The Individual Oral, Global Issues, The Great Gatsby, and Generation Wealth (with Bodies of Work)

A social media post written by a language and literature teacher suggested that teaching global issues is a waste of time and not something to be concerned about. There is, arguably, some merit in this claim. We teach language and literature, perhaps with too little time to do so and, anyway, there is only one small part of one assessment component where global issues seem obviously pertinent. Besides, there are other organising frameworks that must inform a course, not least areas of exploration and concepts. Why, then, bother too much with global issues?

It is not unreasonable to think this way. Another position is, however, possible. The IB in its mission statement aims to create ‘a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect’. This mission cannot be left to, say, teachers of TOK, CAS, and social science subjects. It is the responsibility of all teachers in all subjects to promote this mission through daily classroom practice. And, it cannot be promoted without engagement with the wider world. That would be – to misquote a former American president – mission not fully accomplished. A focus on global issues is not only about advancing a bold aim (if that is not enough). Addressing global issues provides a response to the student who does not see the point in studying literary works and non-literary texts; ‘what has this to with me?’ they say. Global issues, by definition, are always idiomatically experienced at a local level. It should not be hard for a teacher (or students) to establish connections between individual lives, local matters, and global issues. This sense, that something matters, builds an affective engagement, and where this traction is established better outcomes in examinations are more likely. Missions accomplished.

Teachers will, ultimately, take their own position on global issues. Since global issues frame the Individual Oral (IO) examination, they cannot be entirely ignored. Two main ways of approaching global issues suggest themselves: (i) The teacher introduces the global issue and uses this to scaffold the teaching of works and texts. We can call this a deductive approach. (ii) The teacher teaches works and texts, and global issues emerge from the reading. We can call this an inductive approach. Both approaches can work.

Here, on this page, we take a deductive approach. The starting point is a global issue. It is the issue of ‘inequality’ which, to more accurately quote a (different) American president, is what Barrack Obama referred to in 2013 as ‘the defining issue of our time’. We hope that this page may be used in a range of ways. Teachers may want to dip into it, selecting some parts of the page but not others; teachers may decide to use the page in its entirety, perhaps forming a summer reading and viewing project; teachers may use some are all of the page to practice the IO; and/or teachers may like to use part or all of the page to augment their study of the ever popular novel, The Great Gatsby. Certainly, the page is most obviously useful to teachers working with Fitzgerald’s novel. The page also provides some practice for approaching visual texts in Paper 1.

Rising Inequality

The following TED talk is given by Chrystia Freeland. Ms. Freeland is known for many things: A Canadian, she is a writer, a journalist, and a politician. She has written and published Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (2012). She has degrees from Harvard and Oxford universities and – best of all – she is an IB Diploma graduate, having studied at the United World College of the Adriatic, in Italy.

Before Watching

Ask students the following questions:

In the following talk, the speaker, Chrystia Freeland, suggests that we are living in an age of surging income inequality.

  • What is income inequality? 
  • Should we care, and why? 
  • What is driving inequality?
  • What, if anything, can be done to address income inequality?

While Watching

Ask students to make notes that respond to the following questions, then discuss in pairs or groups, and in the whole class:

  • Freeland identifies something called ‘The Great Gatsby Curve’. What is it?
  • What does Freeland suggest are the causes and solutions to income inequality?

After Watching

Ask students to discuss the following questions:

  • Income inequality is, according to Freeland, rising. If, according to statistical evidence, absolute poverty in the world is rapidly decreasing, does inequality matter? Why/why not?
  • What are the likely outcomes of (increasing) income inequality for individuals and societies?

Rising Inequality: Questions as a Student Worksheet

Rising Inequality?

Freeland’s arguments (above) seem very compelling. However, as with much social science, larger patterns can disguise nuance and difference, and because correlation is not causation, different explanations coexist for social and economic phenomena. On this website, from The Global Change Data Lab at the University of Oxford, students can learn more about the complexities of income inequality across time and space. Teachers may like to direct the attention of their students to this site (or elsewhere). However, since we are concerned with language and literature rather than politics or economics, we have not provided any further activities.

Does Economic Inequality Harm Individuals and Societies?

We now turn our attention to another TED talk. This time, the talk is given by Richard Wilkinson. Professor Wilkinson is, with Professor Kate Pickett, the author of the highly influential (and controversial) book, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2009). The title of the book seems to speak for itself. We suspect, given his age, that Professor Wilkinson did not study the IB Diploma. However, he did attend Leighton Park School in the UK, which, at the time of writing, offers the IB Diploma!

Before Watching

Ask students to read the following extract from John Donne’s ‘Meditation 17’ (1623) and respond to the questions that follow:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

  • What does Donne mean by ‘no man is an island’? To what extent do you agree?
  • The IB is now over 50 years old. Its first director general was a Scotsman called Alec Peterson. He wrote a book called Schools Across Frontiers (2003) in which he outlined a vision for a system of international education to unite people, working towards a better and more peaceful world. In your own experience of studying the IB Diploma, to what extent do you think it has prepared you to be more (or less!) inclined to work with people who are different from you and with whom you may disagree?
  • To what extent does inequality hinder the creation of a better and more peaceful world?

While Watching

Ask students to make notes that respond to the following questions, then discuss in pairs or groups, and in the whole class:

  • Professor Wilkinson suggests that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive? What arguments does he develop to support this claim?
  • According to Professor Wilkinson, inequality has significant implications for social identity, health, and wellbeing. Outline some of his main arguments.
  • Professor Wilkinson suggests that ‘if more Americans want to live the American Dream, they should move to Denmark.’ Why does he suggest this?

After Watching

Ask students to discuss the following question:

  • Professor Wilkinson seems very convincing, and he uses a great deal of data to support his claims. To what extent are you convinced, and what possible objections might you have?

Does Economic Inequality Harm Individuals and Societies? Questions as a Student Worksheet

A Caveat or Two

In the introduction to this section, we suggested that the work of Wilkinson and Pickett is controversial (insofar as there are objections to their claims). Teachers will not have the time or scope to pursue complex social and economic objections. However, they may wish to direct students towards alternative positions. There is a great deal about ‘the spirit level controversy’ available on the Internet. Here is one good example.

Inequality versus Poverty: Same Same or Different?

Teachers need, to a greater or lesser extent, to build the study of global issues into their language and literature course. This is essential for the IO. However, it is important to keep in mind that global issues frame the IO; the IO is not ‘about’ the global issue. Students, rather, need to show how the global issue is textually represented. Equally, teachers will want to promote international mindedness and critical thinking, and encourage students to pursue interests developed in class. Here, then, we provide an opportunity for further study. We provide a link and study questions for Hans Rosling’s documentary film Don’t Panic: End Poverty. Rosling’s view is very optimistic, and we think optimism is important! At the same time, it is important to remind students that Rosling’s sanguine perspective (on poverty) has attracted considerable criticism.

Before Watching

Ask students to address the following questions:

  • What are the differences between inequality and poverty? How are inequality and poverty related?
  • On a scale of 1-10 (where 1 represents 10% and 10 represents 100%), how many people in the world as a whole have electricity?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how many children in the world as a whole have been vaccinated against measles?
  •  On a scale of 1-10, how many girls in the world as a whole attend primary school?

While Watching

Ask students to address the following questions:

  • Professor Rosling provides answers to the questions you answered earlier on electricity, vaccinations against measles, and education of girls. How many did you get right?
  • What do your answers suggest about your preconceptions of the world?

After Watching

Ask students to debate the following questions:

Two students in you IB Diploma class plan to run in a local half-marathon (roughly 22km). Both ask for donations for projects they are supporting. You decide you only have enough money to support one of the projects. The first student – John – is raising money for a project in Malawi. The money raised will go to some people in an impoverished village. As far as the money raised lasts, US$100 will be given randomly to (some) individuals to spend in any way they like. No questions asked. The second student – Shreya – is raising money for a project in Brazil. The money is going to support a drugs rehabilitation project in a favela in Rio de Janeiro.

  • Based on this limited information, what questions would you like to ask John and Shreya?
  • Which project, if any, would you most like to support and why?

Don't Panic: End Poverty - Questions as a Student Worksheet

From Global Issues to the Individual Oral: A Practice Activity (including Bodies of Work)

We now shift focus to the IO. We have selected photographs by Lauren Greenfield from her Generation Wealth project, and extracts from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby. Doing a practice IO with these extracts presupposes some pre-teaching and, not unlikely, that students have read The Great Gatsby. We have provided some basic, generic prompts for both sets of extracts; teachers may wish to substitute or improve on our work. Greenfield’s (non-literary) photographs quite obviously revisit the global issue of inequality. We have tried to select extracts from The Great Gatsby where the issue of inequality is more or less obvious. Fitzgerald’s novel could be substituted for a different literary work where inequality features. Note, please, that we have preselected extracts. It is better practice that students select their own extracts (studied in class!) for the IO; this promotes critical thinking and autonomy. Also, we have selected literary extracts that approach 40 lines. It is perfectly possible, and may be advantageous, for students to use extracts appreciably shorter than 40 lines for the IO. Remember that for the IO, students should select one literary extract and one non-literary extract. They should approach the task through this prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of one of the works and one of the texts you have studied. Global issues need not be problems. Inequality almost certainly is.

Literary Work: The Great Gatsby

Non-literary Texts: Generation Wealth (as a Body of Work)

Generic Prompts for Texts and Works

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