Liberal Education

Globalizing the Curriculum

How to Incorporate a Global Perspective into Your Courses

One often encounters two responses when academics are asked whether their courses could be changed to include a "global perspective." The first is, "They already do; I discuss international issues along with others in my class." The second is, "I do not need a global perspective, because my discipline is taught and practiced in the same way all over the world." The former response tends to come from those in the social sciences and the humanities, while the latter tends to come from those in the physical and biological sciences and mathematics. While sincere and expressed by dedicated teachers, these responses do not address the problem of globalizing a course or a curriculum. The issue here is not that academics are uninterested in such a perspective, but rather that means to include global perspectives across the curriculum have never been adequately articulated.

Defining "globalization" and "global perspective"

The initial step toward articulating such a means involves defining both "globalization" and "global perspective" and describing their pedagogical importance. Globalization is a phenomenon that has several definitions. Irene Langran, Elizabeth Langran, and Kathy Oxment note that "globalization, propelled by technology and the marketplace, creates growing integration and interdependence."1 The declining significance of local, national, or regional borders in areas of communication, economics, politics, and cultural exchange is generally perceived as a result of globalization. However, globalization is more than a movement up in scale from traditional relationships. Stephen White notes that "globalization is defined as the compression of the world internationally and the intensification of consciousness globally."2 Such a definition involves a change in mindset that accompanies the changes in exchange and commerce. And as Toni Kirkwood notes, "Technical revolutions in transportation and communication systems have resulted in unprecedented cross-cultural and transnational interactions among nations and people. This paradigm shift has raised new consciousness of the roles individuals, institutions, nongovernmental organizations and nations play in the new millennium."3

Finally, Immaculate Namukasa states that globalization "refers to the ideological and structural changes that are directed toward an understanding of the interconnection, especially trading, of people in different parts and eras of the world. The present form of globalization involves a combination of broad cultural, economic, political, and technological forces that are changing the ground rules for human interaction on a worldwide scale."4 This definition assumes that globalization is not just a process of interchange, but also a means of understanding the world in the midst of a major paradigm shift. As such, it affects all academic pursuits, since all disciplines are directed, at least in part, toward developing such understanding.

This insight forms the basis for a "global perspective," a lens through which we examine not only the traditional subject matter of our disciplines, but also the manner in which we approach those disciplines. To take a "global perspective" is to go beyond the mere introduction of international issues into a course. Such issues can be studied according to the interactions of nation-states without reference to globalization. Similarly, the exercise goes beyond the mere assumption that one's linguistic or symbolic languages are universally shared and utilized, and are therefore global by definition. Such assumptions raise the question of how specific conventions came to be generally accepted—especially in such fields as mathematics and the sciences, where a variety of cultures contributed to these conventions historically.

Integrating a "global perspective" into courses necessarily involves examining whether traditional disciplinary assumptions still apply in a global context and, if not, how they need to be translated in order to remain relevant. In what follows, I map out this process by tracing one "intellectual journey" in order to derive some general questions and principles. I start with a concept that is important to several disciplines, including political science, sociology, and psychology: public opinion. The exercise involves attaching the label "global" to the concept, and then attempting to analyze the meaning of the new term. In this case, the concept becomes "global public opinion" or "world opinion," a concept I have previously explored in relation to traditional notions of public opinion.

Toward a notion of "world opinion"

Public opinion occupies a customary place in social and political analysis, and world opinion has of late infiltrated such analysis. Public opinion has many definitions, and there is general consensus on its overall meaning; world opinion often lacks definition, and its overall meaning remains vague. To address this problem, I performed content analyses of foreign newspapers of record in order to study how the concept of "world opinion" is used. But as with any study, the issues that preceded this analysis were even more important, since they defined the specific questions included in the content studies. For these issues, I am grateful to my students, in both the United States and Germany, who voiced the following questions:

  • How can you talk about world opinion, since that implies everyone is in agreement, and we know there are huge variations in cultures and belief systems due to people's differing values and interests?
  • When you discuss world opinion, are you not really just talking about the opinions of major nations? If public opinion involves everyone in a society, does that mean that world opinion involves everyone in the world?
  • If world opinion exists, why do we still have countries? Does the existence of a "global public opinion" mean that our traditional notions of public opinion within societies are no longer relevant?

The first question assumes that world opinion necessarily implies that all people and nations are in agreement about an issue. Such an interpretation, though, imposes upon the concept a restriction that does not apply to public opinion. Indeed, there are clearly individuals who are either not included in, or do not agree with, what we characterize as the "public opinion" on a given issue. Similarly, world opinion has to allow for dissension, and one must consider how to integrate disagreement into the concept.

The second question assumes that virtually everyone in the world must participate in world opinion in some manner; otherwise, either it is not valid or it only refers to the opinions of major nations that are the primary actors in the international arena. Again, however, such a restriction does not apply to public opinion. Clearly, there are individuals who are neither involved nor interested in some public issues, whether they are political, social, or cultural issues. Nonetheless, one does not assume that the major powers in the society, be they individuals or social institutions, define public opinion.

The third question assumes that the global level of world opinion necessarily supersedes all levels of opinion below it. However, public opinion allows for "publics" that exist below the level of the entire society. World opinion, like public opinion in the development of societies, merely adds another layer to the publics in which individuals participate, and from which they may draw their identities. Moreover, even though this global public encompasses more individuals than local or national publics, it is not higher in importance for decision making, identity, or values.

From this analysis, I have derived three interrelated approaches that are necessary for attaining a global perspective on a concept or discipline. First, one must take a non-utopian approach, noting that a globalized concept need not provide a means for promoting international understanding and more tolerant relations among peoples. Second, one must take a non-unitary approach, noting that a globalized concept need not apply to or include everyone in the world. And third, one must take a non-hierarchical approach, noting that a globalized concept is not more salient to all issues and individuals than other expressions of the concept on the local or societal levels.

It goes without saying that a variety of problems must be addressed on the global level. These include "some of history's most disparaging inequities among nations, environmental deterioration, ethnic nationalism, decline of the nation-state and the rampage of HIV/AIDS"5 to name but a few. A global perspective is forced upon us, in part, by the universality of the problems that concern us. However, there is another problem underscored by world opinion: different nations or regions of the world conceptualize these problems and their solutions in different ways.

Even an issue as dire as HIV/AIDS must be approached with the idea in mind that different cultures view health and illness—and, therefore, this condition—in different ways. Here, the global perspective is forced upon us by the problem of universalities—i.e., the notion that we must understand why and how different cultures have approached these issues in the past and present. The former consideration follows from the need for our disciplines to address the problems foisted upon us by globalization; the latter consideration follows from the contact we have with different societies through globalization—a contact that makes us aware that our disciplines often do not encompass the assumptions and approaches of other cultures. Indeed, there is a symbiotic relationship between the two problems. Global problems require global solutions that will involve peoples of different beliefs and cultures that, in turn, necessarily require us to adjust our disciplinary approaches to these problems. Conversely, different beliefs and cultures can offer insights into new means of approaching these problems that necessarily require one to study other cultures and beliefs in order to discover how they can be integrated into disciplinary approaches.

To attain a global perspective on a discipline or concept, therefore, it is also necessary to acknowledge both the universality of problems (a globalized approach is necessary because the problems facing individuals and nations are generally global in scope) and the problem of universalities (a globalized approach is necessary because different cultures have different approaches to problems). One cannot assume automatically that a given disciplinary approach is universal. Instead, one must begin by understanding the history and beliefs of other cultures, and then adjust the approach accordingly.

The analysis of newspaper discourses related to notions of world opinion yielded the following preliminary description: "'world opinion' refers to the moral judgments of observers which actors must heed in the international arena, or risk isolation as a nation."6 In terms of the three approaches identified above, world opinion is non-utopian, since it is simply one more consideration leaders must include before taking action; a leader or nation could easily decide to risk isolation by ignoring world opinion. It is non-unitary in that nations may be isolated from the international community due to their actions; hence, nations may exist either inside or outside of the world considered as a unit. It is non-hierarchical in that nations and national image play a role in world opinion, and hence are still important concepts on another level of analysis.

Further, this analysis considers the universality of problems in that the topics on the agenda for world opinion tend to be ones of concern to the international community, however it is defined. It also considers the problem of universalities in that it does not assume that all nations will necessarily conceptualize the content or form of world opinion in the same manner. Instead, world opinion becomes a process that includes various national perspectives on what it might decree before it goes to completion.

The preliminary rule for introducing a global perspective into a discipline, then, includes approaching global concepts as non-utopian, non-unitary, and non-hierarchical. And it also includes taking into account both the universality of problems and the problem of universalities.

Next, I want to consider the integration of a global perspective into two other disciplines: citizen education and mathematics. This attempt is not meant to be exhaustive or to represent expertise in either field. Rather, the purpose here is to generate a seedbed of hypotheses by which a global perspective might reflect the paradigm shifts globalization entails.

Approaching citizenship on a global level

"Citizenship is most commonly discussed in the context of states."7 This assertion from Langran, Langran, and Oxment's essay about "global citizenship" would seem to render their term an oxymoron. However, as the authors discuss global citizenship, it is clear that their notion follows the preliminary rule proposed above. The authors begin by outlining three forms of citizenship. The legal notion of citizenship requires citizens to act in the name of the collective good; they also derive rights and duties from their status.8 This consideration of the "global collective good" is non-utopian in two senses. First, it implies not only privileges, but also duties and costs assessed to the individual. Second, it implies that global citizenship is necessary, but not sufficient, to solve global collective problems.

The psychological notion of citizenship assumes that individuals will develop an identity as members of a global community. However, as the authors note, because "individuals can experience multiple levels of citizenship . . . the coexistence of identity with communities on the state and global level is indeed possible."9 The authors thereby recognize the non-hierarchical notion of citizenship. Individuals do not give up their national identities when they take on a global identity; neither does the global identity necessarily supersede national identity for citizens.

In many ways, the political notion of citizenship represents the greatest challenge, especially when one looks for means by which individuals can be represented on the global level independently of their states. Here, though, the authors find a potential solution in the actions of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and multinational corporations (MNCs), as well as intergovernmental institutions such as the World Health Organization.10 These entities do not represent all individuals or all interests; hence, this idea of global citizenship is non-unitary. NGOs can generate a global consciousness about issues that promotes individual participation—by, for instance, adopting the slogan "think globally, act locally." Further, MNCs can sometimes promote issues such as human rights in different areas of the world. This may occur under pressure, as when threatened boycotts compelled some companies to divest holdings in South Africa during the Apartheid era. It might also make good business sense, as when corporations contribute to the environmental movement by "greening" their activities. Imperfect representation may still imply some representation, and non-unitary global citizenship may still imply partial citizenship.

Langran, Langran, and Oxment illustrate the universality of problems in their discussion of experiential learning, noting how "experiential learning can help students . . . make a connection with those who are impacted by their actions."11 These experiences help students understand how global problems such as hunger, pandemics, and environmental degradation have clear ramifications that cross national borders. At the same time, such learning also "requires understanding of the experiences of others." The authors discuss the work of Grant Cornwell and Eve Walsh Stoddard,12 who "have written about the challenges of learning about other realities in a world dominated by mainstream culture" and concluded that "learning about global citizenship requires 'triangulation' or 'readings taken from as many locations as possible, especially readings that reflect the knower as viewed from the outside.' As Cornwell and Stoddard note, when students from the US consider how they and their country are seen by others, the experience can be both 'very disturbing and very liberating.'"13 Hence, through exposure to different worldviews regarding global problems, students also understand the problem of universalities.

Langran, Langran, and Oxment's discussion adapts the concept of citizenship to a global perspective in a manner consistent with the preliminary rule I proposed above. But what happens when one leaves the social sciences and moves on to, say, mathematics? Are there still similar lessons to be learned about globalizing the curriculum?

Globalizing math

Mathematics is a discipline that seems to have the strongest claim to universality. It uses a universally understood nomenclature that crosses linguistic and national boundaries. With a commonly accepted symbolic system, mathematicians seem poised to claim that their discipline is global by nature and, therefore, needs no further reflection or alteration. However, mathematics, so conceived, can contain the utopian, hierarchical, and unitary elements that are antithetical to a genuine global perspective.

Namukasa notes that a "non-critical understanding, teaching, and use of mathematics may simply perpetuate oppressive values, pervasive ideologies, and power structures." Accordingly, she points out, critical theorists argue that mathematics teaching may serve to impose its symbolic language and the dominance of certain groups.14 Understanding mathematics in this way illustrates how its "universal" symbols are not non-utopian, opening a fresh perspective into this language. Further, poststructuralists argue that "mathematical meaning is determined by signs and a play of difference, and by a silenced, suffocated other."15 What is often perceived as a set of skills or knowledge open to all becomes a hierarchical means of separation among groups. Analyzing this problem further illustrates how mathematics, too, must meet the challenge of being non-hierarchical in the face of global forces.

Finally, "situated cognition" analysts argue that one must understand the social, material, and cultural contexts in which mathematics is practiced or created as a "tool for human use and play"; they argue that "learning mathematics should happen in context and as a social and human activity rather than a non-corporeal discipline."16 The teaching and practice of mathematics should be "non-corporeal" or non-unitary when understood within a global context. Instead, it integrates the various contexts in which it is practiced in different cultures and regions of the world.

This final issue relates to the problem of the assumed universality of problems in mathematics. It is commonly accepted that mathematics is a critical element in solving problems, social or otherwise. Accordingly, the "problem-solvers" are divided from others according to their relative ability to master the symbols and assumptions of mathematics. As Namukasa observes, the problem here is twofold: "The use of mathematics as a gatekeeper to educational and job opportunities in a society is . . . unjust because mathematics can no longer be considered culturally and socially neutral. Furthermore, an exclusive bias towards formal and abstract mathematics generates an illusion of certainty among the public that is especially unjust. Both the use of mathematics as a sieve and the illusions of validity generated by mathematics users serve to exclude the participation of a majority of lay people in decision making and in comprehension of decisions made."17 It follows that such a "weeding out" process also excludes many, if not most, individuals from understanding the universality of problems, and how individual or governmental decisions in one place can have a potentially global impact.

This problem is reflected in the field of "ethno-mathematics," which illustrates the problem of universalities. Practitioners of ethno-mathematics engage in "studying the mathematical notions and skills of various cultures, [assuming] that mathematical thinking is developed in specific cultural contexts with specific needs and ways of life. They analyze the relationship between culture and mathematics, questioning the predominant view that mainstream mathematics is culture-neutral."18 A global perspective on mathematics forces one to confront the non-universality of many of the discipline's assumptions. Establishing this perspective does not mean abandoning the traditional teaching of mathematics for some version of cultural relativism. Instead, it might mean including within a course, or as a separate course, some of the studies of ethno-mathematicians who "examine the history of mathematics, the cultural anthropology of ancient empires, and the mathematics of traditional societies to understand non-Western mathematical ways of knowing."19 Such a perspective is critical for understanding the discipline, Namukasa explains, since "mainstream mathematics continues to mistakenly trace its origin solely to Greece, ignoring its historical bases in Egypt, Babylonia, India, and the Middle East, and the parallel mathematical pursuits of the Chinese, Japanese, and Inca-Aztec cultures."20

Marcus du Sautoy makes the same point in his documentary The Story of Maths, which emphasizes the multiple origins and interpretations of the discipline.21 Du Sautoy reveals, for example, that not only did the Phoenicians invent the concept of zero, but they also devised the number system with a base of sixty that we still use in marking seconds, minutes, and hours and in the definition of degrees in a circle. Studying mathematics from such a global perspective might easily open new areas of inquiry, based on the contributions from different cultures and questions about why those contributions have been retained or discarded.

Guidelines for creating a global perspective in the curriculum

As the previous three examples demonstrate, my preliminary rule for introducing a global perspective into a discipline can be applied when the appellation "global" is attached to some of the fundamental concepts of a given discipline. It is possible that not all elements of the rule will necessarily apply in each case. Nonetheless, I hope the preceding analyses provide a framework for faculty seeking to add a global perspective to their courses.

All disciplines have key concepts that help define their subject matter—in political science, for example, "power" or "the state"; in sociology, "community"; in medicine, "health" or "illness"; in anthropology, "culture." The first step toward globalizing a course, I suggest, would involve faculty members gathering together from different disciplines and each choosing one key concept from their own area. Next, they would apply the adjective "global," as in "global health" or "global culture." They would then explore ways in which adding "global" changes the concepts, and determine which of their assumptions about the concepts remain valid.

In addition, they would be guided in how to apply my preliminary rule for introducing a global perspective into a discipline. When all are finished, they would present these concepts to the other faculty in their group for critique and comparison. From this basis, faculty members can then research additional materials about the global concept they have discussed, as a means of making the new concept a part of an existing course or the basis of a new course. With sufficient support and guidance, such a project could turn into a college- or university-wide effort in which faculty are supported in the creation of "global-intensive courses" that can be used across the curriculum to add a global component to undergraduate education.

The stakes for such a project are high. It is a truism that we exist in a globalized environment. But the truth behind this truism is that a non-globalized curriculum prepares students for a world that no longer exists—and that is no preparation at all.

Notes

1. Irene V. Langran, Elizabeth Langran, and Kathy Oxment, "Transforming Today's Students into Tomorrow's Global Citizens: Challenges for US Educators," New Global Studies 3, no. 1 (2009): 1.

2. Stephen R. White, "Reconstructionism and Interdisciplinary Global Education: Curricula Construction in a Teilhardian Context," International Education 21, no. 1 (2001): 5.

3. Toni Fuss Kirkwood, "Preparing Teachers to Teach from a Global Perspective," The Delta Gamma Bulletin 67, no. 2 (2001): 6.

4. Immaculate Namukasa, "School Mathematics in the Era of Globalization," Interchange 35, no. 2 (2004): 213.

5. Kirkwood, "Preparing Teachers," 5.

6. Frank Louis Rusciano and Roberta Fiske-Rusciano, "Towards a Notion of World Opinion," in World Opinion and the Emerging International Order, ed. Frank Louis Rusciano (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 1998), 27.

7. Langran, Langran, and Oxment, "Transforming Today's Students," 1.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., 3–4.

11. Ibid, 7.

12. Grant H. Cornwell and Eve Walsh Stoddard, "Freedom, Diversity, and Global Citizenship," Liberal Education 92, no. 2 (2006): 30–31.

13. Langran, Langran, and Oxment, "Transforming Today's Students," 7–8.

14. Namukasa, "School Mathematics," 212.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., 219.

18. Ibid., 211.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Marcus du Sautoy, The Story of Maths (BBC Four, 2008), http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00dxjls.


Frank Louis Rusciano is professor of political science and director of the Global Studies Program at Rider University.


To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the author's name on the subject line.

Previous Issues