Education and Cosmopolitanism: A Counterargument of Martha Nussbaum’s Assertion that U.S. Students Need an Education Based in Cosmopolitan Ideology.

Martha Nussbaum writes in her essay, Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism, “Our nation is appallingly ignorant of the rest of the world” (11). I agree. And I agree also that students should be taught more about the world beyond their borders. The question that remains isn’t what but how. Nussbaum believes that a cosmopolitan education, in which students are taught that they are, above all, “citizens of the world,” will help produce the kind of adults that will see the commonality in other human beings, and will stress to make them “more like our city-dweller” (9).

Yet, I have issues as to how such an education might be taught and its social impact on students. As laudable as Nussbaum’s goal is, integrating a cosmopolitan education in any meaningful way collides with the realities of a time- and cash-strapped public educational system. Even if the integration of cosmopolianism in schools was possible, I see nothing in it that will prevent it from having the same ramifications as a patriotic or nationalistic one.

Since Nussbaum believes that students should be taught about other countries, “their histories, problems, and comparative successes,” (6) a fundamental change in curricula would be needed, a fact to which Nussbaum readily accedes. It would require a change in the text books which are taught in class, as well as a change in the subjects discussed. As Nussbaum writes, students ought to be taught not only about the rest of the world, but “the problems of hunger and pollution…and the implications of these problems for the larger issues of global hunger and global ecology.”

She sees an obvious advantage in a cosmopolitan education for local concerns. By examining the rest of the world, American students can learn more about their own, such as child-rearing practices or that the two-parent nuclear family is “not a pervasive style of child-rearing in today’s world” (11). There are obvious benefits to a cosmopolitan education, but there are also disadvantages. Since the world is an immensely vast place (in spite of twentieth-century technology which has made it seem “small”), full of nations and peoples with distinct cultural and historical realities, the job of any teacher to give attention to them all would be daunting, to say the least.

Certainly, on the collegiate level, this problem would be easily resolved, but what about the grade school level? How much attention should a world history teacher pay to each country or region in the short amount of time allotted during the school year? If she devotes an equal amount of time to each country or region, it would mean that the particular complexities of those nations, such as how each culture evolved, or important local and worldwide events which helped shape its political foundation, will have to be left out or glossed over.

A particularly dedicated cosmopolitan teacher would want to instill in her students the belief that no one country or culture is above all, or superior. Yet, a dedicated instructor, given time constraints and amount of instruction, would also be forced to decide which countries or cultures should have priority class time, if she wanted to provide her students with more than a shallow knowledge of history, literature, politics, etc.

Unfortunately, this is the case with much of grade-level education today. This certainly wouldn’t engender respect for “traditions and commitments,” nor would it help create the kind of global dialogue Nussbaum insists is needed to solve international problems. And yet, giving one culture primacy over others (i.e., Western civilization over African, Asian, or Native Indian as is the case now) is not only not the answer, but it contradicts Nussbaum’s ideal cosmopolitan education.

Of course, the simplest answer to this dilemma is to restructure grade school courses in the same manner as college level courses. But how much more money would be needed for the extra teachers and textbooks to cover the added courses? Where would those funds come from, especially in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Since there is a shortage of educators and some public school districts barely have enough funds for books or paper, only middle class and private schools would be able to afford to institute a cosmopolitan education in any meaningful way.

The way in which public schools are funded will have to be completely restructured, a move I would favor with or without cosmopolitanism as its thrust. No doubt, a true cosmopolitan would argue for an egalitarian educational system, but Nussbaum fails to address the fundamental problems in public education to make that possible. Charter schools and vouchers might be attractive to cosmopolitans, but each has its flaw and, where vouchers are concerned, is at the center of boisterous debates about its efficacy.

Another issue concerning a cosmopolitan education is the impact it will have on the social structure within the classroom and on campus. Will it help create an open environment where students will respect and find commonality among each other as fellow human beings? Nussbaum’s reply would be an unquestionable yes. She quotes Marcus Aurelius as the model for an ideal cosmopolitan education: “Accustom yourself not to be inattentive to what another person says, and as far as possible enter into that person’s mind…Generally, one must first learn many things before one can judge another’s action with understanding” (10).

Yet, she later writes that the “cosmopolitan Stoic stance” could be abused if it failed “to deny the fundamental importance of the separateness of people and of fundamental personal liberties.” She adds that even the Stoics were not always great practitioners of cosmopolitan values and that “their thought is not always a good basis for a scheme of democratic deliberation and education.”

That is the thorn in the crown, isn’t it? Can a school environment based on cosmopolitan values ensure that a child who rejects cosmopolitanism over patriotism, or who decides that he or she is African American or Latina or lesbian and gay above all others will be readily accepted and respected? What place will an ethnocentric particularist or nationalist have in a cosmopolitan classroom? Even Nussbaum wouldn’t be able to offer any guarantees that a cosmopolitan school won’t regress into the kind of separatist conventions that already divide many schools today.

Cosmopolitanism might also begin to question the sense of belonging or how students belong on a school campus. Nussbaum believes that students should be taught that they are “citizens of the world” first, that is, they belong to the human race before all else. There is a strain, as she says, of loneliness in this type of belonging. “In the writings of Marcus Aurelius (as in those of his American followers Emerson and Thoreau), a reader can sometimes sense a boundless loneliness, as if the removal of the props of habit and local boundaries had left life bereft of any warmth or security” (15).

Perhaps this loneliness exists because belonging to humanity is an abstract, if noble, ideal, when the desire of wanting to belong, whether to a family, a group, or another individual arises out of the desire for intimacy and the warmth and security that comes with it. Students, particularly teenagers, form into cliques out of that desire to belong, to be a part of the world, in a sense, to not feel as if they are alone. In these cliques they form a sense of individuality, apart from their parents, and a self-expression that can be accepted and encouraged.

The danger they hold is when they do not respect other cliques, but that could be less about their not understanding the commonality in one another (they are all teens after all), but in that they cannot or do not understand the security or warmth each group may provide to its individuals (and isn’t that also true for nations?). In other words, the high school jock might not get why somebody would want to the join the chess club, or why black students might want to sit with each other in the lunch room cafeteria.

Perhaps a cosmopolitan education can address those issues, as it may be able to address all fundamental problems within modern day classrooms. Still, I find it difficult that students would adopt cosmopolitanism as a philosophical way of life. It would require them to reprioritize a fundamental way in which they develop into adults, which is to say, not seeking out the common in broad, abstract terms, but in the immediate, intimate terms of the local, the here and now.

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