The World Citizen on Campus

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared in National Review

"Global citizenship” is in fashion. In his July 2008 speech in Berlin, when Barack Obama was at the height of his European popularity, he announced himself “a proud citizen of the United States and a fellow citizen of the world.” The formulation was meant to one-up President Kennedy’s Cold War “Ich bin ein Berliner” but hit a different note entirely. One was the voice of American statesmanship; the other, of a man turning his back on American exceptionalism.

The campus Left has found in the conceit of teaching students to be “citizens of the world” a new way of fostering a soft disdain for the American civic tradition. That disdain is now disguised as magnanimity: Students are enticed to feel open-hearted, broad-minded, and gently virtuous.

I’ve been tracking the growth of “global citizenship” for a while, but only recently did I find an opportunity to see the World Citizen in his native environment, the liberal-arts curriculum. In 2011 I started an in-depth study of Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine. Bowdoin’s president repeatedly avows that the college is committed “to preparing our students to become global citizens in a global economy.” But before I get to Bowdoin, some context.

Like a lot of things that appeal to adolescents, global citizenship doesn’t bear up very well under critical scrutiny. Taken literally, there can be no such thing as global citizenship. Citizenship requires something to be a citizen of, and that requires something not to be a citizen of. Global citizenship, of course, can be understood mostly as metaphor, and mostly as referring to the aspirations of young people to connect to the larger world beyond their hometowns. The college presidents and faculty members who promote the idea definitely appeal to these yearnings; that’s part of what makes global citizenship such a beguiling idea. It answers a real need, one formerly filled by other ideals, such as advancing civil rights and promoting freedom.

My first encounter with global citizenship came in 2009, when, on a visit to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., I came across a nearly completed building for the “Institute for Global Citizenship.” This institute seeks to encourage students to become “global citizen-leaders,” and it intends to promote “academic discourse” on such matters, as well as “meaningful service.”

I began to read up on the new academic discipline. A contributor to a 2005 volume, Critical Globalization Studies, explained that “nations” are “political fictions,” and citizens merely the “recognized legal subjects” of these ghostly entities. Liberation requires “world citizens” who “attain self-actualization and emancipation” by stepping outside this frame.

Private Bradley Manning, currently serving a 35-year prison sentence for his 2010 theft of classified documents in the WikiLeaks case, is an example of someone liberated from the political fiction of the nation-state. He has been celebrated as an outstanding Citizen of the World by the Private Manning Support Network. Likewise, Manning’s successor in massive theft of government secrets, Edward Snowden, is also being heralded by supporters as an outstanding “Citizen of the World.”

Theft of classified documents is condoned by relatively few proponents of global citizenship; yet global citizenship, whether they realize it or not, is an invitation to set aside the rule of law and the state in favor of whatever one chooses. World citizenship offers license but definitely not ordered liberty.

World citizenship at Bowdoin College is, on one level, just hot air, but it is much more than that. The term appears frequently in the college president’s speeches, where it serves as a justification for Bowdoin’s emphasis on diversity, multiculturalism, and sustainability and for its distaste for old-fashioned American values. When President Barry Mills saw a need to defend the college’s patriotism, he trumpeted a recent performance on campus by the Marine Band.

But when the last echoes of Sousa have faded, Bowdoin is silent on how its students learn to become good citizens of their own country. History majors at Bowdoin, for example, are not required to take a single course in American history. Why? Because, explained President Mills, students have taken American history in high school. English majors are not required to take a single course in American literature. The “world citizens” of Bowdoin are not required to study any foreign language. A religion professor was congratulated on receiving an award from then–Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At the time (2009), Iran was supplying armaments to Iraqi insurgents with whom America was at war. No one on the Bowdoin campus paused to consider whether acceptance of the award, however inconsequential, served the interests of America.

Learning about America is an option at Bowdoin, but learning about global citizenship is unavoidable. Two of Bowdoin’s five distribution requirements aim to inculcate global citizenship. Students are required to take one course each in the areas of “Exploring Social Differences” and “International Perspectives.” There is no such requirement for anything dealing with America’s founding principles, commonalities, or culture.

Bowdoin, like President Obama, rejects the idea that America is an exceptional nation by virtue of its pursuit of freedom, self-government, and justice. President Mills has repeatedly offered an alternative: what he calls “Bowdoin exceptionalism.” This is the idea that the college, through its particular understanding of liberal-arts education, has achieved a position outside and above the cultural milieu of America.

On many campuses global citizenship has proven to be an effective tool to attract students to the Left’s vision of a new international order. That’s an international order that rejects the idea that the United States is good and that college graduates should strive to be statesmen who advance its principles.

The citizen of the world shrugs off these ideas and obligations, less in anger than in indifference. It is troubling that this fellow, his gaze cast wide over the Atlantic and to continents beyond, has become the moral exemplar at some of our best liberal-arts colleges. He may mean us well, but he does not serve us well.

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