• September 2, 2015

A New Cosmopolitanism

For the 10th-anniversary issue of The Chronicle Review, we asked scholars and illustrators to answer this question: What will be the defining idea of the coming decade, and why?

A mere century ago, small groups of people still lived in isolation in different parts of the world. Anthropologists of the old school called them "primitive"; I now would call them cosmopolites. Why? Because they lived in a world that included the sky above and the earth below, and because they believed themselves to be the fount of human culture, a belief made possible by their isolation.

"Cosmopolite" seems to me an appropriate label for one basic reason, namely, these isolated peoples saw themselves as part of a harmonious universe that embraced the stars and, above all, the sun, and not just the earth. From this broad, cosmic outlook came their self-confidence, their sense of centrality, and their ability to cope with life's unavoidable adversities.

How might we label ourselves in the 21st century? To risk a broad generalization, I say we are either ethnics or globalists. As ethnics, we hold on to certain cultural traits—headgear, art, cuisine—that we deem essential to our identity and self-esteem. But ethnics lack the sense of centrality that primitive cosmopolites had. As globalists, we are also limited. True, our connections are worldwide, but they are confined to financial transactions, the acquisition, exchange, and fusion of material goods, customs, and fashions, all very playfully, even creatively, done, but with an underlying sense of insecurity. Above all, as globalists we lack anchorage in the cosmos: We do not see ourselves as citizens of the stars above and the earth beneath, which is my way of saying that we globalists, for all our wealth and technical knowledge, are deficient in grandeur, in a sense of our dignity as human beings.

In this decade, we need to regain our self-confidence, our dignity, as cosmopolites. How? Through primary education. Young children must be taught that they are inheritors of the best in human thought. Nothing less can give them the confidence they need.

Allow me to offer my own experience as an example. A malnourished child in a one-room school in war-torn China, I nevertheless benefited from a cosmopolitan education. We read stories: Chinese stories that espoused hard work, filial piety, and patriotism. But our teachers wisely saw the need to supplement this native diet with Western stories, one of which was Newton's encounter with the apple. This story not only provided the teachers an excuse to lift our eyes to the sky and the solar system, but it also planted in us the subversive idea that more might be gained daydreaming under an apple tree than doing routine additions and subtractions.

Chinese culture has another limitation: Charity tends to be confined to kinfolk and neighbors. Our teachers once again rose to the occasion: They added another supplement to our diet, Oscar Wilde's "The Happy Prince," a story of Buddhist/Christian inspiration that taught us Chinese children to extend help even to distant strangers.

At elementary school, I was fed from the treasures of the world, enabling me to become a cosmopolite. At home, the routines of life made it possible for me to retain a love of congee for breakfast and such things as being called "turtle" by my parents. (Why turtle? It is a deeply insulting term applied to the beloved child so as not to tempt the devil—a charming Chinese superstition.)

Turning into a cosmopolite did not, for me, mean a loss of the intimate and the local. I remain Chinese—a Chinese cosmopolite. So can I help it if I wish a similar cosmopolitan education for every child? The alternative? An ethnicism that can degenerate into mere tourist attraction or performative politics, and a globalism that can be egoistical to the core and is, in methodology, an unholy combination of mathematics and abracadabra.

Yi-Fu Tuan is an emeritus professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.


1. rtally - August 30, 2010 at 08:25 pm

Hear, hear!

2. 12094478 - August 31, 2010 at 04:25 pm

I am increasingly skeptical of our culture's "embrace" of the "other" for reasons you expressed far better than I could. Being centered or grounded allows for an expansion of the mind and soul that is far more ethical in its interactions with others from diverse backgrounds than the political lip service given to diversity and acceptance for its own sake.

3. maxbini - August 31, 2010 at 09:12 pm

Thank you.

Western culture has taken for granted notions of the "I" and the "Other", of "subjects" and "objects" which separate and isolate and make it easy to calculate and thus gain knowledge (information) but avoid wisdom.

We would all do well to remember that we are not separate from the world, that our words and deeds and songs and myths are shared activities that make us who we are. We share much more than we realise.

4. johndjayakumar - September 02, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Though born in traditional christian family,I must thank a teacher- a card carrying communist for strenthening my beliefs.Daily we squared against each other and in the process he clarified my ideas.He opened his treasure house of old National Geographic mags and gave me the world. He taught me to fly kites showing me in the process the kite's amazing abilities to fly,zooom, and dive as long as long as I hold the strings, but pretty lightly and once cut off the kite flips and flops no more to fly.Looking at the kite leads your eyes to regions beyond, while still planted on this wonderful place

5. peterbmetcalf - September 14, 2010 at 09:31 am

"In this decade, we need to regain our self-confidence, our dignity, as cosmopolites. How? Through primary education. Young children must be taught that they are inheritors of the best in human thought. Nothing less can give them the confidence they need."
This person speaking of "we" means adults, as they deal with their lives interacting with children, reminding me that cartoons for children are created not by children, but by adults who presume to know, along with their commercial sponsors on television, what children like or "need." Writing as an adult child, I can assure you that confidence in children is natural, but often squelched by adults, or other children whose confidence or exploratory nature has been squelched by adults. Children need what most (not all) received as infants - LOVE. For a good definition of that: move into your heart.

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