Collisions on the Windshield of Globocracy: The UN's Academic Impact

Ashley Thorne

The United Nations is now recruiting higher education institutions as partners in a peculiar mission. Academic Impact has been in the works for some years but officially launched in November 2010 and already has 540 college and university members, 145 of them in the United States.  

What are the members signing on to? The word impact, according to the teaching of my college rhetoric professor (NAS president Peter Wood), indicates the force from a collision of, say, a bug hitting the windshield of your car. So I picture 540 colleges and universities hurtling headlong toward the windshield of globocracy.

But we’ll assume the UN is less literal and intends the word as a synonym for influence. Academic Impact is described on its website as “a global initiative that aligns institutions of higher education with the United Nations in actively supporting ten universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, literacy, sustainability and conflict resolution.” The National Association of Scholars took note of Academic Impact when it was first taking shape. We were doubtful about it then and even more so now. 

An Engine for Addressing Global Problems?

The online introduction to AI says that “By formally endorsing the ten principles in the Academic Impact, institutions make a commitment to use education as an engine for addressing global problems.”

Before we get into the principles themselves, we should consider whether higher education should be used as an engine for addressing global problems. Is that the academy’s purpose? Or high among its varied purposes? It is a phrase so oft-repeated that many probably assent to it without much consideration for what such a commitment might mean. But there is plenty of room for rational doubt. The university as an institution has indispensible tasks closer to home, and a great deal of what a university does touches lightly or not at all on “global” issues. “Addressing global problems” also has the air of turning education into activism—a shift that typically has dire consequences for the intellectual quality of what is taught and what is actually learned. (I elaborate on this in my Academic Questions article “Beating the Apple Tree”).

One problem with determining to “use education as an engine for addressing global problems” is that the solutions—and often the problems themselves—are ideological in nature. Universities are then compelled to choose between competing ideologies, to pick sides and become a partisan player in politics. Higher education thus abandons its historical “above the fray” position. Instead of teaching students objectively so that they can form their own views, it provides them with a set of predetermined views they are urged and sometimes even compelled to adopt.

This imposition of values on students and treatment of higher education as a training ground for one-sided activism has been widely embraced in the United States. Alignment with the UN seems to have been a natural next step. Academic Impact calls its principles “universally accepted,” a phrase that, similar to “scientific consensus,” functions as a casual wave of the hand to dismiss all who would dare to disagree. 

Here are Academic Impact’s ten principles:

1. A commitment to the principles inherent in the United Nations Charter as values that education seeks to promote and help fulfil;

2. A commitment to human rights, among them freedom of inquiry, opinion, and speech;

3. A commitment to educational opportunity for all people regardless of gender, race, religion or ethnicity;

4. A commitment to the opportunity for every interested individual to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary for the pursuit of higher education;

5. A commitment to building capacity in higher education systems across the world;

6. A commitment to encouraging global citizenship through education;

7. A commitment to advancing peace and conflict resolution through education;

8. A commitment to addressing issues of poverty through education;

9. A commitment to promoting sustainability through education;

10. A commitment to promoting inter-cultural dialogue and understanding, and the “unlearning” of intolerance, through education.

Peter Wood in his earlier article on Academic Impact commented on several of these; I’m going to focus on just one. 

Global Citizenship and the Cosmopolitan

Three of these stand out as being particularly politically correct. The first is a somewhat new term: “global citizenship.” Are we all to think of ourselves as citizens of the earth, as opposed to citizens of...Mars? The term is generally used to evoke a sense that we have some things in common with everyone in the world, and that we should forget about border lines, customs, and languages in order to work together for common goals.

President Obama used the phrase in a 2008 speech in Berlin, where he addressed the audience “as a fellow citizen of the world.” He said:

Yes, there have been differences between America and Europe. No doubt, there will be differences in the future. But the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together. A change of leadership in Washington will not lift this burden. In this new century, Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more -- not less. Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity.

Notice that Obama does not say we are bound together because we are fellow human beings. The phrase “global citizenship” is less concerned with our common humanity than with our residence on the globe. This may seem a minor distinction, but it’s worth paying attention to. It means that global citizenship is not as positive and harmonious as it sounds. Global citizenship stands in contrast to national citizenship; it offers a vague and generalized embrace of all cultures while treating the particular claims (and duties) of citizenship in one’s actual nation as a lesser or even morally suspect matter. When it comes to people in Western nations, claiming “global citizenship” often includes an element of derision towards both their own governments and towards the traditions characteristic of their national community. Nation = bad. Globe = good. But there is a logical problem here. No one is literally a citizen of the globe. “Citizen of the world” was in times past a way for wealthy individuals on perpetual international tour, deracinated intellectuals, and dubious characters fleeing from shady pasts to strike a pose. “Global citizen” is our metaphoric update of the idea.  

In an article about Macalester College’s Institute for Global Citizenship, Peter Wood recalls Melville’s confidence man—who assumes many disguises and swindles passengers on a Mississippi riverboat—in the role of the cosmopolitan. The cosmopolitan, who considers himself “a true citizen of the world,” wears clothes from a variety of countries. He describes himself as “A cosmopolitan, a catholic man; who, being such, ties himself to no narrow tailor or teacher, but federates, in heart as in costume, something of the various gallantries of men under various suns.” In other words, he is a cultural relativist who has cobbled together a hodgepodge of views.

A global citizen, therefore, has no real foundation on which to stand, but floats about from idea to idea, picking up whatever is fashionable at the time. And in Melville’s book, he appeals to universality to con the naïve and get what he wants out of them. Is this the kind of citizen we want to cultivate?

Shape Shifting

Colleges and universities endorsing Academic Impact have likely done so without imagining crooked confidence men and capricious drifters. “Global citizenship” and the nine accompanying principles are abstractly positive and large-scale without being specific enough to warrant objections. Who wouldn’t support human rights, equal opportunity, and peace?

That ambiguity, like that of the confidence man, allows AI to take whatever form colleges and universities want it to take. A recent Inside Higher Ed article describes colleges as not knowing exactly what their membership will require of them, but being content knowing that at least one of their academic programs is aligned with AI’s philosophy.

In a Huffington Post article on AI, Fairleigh Dickenson University president J. Michael Adams is more specific. He says the time has come for a new kind of education, one that teaches “global awareness” through “global education.” He’s looking to the Millennial Generation to “make the world a place we only dreamt it could be.” What kind of place is that? Do we all have the same dreams for what the world could be? Adams offers his dream, in which the Millennial Generation’s “distrust of a corporate world motivated by greed promises to change business as we know it.”

Distrust of the corporate world is far from a universally accepted solution to global problems. But it isn’t hard to construe approval for such an attitude and many other non-universal ones in Academic Impact’s generalized UN language.

Because of this reliance on generalities and appeal-to-everyone ability, it’s unclear how AI will impact—er—influence American higher education in the next few years. NAS will continue to observe and report as we learn more. 

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