The Chronicle Review

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?

August 29, 2010

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.