGill’s Faculty of Education, serving as Dean from 1998 to 2003.
Having decided to stage the conference in Montreal, “I can’t tell you how pleased I am with how McGill has treated me” during the long-running preparations, Ghosh said. “McGill is an international institution, and it’s not just empty words. They put their money where their talk is. The Provost (Anthony Masi) and the Principal (Heather Munroe-Blum) recognized this immediately as a very important event, definitely for the Faculty of Education but also for McGill. And they’ve supported me in so many ways.”
CIES was founded in 1956 to foster cross-cultural understanding, scholarship, academic achievement and societal development through the international study of educational ideas, systems and practices.
The Society’s members include more than 2,000 academics, practitioners and students from around the world, as well as about 1,000 institutional members, such as academic libraries and international organizations. For the many graduate students attending this week’s conference, there have been workshops providing job-search and dissertation-writing tips.
CIES has raised global awareness of education. The organization and its members “play a pivotal role in shaping policy both regionally and around the globe,” Munroe-Blum wrote in a welcoming message to conference participants. “We at McGill are honoured to support their mission.”