Between local, national, and global identities: The question of global citizenship in education

“With such a heated clash between nationalist and global identities, many young people may feel forced to pick a side. As an educator, I feel it is part of my job to help them not to make such a false binary choice”

Debate about the nature of globalisation and its impact is never far from the news these days. Populists have drawn on the frustrations of those who have seen globalisation halt progress in their communities, and antipathy has been directed to those that are seen to have benefited most from it, writes Katerina Vackova, UFP Chief Examiner for Humanities, CATS Global Schools.

From Donald Trump’s “America First” to former UK prime minister Theresa May’s dismissive “citizens of nowhere” quip, the concept of the global citizen has been questioned and tested over the last five years in ways we might not have envisaged previously.

With such a heated clash between nationalist and global identities, many young people may feel forced to pick a side. As an educator, I feel it is part of my job to help them not to make such a false binary choice – but to explore instead their place in the world from a multitude of different angles. Let me explain.

The Dangers of a Single Story

To see global citizens cast into a swirl of controversy has been an interesting experience for those of us working with a diverse range of international students. At CATS Global Schools we see, first-hand, students from all corners of the world exploring their own identities in a global context, often for the very first time. In some respects, institutions like ours are the bogeyman for those who disdain the global citizen – our mission is to prepare the ‘world shapers’ of the future after all! We want them to make a positive difference, at all levels even right up to the world stage, and we believe having a global perspective is essential if they are to do that.

However, it also isn’t the role of educators of international students to be churning out an international elite who eschew the needs, traditions and call of their own countries in pursuit purely of globalisation for its own sake. It is precisely the experiences and learnings from an international education that can help young people to go on and make eminent contributions in their own societies, contribute in meaningful ways to national lore!

A multiplicity of perspectives can and should be embraced. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie captured this sentiment brilliantly in her enthralling TED Talk more than a dozen years ago. She explores the dangers of stereotyping different peoples by magnifying one aspect of the culture that may have some truth but is in no way the full story.

As somebody who grew up behind the iron curtain, where it was hard for me to even imagine open borders, I was subject to a “single story” and have seen first the restrictions and limitations this can impose. I have seen also, however, the transformative difference that young people can make to each others’ lives when they help each other breakdown the single versions of truth they hold of both others and of themselves.

In Search of Different Angles

At CATS Global Schools we bring together students from over 100 countries at 16 different locations in four countries. This means a collision of viewpoints and experiences and it is fascinating to watch first-hand as many educators of international students will attest.

Even the styles of education we encounter in our classrooms enable an intriguing exchange of ideas and skills. We encounter some students from cultures that are heavy on rote learning and who boast an enviable, extensive body of knowledge. However, other students have had most of their education in less rigid, more inquisitive settings, helping them develop impressive metacognitive skills and are able to quickly identify their own gaps in knowledge and understanding. Seeing these different worlds collide and ultimately seeing students complement each other is an awe-inspiring experience.

It is crucial that students are given the opportunity to explore their own identities in the context of both their geographic roots, their nationality, their ethnicity, and their culture, but crucially, what these all mean in the context of their peers’ identities as well. This is not always a question of a simple chain reaction, however. It needs to be encouraged and fostered.

Question, Do Not Reject – A Free Forum for Ideas

Creating the environment that allows students to explore and enjoy their local, national and global identities requires an educational environment that is safe from the preconditions of nationalism and other dogmas. We can bring hundreds of students together from all over the world, but if they are deeply entrenched in one absorbing identity and view of the world, with their minds closed off to other ways of doing things, then any concept of global citizenship will be far removed. Tribalism can be seductive.

The critical factor is to provide a free forum for the exchange of ideas, and never to be dismissive of each individual’s notions. If we are close-minded as a group to one person’s ideas, formed by their experiences, it is all too easy for them in turn to reject the ideas of others without giving them a fair hearing. It is critical to give each idea and opinion a fair hearing and test the merit of any assertion in a civilised fashion. Students who see this open-minded approach and free exchange of ideas tend to be less close-minded as their studies progress.

There is such a wealth of opportunity in opening up to the experiences of other students from different cultures and regions. Some of our students learn about conflicts and major geopolitical events not just from their teachers in the room, but from their fellow classmates who have lived through these experiences. The key thing is to provide a safe environment where they are able to discuss their ideas and experiences without a feeling of judgment or hostility.

Citizens Who Make A Difference

Ultimately, geopolitical trends will oscillate, but young people who are able to embrace their local and national identities, while also showing the growth mindset to develop a sense of themselves in an international context, will be empowered to make a positive difference in the places they come from, and further afield. It is incumbent upon us as educators to enable this development.

I firmly believe that we can best prepare students for the future by giving them the tools and environment to not only explore their own experiences and influences, but also those of others – and to see value in both. To view themselves as part of their town or village, of their country and of the world, and to understand as much as possible about the fascinating correlations and contradictions that this entails.

About the author: Katerina Vackova is UFP Chief Examiner for Humanities at CATS Global Schools.