Diversity and Democracy

Bringing Global Education to the Core of the Undergraduate Curriculum

Living in a highly interdependent world is not an option—but at present, being educated to do so competently is. Despite the many courses and initiatives designed to support international and global education in colleges and universities around the country, the undergraduate curriculum as a whole is not adequately preparing most students to be capable global citizens (see Reimers 2013; National Research Council 2007). Lack of serious commitment to designing a curriculum that prioritizes global learning for all undergraduates has on most campuses made global education a peripheral undertaking, limited primarily to those students and faculty specializing in international area studies. Without leadership to make global education more central to the undergraduate curriculum, global learning will become ever more marginal—with compounding consequences for most college graduates, who will be ill-equipped to live as global citizens.

Bringing global education to the core must begin with deliberation among faculty and administrators about the kinds of competencies graduates should be able to demonstrate, and to what purpose. Imagine, for example, a world where all college graduates understand how their lives are influenced by global processes and events, where they have the motivation and capacity to collaborate with others across national boundaries to advance the well-being of humans and the planet. Imagine a world in which graduates can reduce the burdens caused by population growth by promoting environmental sustainability. Imagine a world where these graduates can alleviate global conflicts by promoting peace with others, where they are able to communicate productively, unburdened by prejudice, with people from different cultural backgrounds. Imagine, in short, an interdependent world in which all college graduates have the skills to take care of themselves, of others, and of the environment, as well as the dispositions to contribute to the many communities of which they are a part, including those that transcend national boundaries.

Such a world requires three things: (1) specialists with deep expertise in various disciplines, (2) collaboration among these specialists to engage with and overcome global challenges, and (3) global education for all students, not just those specializing in international area studies. Unfortunately, at present, most colleges and universities are better at the first of these priorities—educating experts, including those in international area studies—than they are at advancing collaboration among these experts or promoting the interdisciplinary study of global subjects among all students. Imagining and deliberating about how to ensure that all graduates gain the skills, knowledge, and capacities to contribute to building a better future is the first step to making such a world a reality.

Articulating the Aims of Global Education

In order to create a strategy for global education that is appropriate to institutional contexts and deeply rooted in faculty expertise, leaders at each campus should empower a group of faculty from across programs—including the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and professional disciplines—to work with key administrators on bringing global education to the core of the undergraduate curriculum. Given the heterogeneity of higher education institutions in the United States, it is impossible to issue uniform prescriptions for how to do this (Rosovsky 2014). Yet while each institution is different, all can follow a process of goal setting, auditing, curriculum development, benchmarking, and assessment that can facilitate institution-specific strategies for sustaining continuous improvement.

The faculty and administrators working together on this global education committee will need to articulate a vision of the aims of global education before detailing the learning experiences that such an education entails. Such an exercise is central to defining, and engaging support for, global education in the undergraduate curriculum. This exercise could enable global education to move from the periphery to the core of the curriculum at a time of competing priorities, and at a moment when higher education faces fundamental questions about its social relevance, accountability, and sustainability. Articulating the aims of global education can help clarify how such an education might help graduates obtain jobs, help faculty increase instructional effectiveness, and help institutions serve a more diverse student body, among other priorities.

To center global education within the undergraduate curriculum, college faculty and administrators will need to be more intentional, strategic, and effective—and they will need to start by addressing difficult questions head on. Not least among the contentious topics to be addressed is the question of how to frame global education efforts. Take the popular but contested term global citizenship as an example. Some argue that this term is inherently contradictory because there is no “global jurisdiction”; others identify it as a form of global neocolonialism, an attempt by global institutions to undermine nation-states.

In my view, the concept of global citizenship conveys the capacity to engage in a global commons. It connects global education to the larger civic mission of colleges and universities. All of our lives are greatly affected by events that are global in nature, that transcend and cannot be managed solely by national governments or institutions. With the increased ease of communications and travel and the deterritorialization of much economic activity (including the production of goods and the delivery of services), new opportunities are arising for global engagement, along with new challenges to global well-being. As some individuals benefit disproportionately from globalization, others experience increased inequality and exclusion; as new challenges to environmental sustainability arise, so do related challenges of unsustainable population growth, human conflict, and poverty. Globalization itself can compound the impact of some of these challenges, turning local problems—a health epidemic, for example, or a political conflict—into global phenomena as people move physically and often virtually around the planet.

Educators need to equip students to live in these highly interconnected times. We need to help them develop global civility, a sense of themselves in and at peace with the world, so that they become capable of making the best of the interdependence that, like it or not, defines the era in which we live. Global citizenship encompasses the capacity and desire to engage with these affairs. Furthermore, global citizenship need not conflict with local or national citizenship. Indeed, graduates need to know how to advocate for local and national interests in a world where self-interest is a common motivator. Reconciling and learning to live with the tensions between local, national, and global citizenship is an important dimension of global education.

I would thus argue that global citizenship is a generative framework for faculty and administrators to consider as they articulate the aims of global education at their institutions. Nonetheless, stakeholders at each college or university need to determine what vision and framework best aligns with their institution’s mission and priorities.

Specifying Knowledge, Skills, and Competencies

In addition to articulating a vision of the ultimate aims of global education, faculty and administrators will need to deliberate the knowledge, skills, and competencies that college graduates need to construct that imagined future. Such deliberation will allow faculty and administrators to design a curriculum that provides students the opportunities they need, within and beyond the classroom, to achieve global learning outcomes. The concept of global citizenship, for example, invokes a definable set of knowledge, skills, and competencies. Some see these outcomes as deriving naturally from deep inquiry with any subject, given that globalization is manifest in so many processes. But I believe that preparing students for global engagement means ensuring they attain specific knowledge, skills, and competencies that may or may not derive seamlessly from deep study of particular fields. Given the heterogeneity of institutions—their varying missions, capacities, and starting points for undertaking global education—each institution will need to develop a process that prioritizes the knowledge, skills, and capacities most aligned with its institutional mission and local conditions and resources.

Faculty and administrators leading global education efforts will need to establish what knowledge should be acquired by all students and what knowledge varies by field and should be infused in different programs of study. The global education committee may decide that in order to become global citizens, all students should know some basic facts about the world, such as population figures and growth rates or levels of concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Whatever knowledge they acquire, students should also understand the drivers of global processes connected to this knowledge, as well as the consequences of these processes for the global ecosystem. They should know how development processes work in areas related to their fields of study, and they should know something about the institutions and initiatives that support development efforts. This knowledge can and should lead to an understanding of potential levers of change, providing the intellectual foundation necessary to contribute effectively to improving the world.

More important than learning facts is developing the capacity to use those facts: to locate the knowledge that is needed and to make sense of that knowledge competently. Thus global citizens need the cognitive skills that allow for problem solving in a globalized context. They need the capacity to draw on knowledge from different disciplines or domains of practice to design solutions to practical problems, such as reducing hunger and poverty, promoting health or education, curbing population growth, reducing humankind’s carbon footprint, or preserving the Earth’s ecosystems. Students need opportunities to develop these problem-solving skills and capacities by generating innovations that are domain specific—for example, systems of delivering microcredit to support small producers in the developing world, or ways of using low-cost technology to support educational innovation. Designing such innovations requires contextual understandings of relevant problems, disciplines, and practices.

Global citizens also need the competencies to work with others across lines of difference. They need to be skilled in negotiating agreements and building relationships in different cultural contexts. They need to understand their own identities and recognize their similarities and differences with the many others with whom globalization will bring them into contact. They need to have empathy and concern for others, as well as awareness of their own privilege.

Infusing Global Education through Curricular Design

Opportunities to develop the knowledge, skills, and competencies described above are not mere corollaries of deep study. They require educators to develop specific exercises that engage students in linking knowledge across disparate domains, with a focus on inventing solutions to global problems. Thus in addition to determining what knowledge, skills, and competencies are priorities at their institution, faculty and administrators will need to negotiate how best to offer a more global curriculum. They could do this by creating new requirements or new majors, infusing global pathways into existing majors, introducing more interdisciplinary courses, or pursuing a mix of all of the above.

In reviewing the existing curriculum, the global education committee may find many courses and initiatives that support global education on their campus. But they may also find that few of these are organized into an intellectually coherent curriculum, existing instead as stand-alone activities. This is often the case for study abroad opportunities or courses in foreign languages or foreign cultures, which may be sought out by those who are interested but remain poorly integrated with other academic experiences and peripheral to the experiences of most students. In higher education at large, there are many courses that cover topics global, comparative, and international—but there are few global education requirements, curricular sequences, or clear pathways to well-defined global learning outcomes. There are many foreign language courses, study abroad programs, international centers, and student-generated initiatives, but few systems to assess students’ overall global learning or the effectiveness of global education efforts, and little recognition for students who demonstrate mastery. (Editor’s note: see Kevin Hovland’s article in this issue for information about an emerging method of assessing students’ global learning.)

As a result of this state of affairs, students and faculty are often in the dark when it comes to understanding how the many components supporting global education on campus are part of a coherent picture, and how these various elements are aligned—or not. Many colleges offer maps of the physical campus and its surroundings, but few offer intellectual roadmaps that help undergraduates and their advisors chart a path toward the development of desirable global learning outcomes. If these maps exist, they are often the private domain of some faculty, tacit knowledge that is not examined, evaluated, or shared across groups and is therefore unable to inspire collective action. The global education committee will need to fill this void by developing appropriate pathways of global education opportunities on their campus and sharing these maps widely to promote deliberation, improvement, alignment, and assessment of results.

In developing these maps, the committee may aspire to depth and rigor but be tempted toward superficiality, often the path of least resistance in trying to satisfy many constituencies and serve many different students. The committee members may feel pressured to devote as little time as possible to this new curricular priority. But deep study requires time, the most precious resource for learning, and devoting adequate time to global studies may require difficult conversations about institutional priorities. Higher education institutions currently exist in times of great contestation over purpose, turmoil over governance and resources, and justified concern about the future. Prioritizing global education in this context will require thinking about the curriculum as part of a complex system that includes mission, resources, faculty, students, and key partnerships. Those involved with designing curricula will need to ask how these different priorities intersect. For example, a number of institutions have prioritized increasing the percentage of tuition-paying international students, who often come from privileged backgrounds and who, like all students, represent their particular circumstances of origin. How can the global curriculum balance and engage the perspectives of these students while fostering greater global education outcomes among all students?

Advancing global education on campuses will require serious deliberation, planning, and hard work in curriculum development. It will require faculty, after reaching working agreements about the kinds of knowledge, skills, and competencies graduates should exhibit, to engage in the difficult work of creating a sequence of curricular, cocurricular, and extracurricular opportunities that lead to mastery in these areas. These exercises in the old arts of curriculum design need to engage with current debates about how to offer the best possible undergraduate preparation, making the most effective use of increasingly limited resources. They need to be aligned with current ideas about the value of project-based pedagogies that help students develop the capacity to do: to instantiate knowledge by generating solutions to specific problems. They need to engage with current debates about the appropriate role of entrepreneurship education, innovation labs, design-based education, and online and blended learning as part and parcel of the rethinking of undergraduate education.

Seeking Shared Goals and Models

While each institution will need to develop the curriculum that best fits its mission, capacity, and context, higher education at large also needs communities of practice that can provide models and benchmarks for institutionalizing rigorous programs of global education. Organizations like the Association of American Colleges and Universities and NAFSA: Association of International Educators are studying, disseminating, and fostering exemplary practices supporting collegial deliberation, integration of global studies in the liberal education curriculum, and design and implementation of global education curricula. One example in this search for good models is the list of annual recipients of the Senator Paul Simon Award for Internationalization, granted by NAFSA as a result of a peer-reviewed process. While the awards are given for comprehensive, broadly based internationalization, the criteria include evidence of a coherent global focus in the curriculum.

While engaged academic planning for global education is indeed a challenge to the status quo, it is not a challenge to the values of a liberal education. The knowledge, skills, and competencies needed for global citizenship require an understanding of topics related to public health, demographics, economics, and politics, and also those rooted in literature, art, and languages. Integrating learning across these disciplines and connecting it with opportunities for students to design and construct solutions to shared global challenges can only enhance the depth of understanding available through discrete fields of study. If the goal of a liberal education is to educate well-rounded, multidimensional individuals who are ready to live life with purpose, those individuals will need to know how to connect different bodies of knowledge. They will develop those connections not in the context of a single course or even in the sum of all the courses they take, but also in the interstices of the curriculum, the synapses that connect various courses with cocurricular and extracurricular activities.

Unless faculty and institutional leaders develop a vision of global education as part of the undergraduate curriculum, aligning institutional resources with explicit curricular planning, global education will remain peripheral to the purpose of liberal education. Unless it becomes part of the core, undergraduate students will remain underprepared for the twenty-first century—lacking the knowledge, skills, and competencies they urgently need to engage as global citizens in an increasingly important global commons.

The author would like to thank Larry Bacow, Steven Bloomfield, Kathryn Campbell, Jorge Dominguez, Ethan Van Drunen, Richard Freeland, Kevin Kalra, Ken Kay, Robert Moore, and Henry Rosovsky for their generous feedback on drafts of this article.


National Research Council. 2007. International Education and Foreign Languages: Keys to Securing America’s Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Reimers, Fernando. 2013. “Education for Improvement: Citizenship in the Global Public Sphere.” Harvard International Review 35 (1): 56–61.

Rosovsky, Henry. 2014. “Research Universities: American Exceptionalism?” Carnegie Reporter (Winter): 59–63.

Fernando M. Reimers is Ford Foundation Professor of International Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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