The Global "Imagined Community"-International Education and Global Civil Society

By Skelly, James M. | International Educator, November/December 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Global "Imagined Community"-International Education and Global Civil Society


Skelly, James M., International Educator


IN HIS BOOK, In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong Amin Maalouf writes, "it is often the way we look at other people that imprisons them within their own narrowest allegiances. And it is also the way we look at them that may set them free." Maalouf is criticizing our tendency to "lump the same people together under the same heading," for example when we say that "the Serbs have massacred..." "The English have devastated...," or, "The Jews have confiscated...," etcetera. The task, Maalouf argues, is "for each of us to become aware that our words are not innocent and without consequence: they may help to perpetuate prejudices which history has shown to be perverse and deadly."

As international educators, we know that Maalouf s injunction to become aware lies at the core of work- we attempt to overcome those perverse deadly prejudices so that we, and our students, look at others in a way that sets them free, and in the process, sets us free, as well. Thus, many of our programs emphasize that they will contribute to a student's sense of a more inclusive "world citizenship," "global citizenship," or even "international citizenship," rather than the more narrow allegiance associated with national identity alone. Unfortunately, these expanded notions of citizenship often appear confused when contrasted with the clearly defined national citizenships that we are accustomed to.

That said, the privileging of national identity and citizenship is increasingly challenged today, not least by the global structural crises that we face politically, economically, and socially that are informed by phenomena as diverse as climate change and terrorism. In addition, other global transformations have stimulated the parallel development of a plurality of narratives of identity and social spaces that are not defined by the state. It is from within these narratives and spaces that we may be able to expand our ideas of citizenship to enable us to address the global structural problems, which is not possible at a national level. As Paul Barry Clarke has argued in Deep Citizenship, the broader consequence of these developments may be a positive one: the ability "to critically take the perspectives of others... in order to be able to act towards the universal" and therefore, "beyond selfishness, sectionalism, and sectarianism."

The question is, if we as international educators are working to expand the concept of citizenship, what is the context for the expanded identity that global citizenship might provide? If it isn't the state, what is it? We all know that it isn't the United Nations, or inchoate notions of a world government. Instead, what many of us have been arguing is that the broader context for a sense of global citizenship is the development of a global civil society, and that international education is crucial to its development.

What Is Global Civil Society?

The idea of a "global civil society" grew out of the social movements and activism of those who challenged the communist states of Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1970s and 1980s. The distinction between civil society and the state was used to support the right of people to freely associate, which in their state-centric societies was not allowed. Altiiough the term "civil society" can be traced in political philosophy back to the Greeks and Romans, this particular conception of civil society can be found in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century work of Jeremy Bentham, who argued that the state and civil society were distinct entities.

Mary Kaldor has noted therefore that what she calls "The Ideas of 1989," provided the conceptual basis for current discussions about the creation of a "global civil society." At the same time, however, that the state in Central and Eastern Europe was being challenged with the idea that there should be a civil society where people were free to associate, many in the United States were making a complementary argument that a "good society" informed by social equality and justice was needed.

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