Teaching Collegians to Be World Citizens

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Near the beginning of Dickens’ novel Little Dorrit (1857), a
character named Monsieur Rigaud explains to a companion, “I am a cosmopolitan
gentleman.  I own no particular country.
My father was Swiss–Canton de Vaud.  My
mother was French by blood, English by birth. 
I myself was born in Belgium.
I am a citizen of the world.” 

It’s an attractive idea. 
Being a citizen of the world sounds like an escape from everything
narrow and provincial, which gives it magnetic appeal to college students eager
to shed their suburban and hometown identities. 
Many American colleges and universities have tapped into this longing,
and I’ve been
this conceit
for a while.   

Like Monsieur Rigaud, it has a Swiss connection.  Franklin
is an American
liberal arts college in Canton Ticino near the Italian border.  It emphasizes “cross-cultural perspectives,”
and not unreasonably offers an Exploring
World Citizenship
program.  As
someone who has also been following the twists and turns of the sustainability
movement, I found it interesting that Franklin’s version of world citizenship
includes training in the “normative theory of ecological citizenship (EC),”
which is speeding us along the path to “occupy a space that transcends national
boundaries” and give us a form of “globally-oriented citizenship” which
emphasizes “the right for individuals to live in a sustainable world.”

Lest we conclude too hastily that global citizenship (GC?)
and EC are still a bit foreign to the American sensibility, let’s touch base
with the heartland.  The University of Missouri‘s Honors College announces plainly
enough, “We, at the college, want all of our students to be global
citizens.”  The students need not worry that
this will jeopardize their U.S.
taxpayer financed federal loans.  You can
be a citizen of the world and keep your U.S. passport.  But global citizens at the University of Missouri
do need to cultivate “awareness of your global footprint,” which is “an estimate
of the amount of space on the earth that an individual uses in order to survive
using existing technology.”  It seems
that there is an important affinity between GC and EC, whether you are in
Canton Ticino or west of the Mississippi.

The president of Swarthmore College, Rebecca Chopp, likewise
recently declared that being a citizen of the world requires a certain
ecological orientation:

:As stewards and citizens of the world, we are also linked by
environmental and political challenges that require us to work together to
create a sustainable and just world.

In Chopp’s view, we “are already global stewards and
citizens whether we choose to be or not.” 
The question is “what kind?” 

The attraction of American college students to world
citizenship, as I said, makes good sense, especially in historical
perspective.  After all, Americans have
been condescended to for five centuries by more polished and sophisticated
people.  We’ve been treated like the
uncouth relatives from the backwoods who have barged into the afternoon
tea.  Part of President Barack Obama’s
appeal has been that, unlike George W. Bush, he has the savoir faire of a world
citizen.  He won’t put his cowboy boots
on the Louis
XIV settee
.  World citizenship has
its theoretical expositors too, most notably Princeton philosophy professor
Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose book Cosmopolitanism:
Ethics in a World of Strangers
(2007) calls for us all to be world
citizens; and University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum who has been
arguing for many years beginning with her book, Cultivating
Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education
(1997) that
the real purpose of liberal education is to prepare students for world

I’ll trust that anyone who has been to a college graduation
recently or read an alumni magazine has at least a passing awareness of the
current campus enthusiasm for world citizenship, and with that in mind, I want
to turn back to that pleasant example, Monsieur

Rigaud’s first explanation of world citizenship is delivered
to his cellmate, a smuggler, in a Marseilles prison, where Rigaud is being held
on suspicion of having murdered his wife. 
He beats the rap and continues his villainous career as a thief, forger,
blackmailer–and a dog poisoner.  Rigaud
constantly preens himself on his cleverness and his ability to live
successfully outside the norms of society. 
In the novel, his oft-repeated boast, “I am a citizen of the world,”
underscores Rigaud’s essential selfishness and predatory nature.

Dickens pointedly contrasts him with another character, a
good-hearted Englishman, Mr.
who travels Europe “with an
unshakable confidence that the English tongue was somehow the mother tongue of
the whole world, only the people were too stupid to know it.”  Mr. Meagles lacks Rigaud’s ease with crossing
cultural boundaries, but he is rooted in love of family and generosity to

Dickens, one might think, was onto something.  The self-conferred standing of someone as
“citizen of the world” suggests a relaxed open-mindedness, but it also suggests
an individual who has detached himself from the loyalties that foster a spirit
of kindness and commitment to those who most depend on us. 

The “citizen of the world” phrase, of course, has a long and
checkered history before Dickens picked it up. 
The original citizen of the world appears to have been Diogenes, the
nastiest of Greek philosophers, whose sneering dismissals of social values gave
Cynicism a bad name.  At times, the phase
conveyed a general sense of magnanimity. 
When a donor gave some books to Harvard in August 1764, he wrote,
“Thomas Hollis, an Englishman, a Lover of Liberty, civil and religious, citizen
of the world, is desirous of having the honor to present this set of
books…”   Mr. Hollis as a “citizen of the
world” was an Englishman expressing support for the fractious colonies at a
tense moment in the deterioration of relations between Britain and America.  Earlier in the year Britain had imposed the Sugar Act, a tax that
hammered the New England port cities. In the
same month as Hollis’s gift, Sam Adams began a boycott by American merchants of
British luxury goods. 

The same year (1855) that Dickens began publishing Little Dorrit in installments, a
self-educated American blacksmith, Elihu Burritt, began a new monthly magazine
titled Citizen
of the World
.  Burritt is best known today as an early
peace activist but he was also an abolitionist. 
When he launched his new magazine, he explained in an editorial:

Whatever meaning may have attached
to a “citizen of the world” a century ago, the significance of that term has widened
and deepened, and taken nobler dimensions of philanthropy in these latter years
of civilization and Christianity. It means one who recognizes and reveres the
Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man, who sees and respects, in the
people of every nation, race, and tongue, the children of the same Heavenly

Burritt’s cosmopolitanism was oddly matched with his
American nationalism–and his irritation with the British.  In his second issue, he argued that America was
suited to become the “moral umpire between contending powers” but to achieve
this “full dignity and influence” among nations, one thing was lacking: “This
one thing she lacks is, full and everlasting freedom from the domination of the
British Press.” This accidentally displays a smallness of mind at odds with the
idea that he and his magazine are conveying a “widened and deepened” version of
world citizenship.

I am tempted to think, thus ever with citizens of the world.  Whether it is Franklin College, the
University of Missouri Honors College, or Swarthmore trying to smuggle the
sustainability agenda aboard “world citizenship”; or Diogenes defacing currency
and heckling Plato; or Martha Nussbaum defacing the currency of liberal
education, the citizen of the world often seems to be up to something rather
underhanded that plain old citizens of actual communities, like Mr. Meagles,
would shun.  Let’s make allowance that
some would-be citizens of the world such as Mr. Hollis really do mean to
transcend the barriers of time and place that keep those who love freedom apart
from each other.  But today’s academic
infatuation with world citizenship often seems to have a good bit more
I-am-my-own-law Monsieur Rigaud than the trans-Atlantic donor of books Mr.
Hollis, “Lover of Liberty, civil and religious.” 

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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