Global citizens unite

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Young people need to have a view of the world in an age when distances have shrunk and economies know no borders, says Ben Young

The severe floods and storms reported across the world are a reminder of the threat of global climate change and a mordant illustration of the extent to which global forces now shape our lives. These global changes call for a response from educationists and, increasingly, resources and techniques are being developed for dealing with global issues in schools.

In our global predicament, though, we might feel a need for something more than a menu of resources: we might hope for a new and far-reaching idea that, when embedded in education, will enable young people to function in a globalised world, or even to reverse the mistakes committed by previous generations. "Education for global citizenship" is claimed to be just such an idea.

But what does it really involve? Education for global citizenship encompasses an array of innovative educational ideas such as circle time, Eric (Everyone Reading In Class), student-led anti-bullying processes, multicultural writing programmes, whole-school linking with schools across the world and many more. These are all valuable, but do they point towards a distinctive underlying idea or is the term "global citizenship" just a convenient banner under which otherwise unrelated methods are grouped?

If there is something distinctive here, a look at the history of the idea of global citizenship might reveal it. Nigel Dower, one of Scotland's authorities on world ethics, points out that global citizenship has its roots in cosmopolitanism, the Stoic idea that our first loyalties should be to the global community of humanity (the term "cosmopolitan" comes from the Greek word kosmopolitai, meaning "citizens of the whole cosmos").

This seems like the sort of far-reaching idea we seek, but it raises the question: what does being a citizen of the cosmos mean in practice? The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum recounts that the early global citizens, Crates and Hipparchia, expressed their cosmopolitanism by throwing off their clothes, copulating in public and going to dinner parties! More of them later.

Today we are more likely to think of global citizenship as involving participation in a worldwide web of human rights campaigns and environmental movements. But if this is what global citizenship means, is it really legitimate to promote it in schools?

Some have thought it is not: Roger Scruton, savaging peace studies in the 1980s, claimed that such education would depress young people. Maybe the idea that we are global citizens - with its implication that we bear some responsibility for the state of the whole world - is likewise too depressing a truth for learners to have to bear.

I don't think it is. The evidence suggests that learners are capable of handling - and in fact many welcome - the idea that they are global citizens. Despite this, the notion of global citizenship should not be taken too literally in education, for some argue that the claim that the network of international campaigning groups forms a real global community is at best an aspiration; if this is true, to promote global citizenship in schools would be unacceptably ideological.

I believe that, although we should not teach that we are literally global citizens, it is still legitimate to engender the attitudes that a global citizen would have, for these are in fact core educational values. At root, what education for global citizenship does, is provide a space for learners (teachers as well as students) to reflect on themselves and their lives from a wider perspective.

This is really what Crates and Hipparchia were doing: they were showing their disdain for local customs and asserting their desire to live only according to universal ethical principles. Their example may be extreme, but there is no doubt that it is still relevant.

The most recent large-scale work in Scotland on education for global citizenship was the global citizenship project, a partnership between the International Development Education Association of Scotland (Ideas) and the education faculty at Glasgow University, funded by the Department for International Development.

This project emphasised that, as an approach which is essentially concerned with fostering critical and informed attitudes, education for global citizenship applies across the curriculum. In modern languages, drawing on a wider range of Francophone (say) countries brings in a wider range of cultural examples and provides unique lessons about dialects - whether in Scotland or Mali - and their place in political life.

In the expressive arts, global examples can raise issues about the displacement of art and aesthetics from everyday life, and the role that art can play in shaping social movements by giving form to feeling.

Through adopting a global perspective we also become aware of the passive contributions our lifestyles make to the patterns of injustice which characterise our world: once aware of them, though, it is up to the individual learner to make up their own mind how to respond.

There, then, is a distinctive and powerful educational idea at the root of education for global citizenship: it is that by expanding our horizons, we are better able to understand ourselves.

Ben Young is Ideas co-ordinator with the global citizenship project at Glasgow University's education faculty.

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