Assignment

Lens

Edition

2003/2004

One of the most popular practices amongst students at my high school was insulting Iowans. As denizens of a large, diverse suburb of Boston, we looked upon the hinterland residents as the antithesis of what we thought ourselves to be: cosmopolitan individuals who had seen people from all ends of the earth – and, for that matter, had seen a traffic light. Like my peers, I felt acquainted with diversity: I had traveled, had best friends of different races, and had, at one time, been one of only two Caucasian girls in my class. After a decade in a school system renowned for being a Noah’s Ark of ethnicities, I could recite plenty of facts about the beliefs, customs, and general idiosyncrasies of many parts of the world. Thanks to a curriculum with extensive units on civil rights and the Holocaust, I had had the dangers of exclusion and ethnocentrism hammered into me. I was wary of judging other cultures, determined to be open-minded, and desperate to avoid provincialism.

Yet something was awry. I couldn’t understand why a Chinese friend didn’t dare disobey her parents when they insisted she attend math camp, although it was clear the humanities were her forte. I was clueless as to why a boy in my biology class insisted on returning home to Israel over spring break, despite the disastrous bombings that were occurring almost daily. When my favorite history teacher spent a sabbatical year in Africa, I was resentful that I couldn’t be in his class, but also confused: he had already spent a number of years in Africa and I didn’t see why he needed to go back. Cosmopolitan, to me, meant Carrie Bradshaw’s cocktail of choice, not understanding, or knowledge, of the ways of the world.

Evidently, despite all efforts, cross-cultural education at my school left many things to be desired. I wasn’t the only student who had trouble shedding divisions of nation and culture in order to relate to all people on a basic human level. How could my high school have done a better job of turning my peers and me into people with a true understanding and respect for humankind? How could it have created young adults, who, as Martha Nussbaum puts it, are “citizens of the world?” In her article of the same title, Nussbaum tries to provide the answers to this question. She discusses the necessity and value of being of being citizen of the world and how an effective cross-cultural education can help achieve this aim.

“Citizens of the World” is a piece that stresses the commonality of all people. All people, writes Nussbaum, are defined not exclusively by our “national origin and group memberships” but as humans (52). In Nussbaum’s opinion, America’s educational system does not effectively teach this concept. This failure is especially injurious on the university level. While universities are designed to prepare students to be active participants in modern society, graduates still often lack the necessary tools needed to function as a world citizen. Globalization, and the consequential shrinking of the world, has made cross-cultural comfort one of the most important skills required of today’s young professionals. It is the function of multicultural education to prepare people for these new challenges that, while by definition modern, can be understood by looking toward the past.

One of Nussbaum’s techniques is to trace cross-cultural education through history, drawing upon the ideas of great thinkers and leaders. These ideas are far from outdated, but rather provide invaluable insight as to how cosmopolitanism can work today. Nussbaum focuses her discussion on ideas of world citizenship fostered by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Using these concepts as a “lens” with which to view my own cross-cultural education sheds light on some mistakes my high school made, and suggests how the school could have better achieved the goal of “[educating] people [so they] can operate as world citizens with sensitivity and understanding” (52).

Nussbaum writes about Diogenes the Cynic in order to address ideas about standard conventions and the dark underbelly of such powerful norms: prejudices toward the unconventional. One of the main goals of multicultural education at my school was to reduce prejudice; the curriculum reinforced the idea that “different isn’t necessarily wrong.” However, students never questioned what determined their concepts of right and wrong in the first place.

This need to examine the “conventional origins of judgments” (57) was missing from the curriculum. For one class, we read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, her coming-of-age tale as Chinese girl in America. This memoir closely examines the discrepancies between Chinese values and beliefs and American ones. Some of the ideas expressed by Kingston’s family, particularly her ultra-traditional mother, seemed irrational or unreasonable from an “American” perspective, such as strong ideas about ghosts or prominent ideas about female inferiority.

Despite our urge to scoff at these ideas—believing in ghosts? obviously the woman wasn’t rational—my classmates and I accepted them. Our acceptance, however, stemmed more from a desire not to be seen as xenophobic or ethnocentric than from a true understanding of traditional Chinese logic. Students never detached themselves from their own beliefs in order to examine the origins of those beliefs, an exercise which would have provided valuable insights into both their own culture and the ones they were studying. According to Diogenes, the failure to take a step back from our own beliefs before studying the beliefs of others impairs cross-cultural understanding.

Diogenes believed that to truly be a citizen of the world, we must “become, to a certain extent, philosophical exiles from our own way of life, seeing them from the vantage point of the outsider and asking the questions an outsider is likely to ask about their meaning and function” (58). Socrates echoed this idea by fervently espousing the examined life. Had students been encouraged to challenge the validity of their own beliefs, they might have viewed the practices of other societies as not just acceptable, but perhaps sometimes preferable, with their own merits and gifts.

Diogenes also believed that one could evaluate a society’s institutions and practices in a non-biased fashion, by basing one’s judgment on the general idea of what is good for human beings. Nussbaum expands upon this point by discussing the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius said: “world citizenship does not, and should not, require that we suspend criticism toward other individuals and cultures” (65). Basic ideas of what is good or bad, right or wrong, stretch beyond biases and traditional culture-based beliefs to universal concepts of morality, as well as plain common sense.

My school, however, equated any sort of judgment on another society with prejudice and provincialism. Criticism of other cultures was discouraged. For example, in my Sophomore English class, we read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a seminal novel set in an African community called the Igbo. The class spent plenty of time discussing the cultural differences between the Igbo culture and our own society, such as the varied religious rituals or the distinctions in family life. But Things Fall Apart is also replete with intense violence that, while still found in our society, is not condoned as it is in Igbo culture. Atrocities in the book, such as spousal abuse or fratricide, were always chalked up to the individual; blame was never placed on the society itself.

The result of this was that when students encountered an action or institution that seemed unjust or unreasonable, they invalidated their own morals by attributing their concept of “wrong” to the society in which they had been raised. Our basic morals, which we derive from our humanness and not from our culture, were devalued as time and time again it was emphasized that values and ideas come from nurture, not nature. Marcus Aurelius would have reminded my teachers, classmates, and I that “the world citizen can be very critical of unjust actions or policies, and of the character of the people who promote them” (65). To know that adjudication is possible without necessarily being racist or prejudiced would have put students more at ease in their multicultural studies, enabling them to take in information, but also to truly process and analyze it.

Much of the criticism that the students felt was impermissible to turn on other cultures was turned back on America.. In my junior year American literature class, most students felt free to attack our own country and history to no end; we readThe Scarlet Letter and tore apart Puritan society. We read The Glass Menagerieand mercilessly mocked the culture of the South. I was shocked when I learned that some schools recited the Pledge of Allegiance each morning; I did not even know the Pledge of Allegiance. Many students felt that supporting something American meant rejecting something global, which was precisely what we had been taught not to do. At the risk of making the same platitudinous statement that countless others have applied to the experience of 9/11, that day and the events that unfolded afterwards forced us to rethink what it meant to be American.

Students like myself, who believed national identity to be inherently prejudiced and dangerous, were compelled to change from people with a global, albeit flawed, identity to “Americans.” Yet due to our nebulous national identities, this transformation would take us along a rocky path. The Stoics understood the importance of national, ethnic, and/or religious identity, and, more importantly, knew that it was not mutually exclusive with a global one. My schoolmates, on the other hand, did not always seem to know this. This was demonstrated by the panic in our school system caused by the fact that, despite all efforts, students always self-segregated by race or ethnicity. The administration’s efforts to get all the students to mingle with each other failed miserably: the cafeteria remained a collection of territories, with the Black kids reigning over the space near the door and the Russians entrenched in the back. Very little value was placed on the benefits of spending time with, or being close to, people who shared one’s identity. We often felt that patriotism was unimportant, and that connecting with members of our own religious, ethnic, or racial groups was somehow shameful. Att the end of the day, despite the guilt one might have felt over only connecting with students of other cultures in the classroom or on the playing field, it was always the kids with whom you attended confirmation class, or the ones whose first language was the same as yours, who became your closest friends.

The Stoics would argue that “love for what is near (is) a fundamental human trait, and a highly rational way to comport oneself as a citizen” (61). I understood this every time I participated in a youth event at my synagogue, which often filled me with a warm sense of inclusion and belonging. My Jewish identity, however, was a trait I subconsciously kept hidden in public school. I feared anything that might separate me from the homogeneous masses, anything that might be seen as a liability in my quest to remain as neutral as Switzerland. And I was among the lucky ones: students who didn’t participate in such institutions as Hebrew School got far less opportunity to truly fit in than I. When these opportunities arose I felt both a member of something inclusive and a part of a larger whole, a point at the center of concentric circles.

Every year around Martin Luther King Day, members from a local church would come to Friday night services at my synagogue, and afterwards, the gospel choir gave a performance that year after year awed the entire congregation. As I sat there listening to the beautiful voices, I was still aware of the divisions in the room: black and white, Jewish and Christian. But the differences seemed miniscule compared to the overarching feeling of commonality: not only were we all humans, but both groups had faced prejudice and persecution, and continued to fight these forces. This was the kind of identity-centered experience that made me more open to others, but that I always had to look outside my school to find.

Evaluating my educational experience by looking at historical ideas provides clues to how my school could have more effectively created “citizens of the world.” However, it is a difficult and complex process for one to translate the ideas of Diogenes, Marcus Aurelius, Socrates, or the Stoics into a multicultural curriculum. Studying these thinkers won’t inform a school administrator as to how to spread cross-cultural studies across a variety of academic subjects, or how to ensure that the school’s faculty has expertise in the material. Martha Nussbaum knows this, and in her effort to champion her own ideas of the ideal educational program, she thus looks beyond history to contemporary educational institutions that, in her opinion, have the right idea.

Nussbaum, for example, examines St. Lawrence University and SUNY Buffalo in order to crystallize her ideas about how cross-cultural education can be implemented, taking into consideration pragmatic roadblocks. The use of this additional lens succeeds in transforming her ideas from purely theoretical ones to those which are more practical. Yet the recommendations that Nussbaum makes based on the examples of colleges like St. Lawrence are still unrealistically ideal. For example, not all schools can afford to have their faculty move temporarily to India or Kenya in order to be able to impart firsthand knowledge to their students, as St. Lawrence did (80). By examining her topic from this practical perspective as well as a theoretical one, Nussbaum shows that no matter how much a study of history might validate pursuit of cross-cultural education at all costs, sometimes the concrete costs of multicultural immersion are more than every educational institution can afford. But even if they can’t send teachers to do fieldwork Africa or Asia, schools can take smaller-scale measures to make sure that their educators exemplify the citizen of the world perspective that they seek to impart to students.

The ultimate goal of cross-cultural education is not simply to impart knowledge of other cultures, nor is it to abolish stereotypes, nor is it even to have students empathize with all humans. Adequate achievement of these aims can still leave us with people who accept and understand cosmopolitanism, but who do not see its value. As Nussbaum says,

It is up to us as educators, to show our students the beauty and interest of a life that is open to the whole world, to show them that there is after all more joy in the kind of citizenship that questions than in the kind that simply applauds, more fascination in the study of human beings in all their real variety and complexity than in the zealous pursuit of superficial stereotypes….. (84).

Nussbaum believes that the objective of cross-cultural education isn’t just to help the hypothetical (NB: aspiring? future? putative?) young professional with an international career, but to excite her, to spark her interest, to help her achieve a life she loves. With the ancient Greek and Roman ideas of world citizenship, a few contemporary examples of cross-cultural education done well, and Nussbaum’s prescription for joy mixed in, schools like the one I attended can truly teach their students to be citizens of the world. Graduates will know not only about the dangers of judging Muslims or Germans, but perhaps also Iowans.

Works Cited

Nussbaum, Martha C. Cultivating Humanity: A Classic Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997. 50-84.