Teaching Collegians to Be World Citizens

Peter Wood

Peter Wood's article was originally published in Minding the Campus here

Near the beginning of Dickens' novel Little Dorrit (1857), a character named Monsieur Rigaud explains to a companion, "I am a cosmopolitan gentleman.  I own no particular country. My father was Swiss--Canton de Vaud.  My mother was French by blood, English by birth.  I myself was born in Belgium. I am a citizen of the world."

It's an attractive idea.  Being a citizen of the world sounds like an escape from everything narrow and provincial, which gives it magnetic appeal to college students eager to shed their suburban and hometown identities.  Many American colleges and universities have tapped into this longing, and I've been tracking this conceit for a while.  

Like Monsieur Rigaud, it has a Swiss connection.  Franklin College is an American liberal arts college in Canton Ticino near the Italian border.  It emphasizes "cross-cultural perspectives," and not unreasonably offers an Exploring World Citizenship program.  As someone who has also been following the twists and turns of the sustainability movement, I found it interesting that Franklin's version of world citizenship includes training in the "normative theory of ecological citizenship (EC)," which is speeding us along the path to "occupy a space that transcends national boundaries" and give us a form of "globally-oriented citizenship" which emphasizes "the right for individuals to live in a sustainable world."

Lest we conclude too hastily that global citizenship (GC?) and EC are still a bit foreign to the American sensibility, let's touch base with the heartland.  The University of Missouri's Honors College announces plainly enough, "We, at the college, want all of our students to be global citizens."  The students need not worry that this will jeopardize their U.S. taxpayer financed federal loans.  You can be a citizen of the world and keep your U.S. passport.  But global citizens at the University of Missouri do need to cultivate "awareness of your global footprint," which is "an estimate of the amount of space on the earth that an individual uses in order to survive using existing technology."  It seems that there is an important affinity between GC and EC, whether you are in Canton Ticino or west of the Mississippi.

The president of Swarthmore College, Rebecca Chopp, likewise recently declared that being a citizen of the world requires a certain ecological orientation:

As stewards and citizens of the world, we are also linked by environmental and political challenges that require us to work together to create a sustainable and just world.

In Chopp's view, we "are already global stewards and citizens whether we choose to be or not."  The question is "what kind?"

The attraction of American college students to world citizenship, as I said, makes good sense, especially in historical perspective.  After all, Americans have been condescended to for five centuries by more polished and sophisticated people.  We've been treated like the uncouth relatives from the backwoods who have barged into the afternoon tea.  Part of President Barack Obama's appeal has been that, unlike George W. Bush, he has the savoir faire of a world citizen.  He won't put his cowboy boots on the Louis XIV settee.  World citizenship has its theoretical expositors too, most notably Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2007) calls for us all to be world citizens; and University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum who has been arguing for many years beginning with her book, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (1997) that the real purpose of liberal education is to prepare students for world citizenship.

I'll trust that anyone who has been to a college graduation recently or read an alumni magazine has at least a passing awareness of the current campus enthusiasm for world citizenship, and with that in mind, I want to turn back to that pleasant example, Monsieur Rigaud.

Rigaud's first explanation of world citizenship is delivered to his cellmate, a smuggler, in a Marseilles prison, where Rigaud is being held on suspicion of having murdered his wife.  He beats the rap and continues his villainous career as a thief, forger, blackmailer--and a dog poisoner.  Rigaud constantly preens himself on his cleverness and his ability to live successfully outside the norms of society.  In the novel, his oft-repeated boast, "I am a citizen of the world," underscores Rigaud's essential selfishness and predatory nature.

Dickens pointedly contrasts him with another character, a good-hearted Englishman, Mr. Meagles, who travels Europe "with an unshakable confidence that the English tongue was somehow the mother tongue of the whole world, only the people were too stupid to know it."  Mr. Meagles lacks Rigaud's ease with crossing cultural boundaries, but he is rooted in love of family and generosity to others.

Dickens, one might think, was onto something.  The self-conferred standing of someone as "citizen of the world" suggests a relaxed open-mindedness, but it also suggests an individual who has detached himself from the loyalties that foster a spirit of kindness and commitment to those who most depend on us.

The "citizen of the world" phrase, of course, has a long and checkered history before Dickens picked it up.  The original citizen of the world appears to have been Diogenes, the nastiest of Greek philosophers, whose sneering dismissals of social values gave Cynicism a bad name.  At times, the phase conveyed a general sense of magnanimity.  When a donor gave some books to Harvard in August 1764, he wrote, "Thomas Hollis, an Englishman, a Lover of Liberty, civil and religious, citizen of the world, is desirous of having the honor to present this set of books..."   Mr. Hollis as a "citizen of the world" was an Englishman expressing support for the fractious colonies at a tense moment in the deterioration of relations between Britain and America.  Earlier in the year Britain had imposed the Sugar Act, a tax that hammered the New England port cities. In the same month as Hollis's gift, Sam Adams began a boycott by American merchants of British luxury goods.

The same year (1855) that Dickens began publishing Little Dorrit in installments, a self-educated American blacksmith, Elihu Burritt, began a new monthly magazine titled Citizen of the World.  Burritt is best known today as an early peace activist but he was also an abolitionist.  When he launched his new magazine, he explained in an editorial:

Whatever meaning may have attached to a "citizen of the world" a century ago, the significance of that term has widened and deepened, and taken nobler dimensions of philanthropy in these latter years of civilization and Christianity. It means one who recognizes and reveres the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man, who sees and respects, in the people of every nation, race, and tongue, the children of the same Heavenly Father..."

Burritt's cosmopolitanism was oddly matched with his American nationalism--and his irritation with the British.  In his second issue, he argued that America was suited to become the "moral umpire between contending powers" but to achieve this "full dignity and influence" among nations, one thing was lacking: "This one thing she lacks is, full and everlasting freedom from the domination of the British Press." This accidentally displays a smallness of mind at odds with the idea that he and his magazine are conveying a "widened and deepened" version of world citizenship.

I am tempted to think, thus ever with citizens of the world.  Whether it is Franklin College, the University of Missouri Honors College, or Swarthmore trying to smuggle the sustainability agenda aboard "world citizenship"; or Diogenes defacing currency and heckling Plato; or Martha Nussbaum defacing the currency of liberal education, the citizen of the world often seems to be up to something rather underhanded that plain old citizens of actual communities, like Mr. Meagles, would shun.  Let's make allowance that some would-be citizens of the world such as Mr. Hollis really do mean to transcend the barriers of time and place that keep those who love freedom apart from each other.  But today's academic infatuation with world citizenship often seems to have a good bit more I-am-my-own-law Monsieur Rigaud than the trans-Atlantic donor of books Mr. Hollis, "Lover of Liberty, civil and religious."

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