Global Citizenship: Imagined Destiny or Improbable Dream

The universal symbol for peace. ©Robert A. Scott


It is increasingly likely that the graduates of American schools and universities either will supervise or be supervised by someone of a different ethnic, national or racial background. It is also likely that the work of their employers and activities of their families will be influenced in profound ways by suppliers, customers, clients and others who are of a different cultural background. In addition, in many parts of the world it is likely that neighbours, or the schoolmates of their children, will be of a different heritage. Thus, we can expect that the lives of school and university graduates will be affected directly by an increasingly diverse society and interdependent world community.

Some refer to this time as the dawning of a period when we become “global” citizens, i.e., citizens of the world with mutual obligations for the benefit of others beyond our national borders. Others assert that an education for “global citizenship” is essential for young people if they are to gain the skills, attributes and knowledge necessary to be successful in their chosen careers. Still others claim that global citizenship is the status of being when one’s identity transcends, even as it respects, geographical and national borders; that one’s social, political, environmental and economic actions occur in an interdependent world; and that one’s responsibilities or rights are or can be derived from membership in a broader human grouping, feeling welcome and at home wherever we find ourselves.

What does global citizenship look like?

What are the universal values necessary to define global citizenship? Is it an imaginable destiny or an improbable dream?

Surely one value is that of the dignity of each individual. As the saying goes, “Dignity has no nationality”, even if governments act otherwise. Cooperation is a universal value even when the drive for competition sometimes seems overwhelming. Recognizing the value of peace education and the necessity of mutual interdependence are other universal goals, even if local customs teach a contrary ethic. Other values that can be accepted as basic to humanity, and therefore to membership in the global community, would be the set of freedoms articulated by former President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He summarized these universal values as freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. These and other values are essential ingredients for an education designed to foster a peaceful and conflict-free world.

While laws may differ by society, especially in how these four freedoms and others are or are not codified, and norms of morality, i.e. what is considered good and evil, may differ by culture, the discipline of ethics is universal. Ethics is the lens through which we examine legal codes and moral standards and how they are applied to the treatment of others, seeking fairness as opposed to bias and justice as opposed to prejudice. An education for global citizenship is one that liberates individuals from provincial norms and treats all persons as equals under natural law. Therefore, I think of global citizens as those who will not allow an ethnic, national or religious affiliation to limit their perspective on what is fair, right, appropriate or just.

When we consider our roles as ethical persons, we must ask, can we allow ourselves to remain silent in the face of social and economic injustice? No. I think we must employ the ethical “eye” to observe and challenge societal patterns that in total and in summary test our sense of what is just. This takes courage, as well as compassion, but it is our obligation as citizens of this world to identify the fault lines in society and develop appropriate strategies to address injustices wherever they may occur.

The ethical lens helps us identify the truth that lies hidden by racism, xenophobia or misogyny, by focusing on peace, fairness, equity and justice for all, even for those who fit, or do not fit, a certain profile. No one should be an “other” to us if our education as global citizens has succeeded. We are one species, whether natives or refugees, with each member seeking a unity connecting head and heart, no matter their political affiliation, religious commitment, or ethnic or national membership. We are one in the air we breathe and the land we till, and in our understanding of symbols such as the one for peace as shown in the above photograph of a mother and her children.

There have been numerous societal patterns supported by governments and institutions of morality that have been challenged: consider slavery and laws denying voting rights to black and female citizens in the West. Such laws have been amended or abandoned and moral standards upgraded because of the organized efforts of those who argued that such discrimination is unethical and unjust. The ethical “eyes” employed by average citizens stared down the old law, the old legal interpretations, the old morality, by forcing others to consider the dimensions of fairness, equity and justice, and create new laws that would establish new standards of right and wrong. This is the mission of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is the underlying basis for the Sustainable Development Goals, especially those regarding gender equality; reduced overall inequalities; peace, justice and strong institutions; and clean water and sanitation. These and the other goals are valid criteria for assessing the strength of societies.

As global citizens, we must seek truth and justice through evidence, not emotion, even as we are passionate in the pursuit of both. In all cases, we must take the path to justice free from bias and fear, even when it may run counter to family values, local customs or political rhetoric advocating nationalism instead of globalism. The global citizen knows that he or she can be “right” without another being “wrong”.   

The importance of schooling and education

The ideals of global citizenship encompass the notion of a culture of peace and non-violence, and can be fostered at home and in school by linking the news, literature and popular music to discussions of everyday and historical topics, by teaching respectful critical thinking and expression, and by emphasizing compassion and cooperation in the face of multiple forces which give priority to competition.

There are extraordinary examples from the work of the United Nations on how nations have found common ground and cooperated to create a worldwide infrastructure of communications, navigational systems and weather reporting that help make the world a safer and closer community. Yet too often these accomplishments are taken for granted. We should teach about these and other examples of collaboration to encourage students to think globally and act locally, so that they can enhance their learning by examining the difference between knowing truth through evidence as opposed to knowing a “truth” through epiphany or emotion. Such comparisons can give rise to discussions about the meaning of state sovereignty and the importance of a homeland, as well as to our rights and responsibilities as individuals and our mutual obligations to those in other neighbourhoods and locations.

Furthermore, we can foster the study of languages and history, and engage in activities such as the “Many Languages, One World” conference sponsored by the United Nations Academic Impact and ELS Educational Services. We also can participate in and learn from the activities of the Committee on Teaching about the United Nations. These are just some of the opportunities to foster discussion about global issues in the home and classroom, while leaving numerous opportunities for out-of-class and after-school activities focused on collaboration and cooperation at home and elsewhere with community organizations such as Global Kids, Inc. in New York City and Washington, D.C.

The mission of every school and university should be to advance students’ knowledge, skills, abilities and values necessary for understanding diverse cultures and for becoming tolerant and compassionate global citizens. Surely, this mission is consistent with that of the Charter of the United Nations: “To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights…to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law…and to promote social progress and better standards of life…and for these ends to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours…for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples.”

For these reasons, I value an education that helps liberate students from their limited view of humanity, including their own, without regard to race, ethnicity, age, station in life or place of birth. The building blocks for such an education are (1) history, i.e. the study of others and what came before, whether in our country or in another, in politics, in physics or elsewhere; (2) imagination, i.e. having the freedom to challenge the status quo envisaging alternative possibilities, and the ability to know what it is like for another to walk in our shoes or for us to consider what it is like to walk in theirs; and (3) compassion, i.e. not only feeling sympathy for someone else’s pain, or empathy for their suffering, but being moved to action in response to their plight.

I understand that there are limits to what we can teach and what we can require of students. This is why I emphasize that our mission is to enhance the ability of our students to learn on their own and in groups. We can promise to prepare students to learn anything even when we cannot promise to teach them everything. Our goal should be for students to understand the “other”, any “other”. For education, in the words of Michael Oakeshott, “is the invitation to disentangle oneself, for a time, from the urgencies of the here and now and to listen to the conversation in which human beings forever seek to understand themselves.”


Finally, we educators must ensure that our students understand and appreciate the fact that they are the “other” to many in this world. They must know that we need to know ourselves—the history, literature, and heroes of the rich diversity of peoples who contributed to the development of our civilization, our institutions, and our values—if we are to understand our commonalities and differences when compared to others. Without this knowledge of others and ourselves, we are left with ignorance, fertile ground for suspicion, fear and prejudice. Only with this knowledge will global citizenship become an imaginable destiny instead of an improbable dream.