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Imagining Citizenship: Cosmopolitanism or Patriotism?

by Kathleen Knight Abowitz - August 12, 2002

In this article, I explore the tensions between Martha Nussbaum’s case for cosmopolitanism and Walter Feinberg’s platform for American civic education, as well as the relevant of their respective positions for public education in the future. Nussbaum believes that our schools should be teaching students to recognize and understand humanity in all its forms across the world. Feinberg believes that the common school has an historic and continued mission to create a national identity in a multicultural nation. I argue that the significant commonality between the two positions is the insistence on imagining the cultural other as the key step in building civic identity. Each author examines the problem of citizenship from a very different context — Feinberg ignores “global” concerns and zeroes in on issues of multiculturalism in a democratic nation; Nussbaum ignores the nation-state and makes the humanistic case for world citizenship. Read together, they build an ambitious agenda for citizenship education in the post-9/11 era into which we have recently and reluctantly entered.

These days, citizenship has taken on its most parochial forms.  If you look at the cars, trucks, mini-vans, and SUV’s on our highways, the bumpers tell the tale:  “United We Stand”; “Proud to be an American”; and “Never Forget.”  Attorney General John Ashcroft captured the mood perfectly when, in Senate hearings in December, he questioned the patriotism of those who protested the war: “Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve” (Duerksen, 2002).  And of course, American flags, the predominant symbols of this new patriotic surge, are everywhere, and are often seen in combination with a religious message. I visited a local elementary school a few weeks after September 11th, and found “God Bless America” artwork covering the walls — only one example of how the American flag and God have become inter-twined in schools at this patrio-religious cultural moment (see Walsh 2001). Citizenship, in this era of a “War on Terrorism,” is about unflinching, religious loyalty to country, and to our political leadership’s policies regarding that War.

It is somewhat ironic that citizenship has become so parochial, in this era of supposed “globalization.”  Sandel (1996) writes that

In striking ways, the challenge to self-government in the global economy resembles the predicament American politics faced in the early decades of the twentieth century.  Then as now, new forms of commerce and communication spilled across familiar political boundaries and created networks of interdependence among people in distant places.  But the new interdependence did not carry with it a new sense of community. (p. 72)

Why can’t our emerging “global community” inspire the same kind of human interdependence and loyalty as the idea of our national community?  Martha Nussbaum has asked this question in a compelling essay originally published in The Boston Review in 1994, along with replies from prominent philosophers and theorists. Nussbaum’s article, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” and some of the responding essays were later gathered in the book, For Love of Country (1996a). [1] In this highly accessible book of philosophy, the virtues, vices, potential and limits of patriotism, nationalism, and universal citizenship are debated; the possibilities of cosmopolitanism and global communities are imagined.  Recently re-issued by Beacon Press because of its timely themes, For Love of Country provides an excellent forum in which to explore the most recent surge of patriotism and nationalism that has gripped our society and our schools in the wake of the September terrorist attacks.  Indeed, Nussbaum’s plea to abandon patriotism for a cosmopolitan sense of global humanity has perhaps never seemed more daring — or needed —than it is at this cultural moment of “God Bless America” and flag waving.

In any time of war or national threat, our public schools become showcases for our deepest loyalties and fears. Clearly, Nussbaum’s ideas of cosmopolitanism have not reached the public school curriculum any more than they have struck a popular chord with Americans in general. Currently in most formal American K-12 classrooms, civic education is firmly grounded within a U.S. context. The imagined American community has a powerful presence in American schooling. [2] As Walter Feinberg describes in Common Schools/Uncommon Identities (1998), public schools help to forge our national community and civic identities. Feinberg argues for a common school that nurtures a democratic public, where students are inducted into a public of a “consciously multicultural nation” (p. 233).  Feinberg, in this volume published prior to 9/11, is not concerned with cosmopolitanism and global citizenship; he argues for an inclusive sense of national and civic identity among the diverse American citizenry.  He wants common schools to develop, among young people, a sense of connection with and responsibility for America, its people, and its democratic institutions. 

How does Feinberg’s argument for developing American civic identity fly in the face of Nussbaum’s ethical plea for global citizenship? How might these contrasting arguments about civic identity be read in post-September 11th America?  In this article, I explore the tensions between Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism and Feinberg’s platform for American civic education, as well as the relevance of their respective positions for public education in the future. I argue that the significant commonality between the two positions is the insistence on imagining the cultural other as the key step in building civic identity.  Read together, the visions of these two authors are seemingly irreconcilable, yet have an odd compatibility.  Both authors call for us to imagine cultures other than our own as a way to build a sense of citizenship.  Both authors argue that engagement with cultures other than our own is essential to citizenship.  But each author examines the problem of citizenship from a very different context — Feinberg ignores “global” concerns and zeroes in on issues of multiculturalism in a democratic nation; Nussbaum ignores nation-states and makes the humanistic case for world citizenship. In many ways, the two authors talk past one another, speaking from their different points of view.   Read together, they build an ambitious agenda for citizenship education in the post-9/11 era into which we have recently and reluctantly entered.   

Nussbaum’s case for cosmopolitanism

In her essay, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” Nussbaum (1996a) provides a defense of the ideal of the cosmopolitan citizen. Because she writes well before our current “War on Terrorism,” her commentary on the dangers of patriotic pride has prophetic tones:

…this emphasis on patriotic pride is both morally dangerous and ultimately, subversive of some of the worthy goals patriotism sets out to serve — for example, the goal of national unity in devotion to worthy moral ideals of justice and equality. These goals, I shall argue, would be better served by an ideal that is in any case more adequate to our situation in the contemporary world, namely the very old ideal of the cosmopolitan, the person whose allegiance is to the worldwide community of human beings. (p. 4)

As our federal government rounded up thousands of American citizens and residents who have ties to the Middle East in the weeks after 9/11, and has succeeded in establishing military tribunals for trying accused terrorists (what some believe will be kangaroo courts), the moral ideals of justice and equality are seriously jeopardized.  Nussbaum ties national unity to the kind of fervent patriotism we are now seeing, the kind of religious patriotism that seems willing to sacrifice ideals of equality and fairness for the sake (and illusion) of national security and a kind of vigilante justice.

Nussbaum is not satisfied with civic education that merely promotes a basic and weak respect for the human rights of all people while developing a strong civic identity that has meaning only within our national borders. She asks, “should [students] be taught that they are, above all, citizens of the United States, or should they instead be taught that they are, above all, citizens of a world of human beings” who happen to be situated in the United States? (p. 6).  Nussbaum believes that our schools should be teaching students to learn to recognize and understand humanity “wherever they encounter it, undeterred by traits that are strange to them” (p. 9).

Nussbaum articulates four reasons for developing a cosmopolitan identity through civic education.  The first reason is self-knowledge; through learning about others, we learn about ourselves.  Our ways of life in the U.S. can appear natural, neutral and righteous if we are ignorant of the ways of life in the rest of the world.  “By looking at ourselves through the lens of the other, we come to see what in our practices is local and nonessential, what is more broadly or deeply shared.” (p. 11).  The second reason for developing world citizenship follows from the first: if we understand our global neighbors and (therefore) ourselves more thoroughly, we will make more progress in solving international problems.  Nussbaum offers the compelling example of ecological problems that require intelligent, cooperative deliberation and action among leaders of many nations.  Here, Nussbaum is sounding a prophetic warning against some of the very isolationist policies of our current administration — President Bush has withdrawn from or broken with several important international treaties and only minimally cooperated with global alliances aimed at reducing pollution caused by carbon dioxide emissions.

The third reason we need the cosmopolitan ideal is to help us recognize and assume responsibility for the moral obligations that Americans have to human beings around the globe.  We in the U.S. enjoy a very high standard of living, one that cannot be constructed for all citizens around the globe without complete ecological disaster.   Nussbaum wants schools to make a moral lesson out of our privilege: “we need to educate our children to be troubled by” our extreme wealth and status in order to live up to our national rhetoric of human equality and rights (p. 13).  Nussbaum wants to blur the distinctions between nations, and to question the “morally arbitrary boundary” of the nation.  She urges fellow theorists to “make a consistent and coherent argument based on distinctions we are prepared to defend” (p. 14).  Nussbaum’s fourth reason for promoting cosmopolitanism seems to suggest that cosmopolitanism, a worldly identification with humans across the globe, is more real than the morally arbitrary national identification that compels us to feel a closer kinship with Americans than with those outside our borders.

What is it about the national boundary that magically converts people toward whom we are both incurious and indifferent into people to whom we have duties of mutual respect?  I think…that we undercut the very case for multicultural respect within a nation by failing to make central to education a broader world respect. (p.14)

The “Magical” National Boundary after September 11th  

The responses to September 11th events in the schools have assumed a definite tone of nationalism.  Nussbaum (2001), in a commentary on the 9/11 tragedy, states that “All too often…our imaginations remain oriented to the local” (p. 11).  As teachers, students, and administrators “imagined” what the attacks were about, guided by the images provided to them by mainstream media outlets, the orientation did indeed remain on the suffering of our fellow Americans.  Students from elementary to high schools across the country raised thousands and thousands of dollars for the families of the victims of 9/11.  Red, white and blue ribbons, chains, and works of art created by students decorated hallways and bodies.  Students were encouraged to remember the American victims of the 9/11 attacks through visually representing the tragedy, as one teacher attests:

My senior class created a “chain of compassion’ using yellow and black paper strips.  Each black strip represents one person who was killed in the 9/11 tragedies; each yellow strip represents each person who is missing.  As we created the chain, we discussed the incident, and as it grew, it had a profound visual effect on the students. The chain is currently hanging in our school, and later it may rotate among town buildings, city hall, fire station, etc.. — Shari Hughes, Teacher Tlohon-nipts Alternative Program (OSPI Press Room, 2001).

Did the “chain of compassion” grow during the War on Terrorism waged in Afghanistan during the fall and winter of 2001?  Were the students able to count the Afghani bodies through the media and governmental silence regarding the death toll in Afghanistan as we sought out Osama bin Laden and his allies? [3]   While such a scenario is intriguing, it is doubtful.  In the many documented responses of schools, students, and teachers to the 9/11 attacks, the sentiments are strongly pro-American and fiercely patriotic.  Students in Washington State or in Iowa or in Arkansas can readily imagine the terror of the World Trade Center or Pentagon employees, and they can grieve with the families of those who died in the attacks. [4] The communitarian Amitai Etzioni praised the student-initiated community service projects designed to help the victims of 9/11, urging educators to reinforce the ethos of community service that was in the air after the tragedy (Zehr, 2001). News reporters touted the service projects, many of them designed and carried out by students, in the weeks and months following 9/11. The outpouring of compassion from around the country for the victims of the tragedy has been compelling and inspirational. However, our imaginations and compassions seem to have national boundaries; there have been far fewer documented cases of students or teachers attempting to imagine the lives, fears, and sufferings of Afghanistan citizens or of Muslims around the globe.  Indeed, in the weeks following 9/11, there was a sharp increase in the reports of verbal and physical harassment of Muslim- and Arab-Americans, and some Islamic schools were targeted as well.

In a surprising series of moves that seem, at first glance, to further Nussbaum’s cosmopolitan vision, President Bush’s White House has issued several programs and statements in the wake of 9/11 that attempt to distinguish the Muslim from the terrorist, and to help us see the humanness of people in Middle Eastern countries. Laura Bush’s radio address informed listeners of the plight of Afghani women and children under the Taliban regime. “The brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists. Long before the current war began, the Taliban and its terrorist allies were making the lives of children and women in Afghanistan miserable” (Office of the Press Secretary, 2001c).  The White House has created the America’s Fund for Afghan Children, in which American children are to send $1 to the Fund to help buy humanitarian supplies (Office of the Press Secretary, 2001b).   Our government has pledged millions in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.  Furthermore, the White House has launched an educational program called “Friendship through Education,” designed to connect American students and teachers with their counterparts in Muslim countries.  Eager to bring his “compassionate conservatism” to the War on Terrorism, President Bush’s White House has attempted to link Americans with Muslim Others.  Yet it is often unclear what our government’s motives may be for such humanitarian efforts; it is in our national self-interest to be seen in a positive light by the world, given the very mixed international support for the bombing of Afghanistan.  As the U.S. dropped bombs in that country, we also dropped crates of food and medical supplies.  The irony of this kind of “compassionate conservatism” was surely not lost on the people of Afghanistan.

As Nussbaum (2001) notes, “compassion for our fellow Americans can all too easily slide over into an attitude that wants America to come out on top, defeating or subordinating other peoples or nations” (p. 11).   Increased military budgets, and several broken international treaties and accords, send a clear message about our isolation and rugged individualism. We as a nation may be making cosmopolitan overtures to expand links between people in different nations, but the roots of our parochialism run deep, deeper than most cosmopolitan connections.  Bush’s foreign policy shows this paradox.  The cosmopolitan gestures of the White House after 9/11 are mocked by the parochial and self-interested sentiments in the words and policies of our leaders since that time.  The moral intent of cosmopolitan overtures is often brought into question by the political and economic benefits contained in governmental compassion to the poor and starving in other countries.  True cosmopolitanism, the kind dreamed of by Nussbaum, is still far beyond the grasp of current politicians and leaders.

Benjamin Barber, one of the respondents to Nussbaum in For Love of Country, states that Nussbaum underestimates the thinness of cosmopolitanism. He states that even by Nussbaum’s own admission, cosmopolitan ideals have a difficult time gripping our collective imagination.  Not just the imagination: the heart, the viscera, the vitals of the body that houses the brain in which Nussbaum would like us to dwell.  No one actually lives ‘in the world of which the cosmopolitan wishes us to be good citizens.’  Rather, we live in this particular neighborhood of the world, that block, this valley, that seashore, this family.  Our attachments start parochially and only then grow outward. (1996, pp. 33-34)

Feelings of national identity are heart-felt and corporal; the embodied gestures of patriotism in schools ran the gamut — from the 750+ students in the Anacortes, WA, school district that formed a human flag, to the student-sponsored blood drives.  National identity runs deep in our bodies and minds, it erupts in times of attack or perceived endangerment by an enemy, and it is nurtured by our formal and informal educational institutions.  Of Nussbaum’s critics, Barber is only one of several who describes the power of the local and the embodied passions that provide meaning to our ties to other human beings.  Robert Pinsky (1996) writes that Nussbaum’s view of the world “would be true only if people were not driven by emotions” (p. 87).  Gertrude Himmelfarb (1996) reminds readers that we are not free-floating individuals without loyalties and biases.  “Identity is neither an accident nor a matter of choice.  It is given, not willed” (p. 77).

There is no denying Barber’s point that our local identities are powerful, and that our attachments are parochially shaped.  Nussbaum herself admits this truth (2001, p. 12).  But are these attachments indeed simply and naturally “given” to us in a single, narrow setting, through birth and development in a particular local community?  Only in a world without media would this be true.  In the wake of 9/11, millions of Americans, largely through the interventions of CNN, USA Today, and other outlets, began to identify with people in a city that is otherwise foreign or distant in both miles and mores to most Americans:  New York City.  Children in every state imagined people they had never met, and imagined ways to touch them in compassion. In large part, we were able to imagine other Americans because of the media coverage of the 9/11 events.  Through the images and stories covered by major media outlets, we came to know and, at some level, suffer with New Yorkers, Washingtonians, and others who before 9/11 had no reality for us.  This reality was not a “given,” created by birth or residency within American boundaries.  It was a reality constructed by an imagined sense of Americanness that was clearly encouraged and fed by the media images that were shown and not shown to us. 

The human capacity to injure other people is very great precisely because our capacity to imagine other people is very small,” Elaine Scarry (1996, p. 103) writes in response to Nussbaum. The human imagination in today’s world is undeniably structured through corporate media.  The way that most of us interpreted the events of 9/11 and afterwards was through the words, ideas and images provided to us by the American media.  We imagine America and fellow Americans now with help, typically the help of media conglomerates (what Miller calls “the media cartel”; see Miller 2002, p. 18).  If we had much more compassion for the victims of the World Trade Towers than we did for the innocent victims of the Afghanistan bombings, this has something to do with the fact that we have seen endless visual representations of the New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania sites of violence, destruction and heroism, and precious few representations of the sites of violence and war in Afghanistan.  What we saw in the nightly news, and what we didn’t see, had much to do with how we could imagine the sufferings of New York firefighters, Washington Pentagon workers, Afghani children, or refugees of the war on terrorism.  Nussbaum (2001) makes this important point:  “Our media and our systems of education have long given us far too little information about lives outside our borders, stunting our moral imaginations” (p.13). 

Indeed, there seems no good reason to mis-educate American students that their country, their interests, and their ways of life are righteous and more valuable or “true” than other nations’ interests, traditions and cultures.  But where does that leave us in terms of American civic education?  The dangers and excesses of patriotism are clear.  There might, however, be morally sound reasons to develop a powerful sense of national identity and civic feeling that is directed towards America and fellow Americans.  Nussbaum worries that national identity too easily slips into nationalism and that our compassions are usually not extended beyond American borders.  But as Amy Gutmann (1996) argues in her response to Nussbaum, there is no real global polity. Nussbaum (1997) characterizes cosmopolitanism as “less a political idea than a moral idea that constrains and regulates political life” (p. 59).  But without a polity, how can we uphold any powerful moral ideas for our country at all?  We are citizens of the American polity, and to live out the ideals of freedom and equality, “we need to be educated to those (particular as well as universal) skills, understandings, and values that secure full participation and equal standing in our own polity” (Gutmann 1996, p. 68).  Gutmann points out that Nussbaum, in her move towards cosmopolitanism, neglects the tremendous importance of educating for democratic life in the United States.  Feinberg’s (1998) construction of a national identity through civic education in common schools is one example of how national unity might be imagined and nurtured without some of the exceptionalism, isolationism, or other questionable moral baggage that Nussbaum sees as inextricably tied to such educational projects.

National Unity in a Pluralistic Democracy

Nussbaum’s problem with American civic education is that it reduces the whole of global humanity to faceless people and exotic nations that we must “tolerate,” mostly in an ignorant, uninformed haze.  She does not seem to recognize a related but more local problem, one faced by educators on a regular basis: the struggle to form a cohesive democratic society from a nation of immigrants, a nation that has wide divisions along class, ethnicity, racial, religious, and other lines. How do we construct an inclusive sense of American identity, inclusive of all our people and their ways of life? Nussbaum’s problem is the American citizen’s lack of connection to people in different nations and hemispheres. Feinberg’s problem is more mundane yet no less serious for many American institutions and democratic projects:  how to build connections between Americans who, as a group, are representative of the global diversity that Nussbaum cherishes.

The challenge of “uncommon identities” within a “common” nation-state is the problem that Feinberg (1998) addresses in Common Schools/Uncommon Identities. Feinberg constructs an argument for the common school as a site of national identity development.  He asks, “how should children from different cultural backgrounds be treated by the public schools, and what if any, identity work is appropriate for public education?” (p. 4).  He takes the position that there are “important and justifiable reasons to take national identity seriously and not to view the nation as simply a shell for separate and unrelated groups.  I argue for encouraging people to take on a common identity by participating in the nation’s reformation” (p. 27).  Feinberg, who views the project of nationhood as a constantly evolving process in society of immigrants, would likely agree with Barber’s (1996) idea that “American national identity has from the start been a remarkable mixture of cosmopolitanism and parochialism,” a process of “uprooting and rerooting” ( p. 31).  Like Charles Taylor (1996), Feinberg believes in the importance of patriotism in a multicultural nation-state.  Taylor, in his response to Nussbaum, states that “The societies we are striving to create — free, democratic, willing to some degree to share equally — require strong identification on the part of their citizens.” Since such societies rely on the “spontaneous support of their members” to survive, such nations depend on a “strong sense of allegiance” (p. 119).

Feinberg wants to reinforce “the idea of citizenship education against the contention that national identity is simply an arbitrary matter and that the common school can only serve to reinforce the ideology of the dominant group” (p. 58).  Feinberg also points out cases “in which groups are justified in seeking public support to maintain a subcultural identity” (p. 28).  Common schools, intended to develop common American identities, are not mandated for all cultural groups. For example, Feinberg offers extensive arguments for supporting the Amish, who are allowed to decide their children’s educational fate by having them leave school after eighth grade.  Feinberg’s thesis does not rest on a wish to eradicate cultural difference within the United States; it rests on his belief in the importance of the “nation-state and its influence on individual rights and cultural development and well-being” (p. 29). [5] While not seeking to white-wash the checkered history of the common school as it has well served, underserved, and oppressed various cultures within our national borders, Feinberg believes in the common school as a way to construct a sense of national identity among all citizens of America.

Feinberg grants that the nation is a “fictive, invisible community” that resides as much in our imaginations as in our material reality.  National identity is constructed as a relational web of connection to people whom we are otherwise not connected, in a nonrational process of kinship making.  “National identity and the obligations that flow from it are not determined by science.  Rather, national identity is nonrational in the sense that it involves obligations that are not subject to rational deliberation or cost-benefit analysis”(p. 120). Feinberg argues that national identity makes us “partial to relational webs we do not choose” – connected to people with whom we are linked as “Americans,” through imagined relations in an imagined state. We saw this clearly as students and teachers throughout the country responded to the events of 9/11, with patriotic gestures and service projects designed to help fellow Americans whom they had never met, or had “met” through the mediated representations of the tragedy and aftermath.

Feinberg argues that the development of national identity and national kinship-making serve important moral and political purposes. “Although there are indeed certain arbitrary elements to any given national identity, there are also many needs served by the development of such an identity” (p. 58).  The nation may have arbitrary elements, but it is not a morally arbitrary construction, as Nussbaum asserts. Feinberg rests his notion of nation on some basic assumptions of liberalism, a school of political philosophy that emphasizes the moral and political weight of individual freedom and equality of opportunity.  Feinberg states that three basic values of a liberal society are “equal opportunity, freedom of association, and individual growth.”  Each of these values, which serve as moral reasons for public schooling in a democratic society, operate in different spheres of existence.

Each of these reasons operates as an educational norm for the public schools — they are what schools should strive to accomplish…  Equality of opportunity operates in the vocational sphere and addresses the important role of school in developing socially and economically useful skills.  Freedom of association operates in the political sphere and serves to reinforce the democratic principle that everyone has a basic right to form independent associations.  Individual growth operates in the personal sphere and indicates that in a democracy we each have right to form our own conception of the good and choose our own course of development. (p. 9)

Students who attend public schools and who do not learn and practice these values are, by Feinberg’s standards, not prepared to reproduce our national values, institutions or political norms.  Feinberg argues that the public school’s moral mission is tied to the educational norms of equality, freedom of association, and individual growth.

The nation is the political and moral space where these values have historic salience.  This is not to say that Feinberg believes that these norms have consistently guided educators in schools or public servants in general throughout our nation’s history, nor does he believe that only in America do these ideals have specific, historic import.  Yet the values of equality and freedom, as imperfectly realized as they have been in our nation’s lifetime, are part of America’s public life — even when “freedom” was a mere Constitutional term rather than an ontological reality for most Americans.  The common or public school’s goal has been to bring the imagined community of the nation to life.  Historically, before modern vehicles for communication and travel “shrunk” our nation and globe, this goal was important for helping people to identify as Americans in addition to identifying as people of this or that locale, region, ethnic group, religious group, or other more parochial grouping.  Certainly, our own Civil War suggested the moral benefits of that particular goal.

Feinberg agrees that “national identity does have a historically random character to it in the way it includes some and excludes others” (p. 37).  National identity is an historic and otherwise social construction, in many senses, but its moral consequences are not.  If Americans can learn that their national identity is, in some important ways, tied to the ideals of freedom and equality for all other Americans (including those who seem “different”), then national identity in America has a moral force.  Bringing the imagined community of America to life, through each new generation of public school students, is a deeply moral project for Feinberg because the American ideal is based on the liberal tenets of equality of opportunity, freedom of association, and individual growth.  If one evaluates America within a historical context of the modern nation-state’s rise over feudal and other hierarchical social arrangements, it is an imagined nation with liberatory accomplishments and future possibilities, as Feinberg argues:

The claim that the nation-state is inherently arbitrary, if taken to mean that all of its values and practices have only power and position to legitimize them rather than other alternatives, is simply wrong when viewed in a historical context.  Many of the practices of the modern state make sense within a modern historical context.  True, given another context, say, that of a local culture, or that of a global world order, they may appear arbitrary and dysfunctional.  They are evaluated not for all contexts, however, but for a certain set of them.  When viewed within this set their legitimacy is a matter not just of power and position, but also for the liberating possibilities they allow. (p. 42, italics mine)

The legitimacy of the nation-state and a corresponding national identity lie in their potential to achieve our liberal ideals in each generation. These ideals justify “lessons in national partiality” so that constitutional democracies such as ours, which ideally seek to “embrace people from many different cultural groups” might “reproduce their national identities” (p. 45).  Presumably, there must be some emotional and visceral investment in the American identity in order for that identity to have meaning; therefore, nationhood requires some conception of the co-national as more important than fellow humans outside the United States. For Feinberg, nationhood is both inclusion and exclusion, “Through the nation individuals are brought together as a people and as such, and they stand in distinction from others who are brought together as a different people” [sic] (pp. 47-48). 

It seems that for Feinberg, in order for liberal democracy to live out the moral values of freedom and equality, we must nourish a sense of national identity.  In order for our national identity to have any meaning, it must create a feeling, a patriotism and a partiality for our fellow nationals that would also likely cause us to see those who do not share our national identity as foreign others. Yet the partiality for fellow Americans of which Feinberg writes is a wide relational net, and one of his chief aims in the text is to show that the public-forming role of the common school can “include the idea of enabling culturally different formations within the same nation to flourish” (p. 58).  Nationality, as Feinberg sees it, does not seek to assimilate, but to integrate.  “Nationality is an ideal that transcends cultural difference and enables members of different ethnic groups to recognize each other as sharing a common identity…it allows networks of mutual aid and cooperation to flourish in an apparently ‘spontaneous’ way.” (p. 207).  This “spontaneous” identification is, as Feinberg points out, the result of intentional education, both formal and informal.  What is troubling, for Nussbaum and others, is what this education may leave out or omit.  Like the TV news broadcast that focuses almost exclusively on domestic terrorism and American perspectives on such violence, school curricula can all too often have the same domestic focus that serves as a breeding ground for American isolationism and superiority, the unintended yet possible side effects of national partiality.


Beyond Isolation — Points of reconciliation  

Feinberg’s text, when read against Nussbaum, reminds us of the magnitude of the project to create a stable, functional, democratic nation-state, and an engaged citizenry, in such a dynamic historical and social context.  In the end, Feinberg may conceive of civic education in a manner that may actually help to forge the kind of trans-national identifications that Nussbaum wants.  Feinberg makes several key claims that demonstrate some overlapping interests of the liberal brand of citizenship that he champions with the humanist, cosmopolitan perspective that guides Nussbaum’s agenda.

First, one of the purposes of common schooling is to imagine the other by hearing an abundance of “stories” — from history, from literature, from social and political life —that comprise our nation’s cultures, histories, and ideological perspectives.  Feinberg writes that:

The world from the point of view of the homeless, the unemployed, the gay, the dwarf, the sick and the dying are worlds that check the assumptions of the everyday experience of most of us.  For schools to fail to explore these worlds is to provide students with a distorted understanding of the scope of their own experience.  Perhaps not all of these stories can be told in any one school, but the telling of some of them is required to extend children’s imagination beyond the limits of their community. (p. 201)

Of course, Feinberg does not go as far here as Nussbaum would like.  Nussbaum would challenge Feinberg’s list of possible stories to include the world from the point of view of the Afghani woman, the South African black who is slowly dying from AIDS, the factory worker in China, and the Brazilian farmer.  Feinberg hopes to nurture the imaginations of all children to think beyond their local communities, and Nussbaum wants to push even further beyond national borders to encourage an empathic, deeply informed imagination. 

Second, Feinberg calls for “cultural respect” and “cultural engagement” as two important cognitive skills for citizenship; these two skills would likely support Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism, albeit in a more limited way than she would like.  “Multicultural nations need citizenship education in which students learn to respect members of different groups without necessarily understanding their practices or agreeing with what they say or do” (p. 212).  Feinberg is a realist here; he does not expect, like Nussbaum, that by 12th grade students will have a deep understanding of all the complex cultures that comprise the nation, much less the world.  He does not leave us with a relatively weak goal of “cultural respect,” however; he pushes on with an expectation of “cultural engagement.”  Feinberg (1998) again is the liberal realist who nonetheless challenges the status quo of traditional assimilationist civic education: 

Although multiculturalism must allow for the possibility that some will choose cultural isolation, isolation is not a stance that it hopes to encourage.  Moreover, the multicultural vision requires more than simply the general understandings that motivate the attitude of passive respect described above.  It requires skills of active engagement that draw insight from cultural variations and allow cultural differences to persist. (p. 214)

Cultural respect and cultural engagement push toward two related educational goals for Feinberg:  cultural competence and cultural understanding.  We should be competent to navigate not just our “home” or local communal culture, but cultures beyond one’s familiar experience.  Ideally, a student can see another culture “from the inside” and in the process can develop “an appreciation for the effort and accomplishment that cultural practices require” (p. 216).  Feinberg hopes that this is the least one might accomplish from foreign language courses, literature, and engagement with cultures other than one’s own.  The ultimate goal, for Feinberg, is cultural understanding — “to make the strange familiar” (p. 216).  If students in American public schools might build the cognitive and relational skills for cultural engagement, and develop cultural understandings of American cultural groups other than their own, the foundation for Nussbaum’s agenda — for students to recognize and understand humanity wherever they encounter it — is well established.

Feinberg sounds much like Nussbaum when he talks about the importance of cultural understanding for self-knowledge.  For example, he writes:  “It takes an awareness of another culture to have a conception of one’s own behavior as a cultural expression” (p. 217), and this is the beginning of self-understanding for Feinberg; “Ultimately, knowledge of the other culture[s] enables the student to see her own position as contingent and subject to reflexive development and change” (p. 217); and   "Education for citizenship in a multicultural society hopes to produce in students “the recognition of a constructed contingent self whose understanding depends on an acknowledgment of otherness” (p. 218). 

Again, Nussbaum would challenge Feinberg on the limits he puts on “otherness” — wouldn’t his goal of a contingent, constructed self-understanding be even more attainable if cultures and societies from around the globe were part of our curriculum in public schools?  Our selves are not just contingent upon the other Americans that share our existence, but upon the other humans that share it, too.  Feinberg would be unlikely to quibble on this position; indeed he acknowledges this in the book’s final pages:

Children also need to understand that identity is confined neither to national boundaries nor to the groups within them.  What was said above about the way a nation holds out promise for unifying meaning could also be said of culture or of humankind, with the exception that nation-states also entail formal and enforceable instruments for collective action.  Although webs of meaning become thinner as we move across distinct and nameable cultural boundaries, and although webs of mutual aid also thin out as we move across established and recognized national borders, they do not disappear. (p. 236)

Feinberg points out here that our national identity may be more easily imagined to us but it is not necessarily a more valid or real identity than the linkages we have across national borders.  This concession — Nussbaum’s central point — does not damage Feinberg’s primary argument: that American democracy, American political institutions and American stability depend on constructing a self that is, in some important senses, American, in an expansive sense of the term.  Inasmuch as co-nationals share an instrument for collective action (government, shared networks of civil society, etc.), their common identity is more meaningful to them, and potentially more meaningful to others — if the power of the nation-state remains a force into the immediate or distant future.

Is the nation-state still a viable force?  Does national citizenship still have the kind of moral and political import that Feinberg suggests?  Citizenship, of the variety that compels school children in Ohio to send aid and support to New Yorkers and Washingtonians in need, seems alive and well in America.  Citizenship, of the type that joins many Americans together in solidarity and mutual support, seems to have received a “shot in the arm” since the events of 9/11.  But as Feinberg recognizes, the context of citizenship determines its content.  In the past several years, various economic and political events have turned our attention to globalization and to a larger, international context.  On 9/11, we were reminded that globalization is not all cheap consumer goods and speedy global communications.  It is about sharing space on the planet with cultures and groups that consider America to be a cultural threat, an oppressive force on political, economic, and moral fronts.  In this new context, the liabilities of the liberal civic education agenda become more apparent, and the limitations of some forms of cosmopolitanism also become clear.  If civic education is not deliberately expanding our “webs of meaning” beyond national borders, the kind of national isolationism and exceptionalism reflected in our foreign policy and international relations will continue to thrive and to sow seeds of hatred among various groups, cultures, and nations around the globe.  If cosmopolitanism is mere Westernization in disguise, then our future looks no brighter, for the Osama bin Ladens of the world will be lining up to defend their ways of life from what Barber calls “McWorld” (Barber,1995).  The expansion of McWorld, that “peculiar logic of U.S. technology, markets, and branded pop culture” (Barber 2002, p. 17) is not cosmopolitanism in the moral sense of a global humanity; it is a contested form of “progress” that, in its current forms, benefits some groups and nations more than others (see Morrow and Torres, 2000).

Nation or world?  Nation and world.


Theorists see the nation-state’s power in sharp decline in light of globalization; political shifts such as the European Union, economic shifts such as NAFTA, and WTO policies on expansion of global trade point to the reality that some multi-national corporations now wield more influence than some nation-states. “Many theorists now argue that the right of most states to rule within defined boundaries —their sovereignty— has all but vanished or at least been severely compromised…” (Rizvi and Lingard, 2000, pp. 422-23).

Will a sense of global citizenship emerge in the wake of 9/11, in this era of increasing interdependence between nations and their economies?  Citizenship needs public spaces, both real and virtual.   Citizenship in a time of globalization will in some ways constitute an important and fundamental struggle for public spaces, at home and abroad.  Fazal Rizvi and Bob Lingard argue that the politics of globalization has “revolved around a contraction of the public as it had been constituted by the Keynesian Welfare State in the post-WWII years, and a simultaneous expansion of the private whether defined as markets or the domestic sphere.” (p. 423).  Retaining our current public spaces and networks requires vigilance, skill, and a love of democracy in this era of privatization and multinational corporate governance.  Feinberg seems to recognize that citizenship requires these qualities; he further understands that identification with a group requires a partiality to that group which can inspire the passion to act.  It seems that we can use a lot more of this kind of passion in political movements and participatory democracy, rather than less.  Patriotism, in the cosmopolitan sense, is direction of that passion into democratic movements that may include but are not limited to American interests and perspectives.  Perhaps the paradox of 9/11, as we find ourselves betwixt and between cosmopolitanism and patriotism, is that certain forms of patriotism can further the cause of cosmopolitanism.  Patriotism — traditionally defined as a loyalty to country — might be shifted in the new global context as a loyalty to democracy, in the service of cosmopolitan moral ends. Democracy offers concrete possibilities to the ideal of cosmopolitanism, defined as “the globalization of moral and political concerns with and struggles against social oppression and human suffering” (Stoer and Cortesão, 2000, p. 266)

To be citizens in an era of globalization, the kind of patriotism or national partiality that Feinberg sees as necessary to American democracy may hinder us from operating in a global context.  As Richard Falk (1996) notes in his response to Nussbaum,

Transnational and grassroots participants and processes, including voluntary associations of citizens, now engage in many varieties of action covering the spectrum from the extreme local to the global commons and beyond, and are often animated by an ethical consciousness that gives contemporary reality to the cosmopolitan outlook (p. 58).

As Falk points out, identifications beyond a sense of nationalism are linking people together in global political movements (see Kellner, 2000).  It would seem that we identify with other human beings in an endless variety of ways, once channels of communication and commitment are opened.  National partiality can stand in the way of involving more people in transnational and grassroots movements.

Still, this reality does not deny the truth of Feinberg’s ideal — that our great American experiment relies on an inclusive sense of American identity in order to marshal our actions and participation.  The nation-state may be weaker than it was, but it is not dead yet.  The importance of global political movements may make a sense of national citizenship even more important, because as we become more concerned with problems that cross national boundaries, we can push our government to take responsible action in solving these problems.  A growing sense of global citizenship may ironically require more rather than less civic involvement at the national and local levels.

In examining Nussbaum’s and Feinberg’s texts, we seem to be faced with the question, “nation or world?”  Read together, these two authors make a compelling case for “nation and world.”  Feinberg’s text reminds us of the great American democratic experiment in a nation of immigrants, and the ongoing challenges that experiment poses for public schools.  Feinberg looks back at where we’ve been as a nation and argues for a patriotism that is more inclusive and empathic towards the Other than any current brand of patriotism now circulating in a post 9/11 world.  He summons the political and moral strength of liberalism to remind us that our national identity is constantly evolving and being reconstructed — a fact of crucial import as we witness the largest influx of immigrants in our history. But Nussbaum looks forward, into “new” political and moral contexts (based in part on her readings of the ancient Roman and Greek philosophers). Nussbaum has a different ideal than an inclusive American citizenship; her moral vision for a global humanity pushes the current registers of citizenship and loyalty. “Long before children have any acquaintance with the idea of nation, or even of one specific religion, they know hunger and loneliness” (1996b, p. 144).  Nussbaum wants us to imagine a global community in the same way that we have imagined a national identity.  She may underestimate the nonrational ties of patriotism and nationalism, but in doing so she offers up a compelling vision of what globalization might bring to us in the long run.  As our webs of meaning — symbols, stories, experiences, and knowledges — can be extended beyond our own cultural borders, the path is forged for this imagined global community, in which the crossing of cultural and national borders is as readily imagined and as frequently imaged as are the current understandings of “America” and “American” in a post-9/11 world.  Our major educational institutions, including schools, mass media, and religious associations, must actively support and sustain such extensions of meaning. 


I would like to thank Jason Harnish for bringing my attention to Nussbaum’s work, and for his critical feedback on an early draft of the manuscript.  I would also like to thank Sarah Stitzlein McGough, Sheila Croucher, Nicholas Burbules and Nadine Dolby for their helpful feedback on early drafts.


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1. Nussbaum more fully develops the idea of cosmopolitanism in Cultivating Humanity (1997). 

2. Feinberg (1998) uses Benedict Anderson’s seminal work, Imagined Communities (1991) as a way to explain the social constructed nature of our national identity development.  Feinberg states, “Each nation, as Anderson puts it, ‘imagines itself as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship’” (p. 38; italics in original).

3. See David Samuels’ (2002) “On Message:  A Theater of war at the Pentagon,” for an exposé of the way in which the government has carefully crafted and staged public communications regarding the War on Terrorism. One senior reporter told Samuels that he has only received “’carefully sifted insights’ compiled with a highly restrictive set of ground rules that ‘are tougher maybe than the rules in any conflict that we’ve been engaged in’” (p. 58).  As Samuels notes, secretive government interfaces with needs of television networks who are “no longer interested in reporting the news” but treat news or the war in particular as “dramatic entertainment” (p. 59).

4. While the overwhelming show of emotional support for 9/11 victims was admirable, some believe that schools had a far more therapeutic than educational response to the attacks.  As Hoff and Kennedy Manzo report (2001), most teachers lack the knowledge to lead a deeper study of the complex religious, economic, and political factors that are entangled with the events of Sept. 11. … ‘A lot of therapy is going to be happening, but not a lot of teaching,’ predicted John Marciano, a retired professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland who has studied the treatment of the wars in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf in school curricula.

5. I ignore much of this part of Feinberg’s book here.  He goes into depth regarding cultural difference and its meanings (chapter 3) the aims of multicultural education (chapter 5), as well as the more “difficult” cases of uncommon identities, such as isolationist groups or groups in America who have been oppressed and thus deserve special recognitions (chapter 6).  I recommend the entirety of Feinberg’s text to interested readers.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 12, 2002
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11008, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 3:37:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Kathleen Knight Abowitz
    Miami University
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    KATHLEEN KNIGHT-ABOWITZ is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Her scholarship focuses on using political theory to explore contemporary educational problems. Her recent publications on charter schools appear in Educational Theory and Educational Studies.
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