A Nation of Immigrants? The Politics of Educating for Global Citizenship

February 23, 2018

Eric Hartman, Haverford College and globalsl  

The recent removal of “nation of immigrants” from the mission statement of The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is one more move in a series of actions through which President Trump re-centers and validates the role of white supremacy in the historical trajectory of the nation. I review some of these actions below, dusting off some of the basic truths frequently obscured by this administration, before suggesting how higher education should respond.

The President asked in January, “Why are we having all these people from s***hole countries come here?” Most people migrate to work. Immigrants make up nearly one-fifth of the US Labor Force. Any reduction in documented or undocumented immigration will cause the US workforce to shrink dramatically, undermining overall production. Other people migrate to escape totalitarian states. People as diverse as Isabel Allende, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, and current African Union Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma fled persecution as refugees.

Colonial history has also led many people to attempt the difficult journey of international migration.  When President Trump was fourteen-years old, in 1960, The Democratic Republic of Congo achieved independence. Despite the existence of an educational system for White Belgians, due to systematic oppression over generations, there were only 30 Congolese university graduates at the time – in an area of nearly 1 million square miles. In January of the following year, the CIA cooperated with Belgian authorities to assassinate the DRC’s first legally elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba.

Basic facts, basic research, and historical context are unseen and regularly repressed by this Presidential Administration. The situation is often even worse, as the President tweets unconfirmed or demonstrably false stories about Muslims, attempts to frame the entirety of the immigration debate around a horrifically violent gang that represents 0.0002% of unaccompanied immigrant children, and otherwise engages in storytelling and public posturing to actively encourage racism and advance a narrow conception of American identity.

The Role for Higher Education

Grounded in profound commitment to shared human dignity, any deep understanding of global citizenship features a radical critique of the world as we know it.

We are more than two centuries beyond the moment when primarily white, male American Founders saw U.S. universities as central to supporting a new kind of person for a newly imagined possibility: democratic citizens for an aspirational, young democratic republic. We are now in an era in which higher education must support diverse peoples and communities in the challenging effort of extending care for one another, being curious about one another, cooperating across perceived difference, and allowing robust diversity to flourish, all around the world.

That global framing does not suggest one should look away from issues nearby to instead address challenges, “over there.” A first step in global civic work is improving understanding of demographics and inclusivity in one’s own community and country. Contrary to much of the contemporary narrative, for example, a significant and growing portion of the working class is not white. Under this administration, training students in basic statistical and rhetorical analysis is newly heroic.

Yet data alone is insufficient. Community-campus partners have learned to embrace the power of narrative and interpersonal connection.  In courses in Providence College’s Global Studies program, for example, students learned about migration in their region through data and text, as well as through a partnership with Welcoming Rhode Island. Diverse students were trained in interviewing before cooperating with interested first generation Rhode Islanders, who agreed to share their stories of migration as part of a series of community events that highlighted the strong and beautiful diversity of the state.

In courses on politics, migration, global political economy, and related topics, substantive interrogation of migration and notions of national identity are clearly fair game. These topics may be “political,” but that is defensible when they are course-connected. The recent 10th Circuit Court of Appeals RulingPompeo vs. Board of Regents of the University of New Mexico, re-clarifies that faculty have wide professional latitude to advance ideas, discuss them and make judgments in respect to their areas of professional competence.

Global learning requires a commitment to developing students’ capacity not only to thoughtfully analyze global phenomena, it also requires higher education faculty, staff and administrators to seriously engage the moral development of students. Educators’ attention must be on developing individuals’ empathic capacities to see, appreciate, and commit to holding up the dignity and diversity of every person in common community as a lifelong endeavor.

A strong commitment to human dignity is not at odds with critical thinking or intellectual inquiry. Educators for global citizenship simply take the dignity of persons as among their most profound principles. No principle is beyond interrogation, and nothing should be delivered as indoctrination, but human dignity is a foundational assumption for a diverse democracy, human rights, or any meaningful attempt at global citizenship.

President Trump is putting odious ideas into the public sphere, undermining relevant facts, and influencing a generation of teenagers, many of whom will soon be on campuses across the country. Higher education institutions must leverage their resources in thoughtful, analytic, and humanistic response. Immigrants are our and our students’ working neighbors; they are American families who fled the Holocaust; they are the translators and other collaborators with US Forces in war zones; they are our colleagues; they’re the people who care for our parents in hospice; they are our students; they are our doctors; they teach our children; they serve in our military; they are us.

This is not partisan in the sense of political party, though it does feature clear values commitments. Years ago, I critiqued the Obama administration’s slow and insufficient humanitarian action in respect to unaccompanied minors on the US-Mexico border.

Global citizenship education is neither Democratic nor Republican. It is rooted in the pursuit of truth, coupled with commitment to human dignity, appreciation for diversity and a capacity for continuous questioning, learning and reconsideration. Using that lens, educators, students and citizens everywhere must consistently raise our voices for what is true and right, clearing a path for the more beautiful and peaceful world we may only create together.

Eric Hartman is lead author of Community-based global learning: The theory and practice of ethical engagement at home and abroad (Stylus Press: use code CBGL20 at checkout for 20% off book until 5/30/2018), co-founder of globalsl, and Executive Director of the Haverford College Center for Peace and Global Citizenship. He is looking forward to continuing conversations on educating for global citizenship at the 5th Global Service-Learning Summit: Dignity and Justice in Global Service-Learning, at Notre Dame, from April 15 – 17. This opinion piece reflects his personal views.

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