Macalester Preps for World Domination

Peter Wood

In Herman Melville’s novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, the title character transforms from one persona to another as he dupes passengers aboard the Mississippi riverboat the Fidele as it rolls down the river on April Fool’s Day. His disguises include a deaf mute, a crippled Negro, a man in mourning, the president of the Black Rapids Coal Company, an herb doctor, and an employment agent. Ultimately, however, the confidence man settles into the role of “the cosmopolitan,” a man whose world travels are reflected in his unusual clothes: “in style participating of a Highland plaid, Emir's robe, and French blouse; from its plaited sort of front peeped glimpses of a flowered regatta-shirt, while, for the rest, white trowsers of ample duck flowed over maroon-colored slippers, and a jaunty smoking-cap of regal purple crowned him off at top.” 

The Cosmopolitan is no ordinary cheat. He is a man of charitable temperament, unwilling to take quick offense, and open to others. He describes himself to a skeptical acquaintance 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.” He is, as we might say today, a cultural relativist, and he has built a worldview out of his miscellaneous acquisitions. He continues: “Oh, one roams not over the gallant globe in vain. Bred by it, is a fraternal and fusing feeling. No man is a stranger. You accost anybody. Warm and confiding, you wait not for measured advances. And though, indeed, mine, in this instance, have met with no very hilarious encouragement, yet the principle of a true citizen of the world is still to return good for ill. -- My dear fellow, tell me how I can serve you."

The Cosmopolitan, “a true citizen of the world,” only wants to help. Watch out. 

Last week, I travelled to the northern reaches of the Mississippi to attend to some National Association of Scholars affairs in Minneapolis and St. Paul. I stayed on Nicolet Island in the Mississippi and kept a sharp eye out for the Fidele, but it must have wheeled past in the dark of night. I did, however, encounter a trace of the Cosmopolitan high upon a hill above St. Paul, at Macalester College. The College was founded in 1874 by a Civil War chaplain, and struggled for much of its first one hundred years. But starting in the 1960s, DeWitt and Lila Wallace, the founders of the Readers Digest, began making large charitable gifts. Macalester soon established itself as one of the best liberal arts colleges of the great central swath of the United States. It is small (1,900 students; 164 full-time faculty members), expensive ($38,174 tuition), and well-endowed ($665 million as of June 30, 2008). It is also, unfortunately, far gone in the nuttiness of multiculturalism and political correctness. “Multiculturalism at Macalester” is the top item on the “About Macalester” webpage,” and multiculturalism is written right into the College’s mission statement: “Macalester is committed to being a preeminent liberal arts college with an educational program known for its high standards for scholarship and its special emphasis on internationalism, multiculturalism, and service to society.” 

Tomorrow, May 5, as it happens is “Harambee,” a “Celebration of Multicultural Moments” sponsored by the Macalester Department of Multicultural Life.”   Harambee is Swahili for “working together.”  

This is, more or less, the standard-issue nonsense of American higher education at the end of the Zippies—our fast-declining decade of airy nothingness-pretending-to-be-somethingness. If you think that “multiculturalism” belongs in any college mission statement, let alone the mission statement of a college that imagines itself “preeminent” and an adherent to high standards for scholarship,” wait there a moment. I want to introduce you to my friend, the president of the Black Rapids Coal Company. Everyone else can keep reading.

When I walked around Macalester last week, I was struck by the inscription above the entrance of a building in the final stages of construction, “Institute for Global Citizenship.” Global what? I grew up watching the original Star Trek, so I was reasonably informed from an early age about the United Federation of Planets, with its legislature in San Francisco (naturally) and its presidential offices in Paris. But UFP doesn’t start until 2161. Either Macalester is jumping the phaser, or this new building is anticipating some other kind of global citizenship. 

A citizen, I always thought, had to be a citizen of some organized polity. City-states have citizens. Large, lake-besotted states with disputed senatorial races have citizens. Nations headed by democratically elected governments have citizens. Even nations headed by demented despots have citizens in a limited sense. Thus Strongbadia, with “population: tire” potentially has citizens. 

But the globe, the last I checked, does not have citizens. 

I don’t want to be accused of killjoy literalism. If someone wants to call himself a “citizen of the world,” he can, and most of us will know what he means. He means, roughly, that he is a smug Westerner who has travelled illegally to Cuba just to show he can. He means that he sees himself as part of pan-national elite that enjoys a lifestyle of jetting around the globe to express solidarity with impoverished people who never jet anywhere. He means he has absorbed some of his key values from a class of people who live “globally,” often from the budgets of NGOs and international organizations that float above the world’s nation states. He means he feels more in common with other people in that cumulous world than the terrestrials who inhabit the country that issued his passport. Or he means he is a student who doesn’t quite understand this yet, but likes the fantasy of being part of a brave new world full of the latest ultra-trendy buzz words. 

He can afford beneficent feelings for the world at large because he has no commitment to anyone in particular. The citizen of the world is…well, we just met him in Melville’s rendering. He is the Cosmopolitan. I think he would be pleased to know that Macalester College has honored him with an institute.

The Institute for Global Citizenship explains itself succinctly. It was created in fall 2005 with the name of the Center for Global Citizen Leadership. The Center sponsored visits by Kofi Annan and Thomas Friedman. Endearingly, the Institute’s website admits that the Institute is “a rather intangible entity.” But the intangible have missions too, and in this case the Institute declares that it exists, “To encourage, promote and support rigorous learning that prepares students for lives as effective and ethical ‘global citizen-leaders’; innovative scholarship that enriches the public and academic discourse on important issues of global significance; and meaningful service that enhances such learning and/or scholarship while enriching the communities within which Macalester is embedded.” 

I would have left this topic alone, however, were it not for the copy of the student newspaper, The Mac Weekly, that I picked up in the  student union. Therein a junior, Peter Truax, offered a somewhat more expansive account of the term in an article on "The Positive Side of Global Citizenship."   It isn’t, let’s say, the very best advertisement for Macalester’s “high standards for scholarship.” I don’t want to come down too hard on the fellow. He is an undergraduate student and still has the time to learn something about history, culture, philosophy, and writing. But he ought to start soon. 

According to young Mr. Truax, “global citizenship is an evolving concept that possesses the ability to transcend any one idea determined contextually.” Yes, the idea, apparently like the Institute that promotes it, is an intangible thing. In Mr. Truax’s account, global citizenship varies from one era to another. Mr. Truax says that global citizenship back in the 1600s…well, before we quote Mr. Truax’s characterization of that age, let’s remind ourselves of the century he means to describe. It was the age of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Isaac Newton (1643-1727), John Locke (1632-1704), Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), Samuel De Champlain (1575-1635), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Blaise Pascal (1632-1662), and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677); it was the age that saw the publication of the King James Bible (1611), the creation of the logarithm (1614), the discovery of circulatory system (1628), the Founding of the Royal Society of London (1660), the creation of calculus (1684), and the Glorious Revolution (1688). But in what we call the seventeenth century, the “global citizen of Europe” in Mr. Truax’s account was: “often a barely-literate racist xenophobe with bad teeth, content to rape their way to imperial glory and think it not only right and proper to do so but necessary for the glory of God.” 

These days we often see surveys showing that graduates of some of the best colleges don’t know very much about history, literature, philosophy, and the humanities in general. Yet it still it brings me up short to encounter the real thing: the student at an elite liberal arts college who can characterize a whole century—a century that happens to stand out as one of the greatest eras of Western intellectual and cultural accomplishment—with an ignorant sneer. What in the world is Macalester teaching its students? 

The answer lingers in the vicinity of Mr. Truax’s short essay. Macalester has taught him to think well of his own powers of discernment. He plunges ahead with a definition that strikes awe into the chests of brave men and women: 

Global citizenship is the enterprise of participating in the creation of universal universalism.

I have no desire to argue with perfection. I’ll leave this alone. I do recommend reading the whole article—aloud and to friends. It surpasses any indictment against contemporary American higher education that the National Association of Scholars has ever made. 

And it is fully consistent with Macalester’s commitments to “internationalism, multiculturalism, and service to society.” Universal universalism, we learn, embraces—all at once—diversity, common humanity, moral relativism, transcendent truth, an end to inequality (of all types), a new inequality (those who are not global citizens are excluded from the new equality), and raising everyone to the highest common denominator. 

Somewhere down the Mississippi, or up the Nile or the Amazon, the Cosmopolitan is smiling. 

Happy Harambee!

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