Diversity and Democracy

Critical Cosmopolitan Teaching and Learning: A New Answer to the Global Imperative

As global learning gains traction in undergraduate core curricula and colleges and universities revise their mission statements to include larger commitments to global awareness, the educational imperative to “globalize” feels more insistent than ever. At the same time, higher education sometimes seems to be caught in a closed critical loop: attentive to global learning because it’s obviously good to be global. While it is good to be global, it is also important to be clear about the conceptual framework that guides our work in global learning—the motives and ambitions that compel us to advocate for global priorities in the first place.

Indeed, there can be many different rationales for global learning, serving many possible ends. A neo-mercantilist rationale focuses global learning on a narrow set of vocational and market-friendly ends; an internationalist rationale enlists it for the cultivation of cross-cultural awareness and competencies; a liberal-aesthetic rationale claims it for the larger goals of self-enrichment. These rationales may be useful, but in my view, none provides a focused attention to global learning as a critical citizenship project—an affirmation of the larger ethical dimension of this work and its link to the responsibilities of citizenship, especially across multiple scales and contexts.

I want to suggest the value of a critical cosmopolitan rationale in providing this missing focus. In general, to hold a cosmopolitan perspective means to effectively extend one’s identity, identifications, and ethical obligations beyond the bounds of what is familiar or proximate, to think and act with a strong concern for all humanity. In contrast to potentially universalizing forms of cosmopolitanism, critical cosmopolitanism resists abstract and overly general truths about humanity or globality, any ethic that asks us to ignore difference, and the potential erasure of local identities and smaller-scale solidarities. In challenging the traditional relationship between the global and the local—as geographies, sites for citizenship practice, and sources of identity and belonging—critical cosmopolitanism offers a complex, transformative, and socially relevant framework for global learning.

The Trap of Dichotomous Logic

There has been a persistent tendency in higher education to imagine the global and the local as “separate objects which impact one another, like billiard balls” (Cox 2005, 181). In this way of thinking, the global and the local collide and ricochet off one another before each ultimately falls into its separate pocket. I thought this way for some time, assuming that if I wanted to globalize my teaching, I had to locate the work of my course somewhere other than where we were. The global, both literally and abstractly, was somewhere else, up there, over there. Columbus, Ohio—like a good billiard ball—could affect my understanding of the global, but, beyond that, it was difficult for me to imagine the local and the global in anything other than an antonymic relationship.

With isolated courses prioritizing a “global perspective,” “global awareness,” or “global understanding,” curricular structures can manifest and reinforce this dichotomous logic. While these global courses are not usually explicitly opposed to another set of courses foregrounding attention to local knowledge, any courses that are not specifically identified as globally conscious are often presumed not to be globally conscious. This majority of unmarked courses becomes identified—conceptually and practically—with the local, which in turn becomes the generic standard, the familiar and expected learning orientation. Thus, whether intentionally or not, an institution that anchors its global commitments in a subset of courses or requirements can end up building a curricular architecture that relies upon and affirms a binary logic. While intended as an important antidote to parochialism and insularity, the addition of these courses can result in a curricular framework that resists seeing place and identity as relational in character.

I have seen this phenomenon take shape at my institution. A late addition to our Integrative Studies curriculum (Otterbein’s signature general education core since the 1960s), the Global Perspectives requirement was designed to compensate for the largely Western emphasis of the other required courses in the program. But with Global Perspectives courses in place, faculty in the rest of the Integrative Studies curriculum sometimes felt liberated from the need to think comparatively about cultural phenomena; to study critical issues that crossed national, cultural, and disciplinary boundaries; or to prioritize global civic engagement. This is not to say that these faculty members were hostile to global inquiry or obsessively local in their interests; but in isolating the Global Perspectives requirement, the curriculum assumed a binary framework that, over several years, began to feel less and less elastic.

When Otterbein’s faculty began to radically revise the Integrative Studies curriculum in 2009, we wanted to imagine a core curriculum that identified as critically cosmopolitan, or simultaneously global and local in perspective. Some initially found this perplexing, accustomed as they were to organizing principles that discouraged faculty and students from conceiving of socio-civic identities and identifications as multiple, layered, or fluid in form. Because the curricular structure had assumed that the global and local did not coincide, it had prevented a more flexible understanding of both subjectivity and belonging and stymied efforts to teach and learn about the contemporary world in more nuanced, complex, and accurate ways. In rethinking the curriculum, we hoped to find an avenue to move beyond this binary approach.

Beyond the Local/Global Binary

For those who see the local and global as antonymic, it is easy to assume that the dominance of one term will necessitate the depreciation of the other. If global learning is a priority, they assume, local learning will be demoted; the global will both overwhelm and undervalue the local communities and conversations that are immediately in need of attention and care. It is understandable that some faculty and students would feel the need to protect the local from the encroachment of the global. But this common anxiety arises from a binary way of thinking that assumes that attention to one term is going to shortchange the other.

Critical cosmopolitan teaching and learning works to complicate—and, ideally, unseat—this binary logic. It does so by investing in thinking relationally about the local and the global. As a framework for global learning, critical cosmopolitan education is committed to unsettling the traditional and highly reified opposition of local and global, to imagining a more dialogic and dynamic relationship between these terms.

Because critical cosmopolitan learning positions the global and the local as relational, and because it underscores the ways that the global and the local implicate and inform one another, critical cosmopolitan education denies that the global is a category that transcends other categories. And this, I believe, is a good thing. A transcendent understanding of the global—common enough in traditional forms of global education and cosmopolitan discourse—is often every bit as fetishistic as romantic versions of localism. Critical cosmopolitanism insists that the global and the local are mutually constitutive terms—porous rather than rigid, and interdependent in character. Even though they appear to occupy very different scales, the global and the local are not exclusively opposed, but instead co-constitute, inform, and shape one another.

While many educational efforts draw attention to the global implications of local actions as well as the local consequences of global or transnational phenomena, it is important to move beyond considerations of mutual influence to think about how various scales of place actually define and actuate each other. This is one of the most significant advantages of a critical cosmopolitan framework, especially when characterizing pedagogical practices or constructing learning goals. Critical cosmopolitan discourse foregrounds the fact that the local and the global are always implicated in one another and related internally. It destabilizes the binary and underscores the complex interplay between local and global scales and communities. When we imagine global learning as critically cosmopolitan, we create courses and curricula that construct new ways of representing the “in-between”—the complex lived space that defines itself as simultaneously global and local.

At Otterbein, critical cosmopolitan language helped us design new learning goals (see sidebar below) and accompanying objectives for the Integrative Studies Program that define the relationship between the global and the local as nuanced and relational. In the redesigned program, we consistently ask students to think about the global and the local as dynamic and interactive scales that are never isolated from one another. In doing so, we do not allow the word “global” to serve as shorthand for simultaneously global and local. We do not rely on one word to signal both exclusivity and inclusivity at once, even at the cost of a denser or lengthier set of learning goals.

When global learning relies on a critical cosmopolitan framework, it invites students to draft a new language that is capable of describing the contemporary relationship between identity and location. It also invites them to imagine new identifications, questions, and forms of representation for the space that emerges between traditional spatial scales. In so doing, critical cosmopolitan learning challenges dualistic thinking about place, the facile opposition of here and there.

Otterbein’s Integrative Studies Program

The Integrative Studies Program aims to prepare Otterbein University undergraduates for the challenges and complexity of a twenty-first-century world. It foregrounds interdisciplinary and integrative skills, competencies, and ways of knowing and is committed to the premise that one’s learning should serve and shape one’s chosen responsibilities in and to the world. The program’s learning goals are

1. To inspire intellectual curiosity about the world as it is and a deeper understanding of the global condition;

2. To assist students in cultivating intercultural knowledge and competencies;

3. To promote active and critical reflection on the human self in its full range of contexts;

4. To challenge students to critically examine their ethical responsibilities and choices in both local and global contexts;

5. To encourage purposeful public engagement and social responsibility.

Adapted from Otterbein’s Integrative Studies Program Mission and Learning Goals, available in full at http://www.otterbein.edu/Files/pdf/is/IS%20Mission%20statement%20and%20goals.pdf.

The Limits of Global Citizenship

Cosmopolitanism is generally identified with the move toward “global citizenship,” or engagement with the world that extends beyond the state. That engagement can be defined in primarily moral terms—especially in cases where global citizenship is understood as a horizon or ideal—or it can be attached to legal or institutional ends. In either case, global citizenship can provide a framework for enlarging the ethical, rather than the political, boundaries of community.

What are the practical implications of enlarging the ethical boundaries of community and, by extension, one’s responsibilities to fellow members of one’s community? Because traditional understandings of citizenship assume that persons are anchored in bounded communities, students tend to see their rights and responsibilities as citizens in territorial terms. The idea of global citizenship obviously challenges and transgresses territorial identities, and with them, the notion that one’s ethical obligations are clearly delimited by geography. In this way, global citizenship not only introduces new forms of social belonging and allegiance, but also introduces new relational responsibilities, especially between people who do not share the same local group loyalties and identities.

There has been a significant movement in higher education to claim global citizenship as an institutional, curricular, and pedagogical goal. Colleges and universities that name global or international commitments in their mission statements often join those commitments to the larger concept of global citizenship. General education programs that emphasize global learning objectives often tie programmatic goals to global citizenship. And individual faculty increasingly enlist the language of global citizenship to explain their learning goals for courses that they identify as global in perspective or practice. Because of this, it is easy to feel—optimistically—that higher education has already become convinced of the value of teaching for global citizenship and, by extension, of cosmopolitanism. The problem, of course, is that those of us involved in designing these institutional, curricular, and pedagogical initiatives may not have fully examined what we mean by global citizenship. Too often, the rhetoric implies that global citizenship is a lifestyle choice or a byproduct of openness to international experiences without adequately emphasizing the ethical and political dimensions of the concept.

This is not to say that we ought to ban the rhetoric of global citizenship. Indeed, such language ties global learning to educational ends that are ethical, engaged, and socially transformative. It presses academe to move beyond reductive neo-mercantilist, internationalist, or liberal-aesthetic interpretations of global learning. It also underlines and enlarges the historic civic role of higher education and, in so doing, affirms the continued importance of the public interest. Even though what constitutes global citizenship may be an open question, the language of global citizenship offers a legible way of naming the desire for commitments and responsibilities that exceed the nation-state. These are important reasons to continue using and exploring the rhetoric of global citizenship in curricular and pedagogical contexts. But we need to do more. We need to think seriously about the centrality of ethical and political questions in education for global citizenship, and we need to insist that such inquiry is present in our institutional, curricular, and pedagogical initiatives.

Critical Cosmopolitan Citizenship

While adopting a global citizenship framework may be bold, I want to suggest that we would benefit from an even bolder move: exploring a model of citizenship identity and practice that includes a commitment to global citizenship but also affirms other forms of civic belonging. In other words, I am suggesting that we enlarge our view once more, and investigate what is gained by considering citizenship from a critical cosmopolitan perspective.

In what ways might the goal of critical cosmopolitan—rather than global—citizenship introduce new and compelling questions for teaching and learning? Critical cosmopolitanism acknowledges that each individual can occupy a multiplicity of subject positions, civic identities, and forms of belonging. In contrast to the global/local binary, it enables us to maintain multiple sites of political responsibility at a time when an increasing number of contemporary citizens feel simultaneously responsible for—and invested in—various communities of fate and choice: local, sub-state, national, and transnational. Many people—especially college students and young people—understand scale and allegiance as flexible and transient. Their civic attachments and commitments are shifting, overlapping, and reconstituting themselves in new ways. So how do we teach to this new understanding of citizenship as multiple, evolving, and elastic?

While some versions of global learning position global citizenship as an alternative or more expansive form of civic identification than local or national ties, critical cosmopolitan learning insists that contemporary citizenship is, in fact, multidimensional and variable. It acknowledges that identity is complex and allows for civic attachments and obligations that transgress local, national, and transnational boundaries. Offering an alternative to the national versus global citizenship debate—often erroneously represented as the battle between patriotism and cosmopolitanism—critical cosmopolitan citizenship recognizes that human loyalties can exist on many different scales. For this reason, it affirms the significance of global or transnational forms of citizenship even as it underscores the value of civic attachment in more bounded communities.

Critical cosmopolitan citizenship allows students to own simultaneous and diverse forms of civic belonging and responsibility. It also encourages students to reject any understanding of citizenship that is predicated on a false choice between local, regional, or national identifications and global or transnational commitments. For these reasons, I believe that a critical cosmopolitan—rather than, strictly speaking, a “global” or “local”—model of citizenship offers an especially useful and robust model of civic engagement for critical pedagogical work. In suggesting the permeability and interdependence of the global and the local, it allows students and faculty to see ethical engagement and public participation as having an impact on multiple social and spatial locations.

Otterbein’s new Integrative Studies learning goals reinforce the critical cosmopolitan approach to citizenship. One of the primary tasks of the curriculum is to encourage public engagement and social responsibility in local, national, and global contexts. Faculty ask students to investigate multiple and evolving forms of civic identification and action, rather than assume that a curricular attentiveness to global learning would produce such a dynamic exploration. Our learning goals reinforce the permeability of the global and the local, place and space, here and there.

Action, Not Status

Critical cosmopolitan learning offers an enlarged and invigorated conception of citizenship. Rather than define citizenship entirely as a conferred legal status, critical cosmopolitan learning conceives of citizenship as an active practice beyond the occasional and formal exercise in political decision making (i.e., voting). Critical cosmopolitan learning expands our understanding of citizenship to include broader involvement in public life; and in so doing, it invites new conceptions of social participation and commitment, in new contexts that include social media and online communities.

At the same time, critical cosmopolitan learning problematizes the very idea of citizenship. By encouraging students to imagine new identities and tasks for the twenty-first-century citizen, critical cosmopolitan teaching and learning challenges the popular notion that citizenship is a devitalized and static identity. Such learning introduces different possibilities regarding what constitutes a “good” citizen. The person who affirms and critiques human rights or successfully contests the terms of traditional power structures may manifest a more active and energetic investment in citizenship practice than the one who simply votes. Thus critical cosmopolitan learning recognizes the necessary role of oppositionality and counter-discourses in citizenship practice.

In many ways, critical cosmopolitan citizenship offers a radically expanded and experimental version of civic identity. Critical cosmopolitan teaching and learning benefits from this forward- and outward-looking approach, challenging students to be both speculative and utopian. When encouraged to challenge binary forms of thought and narrowly defined versions of action, our students can redefine belonging—not only to embrace distant places, but also to expand what is possible for future generations.


Cox, Kevin. 2005. “Local: Global.” In Spaces of Geographical Thought: Deconstructing Human Geography’s Binaries, edited by Ron Cloke and Ron Johnston, 173–98. London: SAGE Publications.

Tammy Birk is director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and assistant professor of English at Otterbein University.

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