Opinion | Op-eds

Beyond multicultural, beyond non-western: toward a true global core

In 2008, Columbia hosted an international conference on Global Core curriculum, which drew much attention to our historical role in shaping the direction of global core worldwide. As we continue in the struggle to find the right approach and balance within our own Global Core­­—which I will abbreviate as GC­—it occurred to me that GC carries enormous ramifications for the standing of the University as a whole within the global community, touching everything from the success of the new global centers to Columbia’s ability to represent future leadership of the “American university.” It also occurred to me that the solution to our struggle rests not in structural or curricular changes, but in rethinking the pedagogy.

Our students will soon be living in a time when it will be increasingly meaningless to speak of a Western Core or indeed even of “the West’ without having global consciousness front and center. In some circles, the word “global” has become a kind of “non-speak” lately, but in my view that’s only because 1) we’ve become used to a very one-sided view of history, 2) we tend to equate globalization with inevitable syncretism and loss of local identity, and 3) most of all, because we haven’t clearly distinguished between multicultural consciousness and global consciousness.

“Global” is a very different animal than “multicultural.” Columbia was among the first universities to recognize the core-ness of learning about other civilizations, but for all that, our non-Western Core has been more or less ornamental add-ons to what is frequently regarded as the “core of the Core.” For decades, this was fine. If it didn’t anticipate the future, at least it reflected a working reality of the world, and it allowed for an educational model prioritizing one’s own tradition—whatever one’s soil—before going on to learn those of others. If we use the metaphor of “the Great Conversation,” Contemporary Civilization imparted to students an awareness of the nature of the ongoing Conversation and an appreciation for the fact that as thinking citizens, they had the right and the responsibility to participate in it. Multicultural Core simply made students aware of the fact that similar Conversations had been going on in other civilizations as well. The struggle within current GC today is that it’s still operating on the level of this multicultural Core, and in some cases, watering even that down to what I call “myculturalism.”

“Global” is not merely adding more diverse voices or Conversational topics to the fray–though it’s open to that, if desired. Rather, global involves a reconceptualizing of civilizational identity as something gotten in isolation through insistent going over-and-over of landmark moments in one’s intellectual/cultural development. Rather, global involves an ongoing process of self-transformation made vital by meaningful interaction with other beings, ideas, and things. I call this interaction on the deepest level “interculturation.” The West did not become “the West” on its own. It was shaped from the coming together of Judeo-Christian and Greek-Roman worldviews, from the rich infusion of Arab science and knowledge in the Middle Ages, and from Confucianism and Buddhism that inspired the European Enlightenment, etc. Moreover, these interactions didn’t have fixed boundaries—i.e., their influence is so deeply saturated that they have become part of the very way we see and think even as individuals, in that sense becoming generative in their own right. And yet to recognize this does not make the West any less the West, just as the saturation of Buddhism in East Asia is understood today as a revitalization of the culture and not syncretism. In locating civilizational identity in a culture’s creative receptivity, its ability to absorb new ideas and adapt them for its own contexts, we empower students to consider, with greater range and depth, the creative, regenerative potential and responsibility of interculturation taking place today—going beyond center-periphery categories to develop simultaneously global and local identities.

Interculturation, then, is a pedagogy not to dismantle Columbia’s Core, but to shift our collective vantage point to see the Great Conversation that has been happening across civilizations, energizing the Conversations that occur within civilizations, and vice versa. A Core founded on interculturation would focus not on learning about the brilliance of the West and diversity of the rest, but on how and what to learn from the civilizations around us, including the West, without losing sight of what has been central and best to one’s self. The timelessness of “core” is that we have been doing this throughout history. To be timely means turning to learn from their examples as we face the challenges of globalization in our own contexts. It is only in making this shift to global thinking that I believe Columbia can once again continue to lead the future of the American university and of global core—not just Global Core—in higher education internationally.

The author is associate director of the University Committee on Asia and the Middle East and chair of the University Seminar on Global & Interdisciplinary Core Curricula.


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Anonymous posted on

This is great, and more students should read this op-ed. I believe that I am seeing both scholars and students beginning to take this viewpoint, and this definitely has been a lesson for myself over the past four years (I am an undergraduate senior). I think that still, our conversations around the Core far too strongly take a "clash of civilizations" approach to knowledge and culture, as opposed to understanding these ideas as historically global currents with, of course, some senses of boundaries.

ShadrachSmith posted on

A global culture can be be pan-cultural, or omni-cultural, but if there is only one, it is simply a single culture.

A single culture needs communication, the core is English proficiency, math, and what is left of the scientific method. I would adopt the cultural history of H.G. Wells, Outline of History as the default values system analysis. I would list Freedom of thought as the basic freedom, just laws as deriving from the collective enforcement of the individual rights of life, liberty and property, and would aspire to representative constitutional democracies with only limited and enumerated powers.

Did I miss anything :-)

ShadrachSmith posted on

Re: "Confucianism and Buddhism that inspired the European Enlightenment,..."

Hold on a minute. The enlightenment came from the battles between church and state. And the political process owed more to people like the 6th Earl of Leicester, than to Confucius or the Buddha. Buddha wasn't talking about that kind of enlightenment...really.