Clearer Thinkers, Better People? Unpacking Assumptions in Liberal Education

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A National Symposium

November 22–23, 2013

University of Miami
Miami, Florida

During plenary panel dialogue at the 2013 NYU Faculty Resource Network Conference, Reinventing Liberal Education, Stockton College’s President Saatkamp reminded the audience that the Holocaust was orchestrated by one of the most educated, technologically advanced societies of its time. Liberal education is not merely about knowledge, he said. What, then, is liberal education for?

In the essay that follows we consider the role of higher education in creating values and dispositions that expand human community and mutual respect. We situate part of this conversation through attention to current higher education desires to advance global learning (AAC&U, 2006), global citizenship (Nussbaum, 1996), and intercultural competence (Deardorff, 2006). After reviewing some of the tensions between these aspirations as they have been constructed, including their possible conflict with the notion of the university as a neutral or objective space, we consider a thoughtful defense of a “knowledge approach” (Tarc, 2007) to higher learning. Throughout, we advance this necessarily brief essay as a thought piece. Our intention is to open a conversation that explores foundational assumptions. We hope this conversation moves us and our colleagues toward deeper thinking and – eventually – more systematic efforts in respect to advancing liberal education, global citizenship, and intercultural competence.

Intercultural Competence and Moral Equality

The first tension considered here is between dominant models of global citizenship and intercultural competence. While numerous US universities claim to educate for global citizenship, diverse scholars have complained that they fail to robustly conceptualize that ideal (Morais & Ogden, 2010; Musil, 2006; Hartman, 2008, 2014). When the concept is articulated, however, it is clear that it involves values. Carter (2001) suggests the common themes in centuries of global citizenship theorizing are: a belief in equal human dignity, global community, respect for other cultures, and a desire for peaceful coexistence. It is the tension between the demands for equal dignity and respect for other cultures that we investigate here.

The intercultural competence literature holds respect for other cultures as its organizing ideal. Darla Deardorff, who has become one of the most-read and most-cited authors in the Journal of Studies in International Education, interviewed leading intercultural scholars to develop a grounded theory consensus on a definition and elements comprising intercultural competence. Researchers agreed upon a number of important attributes, including awareness of one’s own cultural influences and development of the ability to understand the world from others’ perspectives (Deardorff, 2006). In international education and study abroad discourse (2010, p. 1):

This then becomes the agreed upon definition of the intercultural scholars, that intercultural competence is “the effective and appropriate behavior and communication in intercultural situations.” …It is also important to understand the implications of “effective” and “appropriate” behavior and communication: Effectiveness can be determined by the individual while the appropriateness can only be determined by the other person – with appropriateness being directly related to cultural sensitivity and the adherence to cultural norms of that person.

We began this essay with an example of an extraordinarily educated and efficient culture that engaged in genocide for many years in the middle of the twentieth century. Today, direct and indirect violence against women is a global pandemic with varying degrees of culturally constructed acceptance as a normal part of family and community life (Sen, 1990; Kristoff & WuDunn, 2009). Conflicts between cultural norms and human dignity are often extremely nuanced: traditional communities may resist Western medical practices for their children, for example (Nussbaum, 1992).

Nussbaum’s articulation of global citizenship, which encourages respect for common dignity, empathy, and critical distance from one’s own cultural assumptions, explicitly holds this tension within it (1992, 1997). In a break with the intercultural competence literature, Nussbaum holds tightly to a conception of common human dignity before moving deeply into how critical distance and the likely related intercultural competence and acceptance skills should be understood.

For the purposes of this reflective essay, precise agreement with Nussbaum’s list of ten basic human functioning capabilities (1992) is less important than the question the list addresses: whether there are characteristic functions that mark good human lives and experiences across cultures. Indeed, this notion of a vaguely-held conception of a good human life informs human rights theory. Human rights scholars embrace an understanding of rights as “contingent moral aspirations” (Donnelly, 2003) that are tentative and open to change (Donnelly, 2003; Ignatieff, 2003).

A common theme among rights scholars is the suggestion that the organizing notion of universal human dignity is a culturally and temporally held ideal. There may be no universal truth upon which to assert this ideal, but the rights tradition suggests it is the right ideal to uphold (Nussbaum, 1992; Donnelly, 2003; Ignatieff, 2003). Donnelly writes, “human rights are less about the way people ‘are’ than about what they might become. They are about moral rather than natural or juridical persons” (2003, p. 15).

Crucially, and this point is frequently ignored by critics of the rights regime, the theory briefly reviewed above asserts within it an uncertainty and an openness to revision. Rights theory is not absolute. It is contingent and open to change (Donnelly, 2003; Ignatieff, 2003). Yet rights theorists do suggest the importance of asserting core components regarding the value of all individual human lives, along with suggestions regarding important basic opportunities.

We have endeavored to briefly demonstrate how dominant approaches to intercultural competence may contain an implicit tension with many approaches to global citizenship. We now turn to a second tension at the heart of university education for global citizenship.

Arguments for an Apolitical Academy

In the political center and certainly on the right, deep distrust of university efforts to teach values is pre-eminent (Fish, 2008; Wood, 2012). The left is often characterized as advancing social justice agendas (Butin, 2010; Tarc, 2007). Yet they have also been cogently criticized for abandoning any cooperative political projects, such as the pursuit of a basic democratic moral equality, in favor of increasingly specialized and critical discourses that distract from the possibility of larger purposes (Rorty, 1998; Schwartz, 2008; Hartman, 2013).

One of the most insistent spokespersons for the importance of an apolitical academy is Fish, who asserts, “academic work is only tangentially, not essentially, political… political concerns and pressures have no place in the unfolding of academic argument, except as objects of its distinctive forms of attention” (2013, p. 2). In the same article, Fish demonstrates the kind of contradiction that we think is endemic to the “apolitical” academy. Fish writes of his pleasure watching Chomsky deliver a lecture on the public good, because Chomsky satisfied Fish’s understanding of appropriate academic activity. Fish says Chomsky’s lecture shared (2013, p. 2):

no particular political recommendation, only the recommendation that we should strive for “social arrangements that are conducive to the rights and welfare of people.” That, however, is (as Chomsky observed) a universally accepted truism: it would be hard to imagine someone on the other side standing up for social arrangements that had the effect of undermining a citizenry’s welfare and violating its rights (although of course there are plenty of governments that do just that).

Here Fish, and apparently Chomsky too, mistake dominant normative orientations with truth or reality. Are the “rights and welfare of people” really universally accepted as an important evaluative criterion for considering social arrangements? In a world where scholars across disciplines variously affirm that our reality is co-constructed and continuously evolving, what is a “universally accepted truism”? Currently and historically, overwhelming evidence indicates the rights and welfare of (all) people is nothing akin to a preeminent concern. If it is a truism, it is one without commitment.

Unfortunately, countless examples of inhumane treatment may be added to the instances of the Nazi regime and contemporary women’s rights mentioned above. The United States performed involuntary sterilizations on marginalized populations as recently as the 1970s, both as a federal initiative on Native American reservations (Rutecki, 2010) and on the state level elsewhere (Cohen & Bonifield, 2012; Cohen, 2013). Or in respect to immigration, moving the dialogue to focus on responsibly managing flows of people with inherent rights and associated welfare (United Nations, 2007) would signal a radical departure from the current emphasis on keeping “our” borders safe and protecting “our” jobs.

If it is a universally accepted truism that societies ought to be organized according to the rights and welfare of people, then it is universally accepted and applied only to dominant populations in existing states. As Nussbaum has frequently argued (1997, 2001), there is a chasm between our asserted ideals of human equality and our bordered systems of justice, community, and belonging. Yet the resistance to values education in the university may lead one to wonder whether conventional university activity such as developing critical thinking and growing awareness in knowledge could serve the goals that global citizenship advocates like Nussbaum advance.

Could Global Citizenship Development Center on Knowledge Rather than Values?

In a thoughtful essay on social justice education, Tarc (2007) argues that instead of encouraging dispositions, educators ought to be concerned with what counts as knowledge and what knowledge they choose to emphasize. Though Tarc wrote on social justice rather than global citizenship specifically, the concern over whether or how to develop dispositions in students is parallel. Tarc suggests that exposing students to counterhegemonic knowledge systems and ways of knowing will lead to the kinds of dispositions desired by advocates of social justice education. He writes (2007, p. 5):

I am advocating for a reflexive knowledge now educated by the failures of modernist dreams of “progress,” a knowledge educated on the limits of knowledge, a knowledge aware of its immanent relations with power (Foucault & Gordon, 1980), and yet a knowledge robust enough to be useful as a resource to support teachers’ ethically responsive actions as they in turn become responsible for supporting the learning of their future students in a complex, troubled, dynamic, and yet-to-be-determined world…With the lessons learned from decades-long critiques of canonical knowledge and its production and uses, theoretical perspectives that utilize constructs as “white privilege” in “social justice” approaches ought to be seen as a corrective (albeit in some ways incommensurable) to myopic, functionalist and apolitical-idealized traditions continuing to have weight in mainstream educational vision and practices.

Global citizenship theorists’ central assumption of full human equality around the world is oddly conventional and counterhegemonic. It is conventional – at least in dominant US culture – due to its easy agreement with the American aphorism that, “all [people] are created equal.” It is counterhegemonic as soon as one begins to critically consider how the structure of our governments, media, and everyday norms and assumptions betray this supposedly widespread and deeply held conviction.

Encouraging critical inquiry through that juxtaposition of ideal and real commitment to common dignity offers an exciting discourse opportunity in the classroom, particularly in respect to the strand of global citizenship thinking known as moral cosmopolitanism. Moral cosmopolitans do not suggest they understand the political structures that should guarantee global human dignity, but they clearly affirm a global duty to support basic human rights and justice (Kleingeld & Brown, 2013). Students may be encouraged to re-imagine their meaning making around self in relation to others when prompted through diverse articles, activities, and discussions to evaluate their relationship with global citizenship’s apparent moral imperatives (Hartman, 2008, 2014). These kinds of practices may encourage students to at least engage their imaginations as moral cosmopolitans.

We found Tarc’s consideration of knowledge versus dispositions to be illuminating, though we are still not certain it gets around the apparently thorny question of values education. Choosing to emphasize a global civic construct, sharing the notion of global human dignity and mutuality of respect, and asking students to imagine the activities and habits that would deepen their global civic identities are all values-laden decisions. Further, is alternative knowledge and alternative imagining enough to not only disrupt dominant cultural assumptions but also affirm the global citizenship assertion of a universal common human dignity?

A Historic Opportunity? Educating for a Critical Global Citizenship

It is clear we live in a world that has experienced economic globalization of increasing breadth and depth (Lechner, 2009). Yet we have not begun to seriously embrace how our interconnectedness relates to our existing ethical constructs (Singer, 2002). Universities’ vague commitments to global citizenship (Musil, 2006; Morais & Ogden, 2010), while laudable for a first effort, suggest a need for deeper inquiry. Does this inquiry lead to further consideration – or perhaps tentative affirmation – regarding what it means to be human, and whether this status implies duties toward other humans?

Most global citizenship theorizing suggests that there is an essential core to the human experience, and that humans owe duties to one another across cultures and around the world. If this is the case, there are at least two implications for higher education. First, global citizenship education seems to imply educating for values within centuries of global citizenship tradition. Second, intercultural competence frameworks become an essential, yet subservient, component of global citizenship.

How can we appreciate one another’s differences while lifting one another toward full human flourishing? This is the challenge that animates human rights scholarship, which may serve as a useful theoretical framework for universities that intend to encourage commitment to human equality along with respect for difference. Though there are fairly strong human rights education traditions elsewhere around the world, this kind of orientation is close to nonexistent in the United States (Shackford-Bradley, 2013). Universities have historically played a central role in advancing the ideal of human equality, initially as supporters of democracy (Hartley, 2011; Hartman, 2013). As people are in more continuous contact and trade with one another all around the world, US institutions of higher education have a historic opportunity to more specifically articulate and express their roles in nurturing and growing global communities of common concern, rights, dignity, and mutual respect.


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Spring 2014: Reinventing Liberal Education