Global Citizenship, which sounds so innocuous, is subtly subversive. To be a citizen of the world means, to some extent, to distance oneself from the other levels of political membership. After all, Diogenes, who lived in the 4th century B.C. as a self-proclaimed “kosmopolitês, also bathed in a public fountain and slept in a large jar. A pioneering non-conformist, his philosophic school of cynicism was a lived practice of challenging the way of life in his city. Rejecting private property as a fiction, he lived as mice do, in the spaces built by others for themselves. His version of global citizenship rejected the particular ties of Athenian citizenship and friendship, and in this embraced the simplicity of nature and the whole of humanity as kin.
Certainly, Diogenes is a challenging archetype for the global citizen in an evolving world. His commitment to simplicity was such that he was reported to have thrown away his cup after seeing a young child drinking from his hands, and he scorned the development of schools, including Plato’s, as well as what we might call the liberal arts and sciences. But, he may still have something important to say to us contemporary teachers of global citizenship.
Diogenes has been on my mind because, after attending a workshop on promoting global and civic learning with support from a Teaching Enhancement Grant, I’ve been struck by how much disagreement there is about what global citizenship means. Certainly it does not generally mean status citizenship, the legal right to be in a territory and take advantage of the protections afforded to citizens, although this exclusion is not clear from the term itself. Often it carries a moral weight, such that cosmopolitanism is understood as possessing a moral regard for those beyond the borders of one’s particular nation-state. This of course might prompt examination of our moral regard to others within our nation-state, either as we imagine them to be or as they actually are, especially if they are distant or different from us. Sometimes it is used, I think, as a placeholder for having some awareness of global issues and the world outside of the United States. This is invaluable, of course, but certainly only a baby step towards something we could call global citizenship.
And this is where Diogenes comes in. For him, speaking, writing and even creating were less important than acting. His critique of the city wasn’t something he wrote or thought about, but lived and enacted. Although I disagree with him about the importance of writing, as well as private bathing facilities, surely this is admirable. If global citizenship is really citizenship, it might require doing as well as learning. At the workshop I attended, a panel member from Portland State University, whose motto is “Let Knowledge Serve the City,” showed how their campus enacts this insight through intensive community based research and service courses, which link up with core questions of international moral and political importance. I wondered, who or what does our knowledge serve here at UWGB?
A partial answer came from a UWGB panel last week on, “The Role of Universities in Promoting Citizenship in Their Communities,” where panelists argued for the core role of the university as a place where students encounter the radically other, in language, in travel and in service. These encounters do challenge the familiar ways of being that we unthinkingly learn from living in our cities, and they can produce a distance from our previous beliefs that is difficult. But, they also can help us live and act in ways that, while short of living in a jar, critically challenge the powerful structures in which we live.
Assistant Professor, Democracy & Justice Studies