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Cosmopolitanism and the Age of School Reform: Science, Education, and Making Society by Making the Child

reviewed by Marianna Papastephanou - August 07, 2008

coverTitle: Cosmopolitanism and the Age of School Reform: Science, Education, and Making Society by Making the Child
Author(s): Thomas S. Popkewitz
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415958148, Pages: 220, Year: 2007
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Thomas Popkewitz´s book, Cosmopolitanism and the Age of School Reform, is a very interesting endeavour to test the limits of the Enlightenment without giving up its notions of human agency and freedom (p. 173). With very nicely judged moves, it attacks the commitment to planning and making agents (as it is manifested in the social sciences and as it fixes the boundaries of freedom) while renouncing, towards the end of the text, the relativism of formal equivalence of political cultures (p. 185) and reasserting the cosmopolitan attitude to reason, freedom, justice and hospitality to others (p. 184).


The reader is shown in a very clear and sensitive manner how certain universalizing educational practices and measures stem from a cultural territory that is marked by fears about failures of cognitive utility and procedural reform. These practices and measures redeem totality through the incorporation of alterity, whose territory causes fear, in turn, that the civilized space is threatened by the modes of living of the disadvantaged and risk-prone Others (p. 167).

Popkewitz reminds us that ‘to recognize those for inclusion does not exorcize exclusion’ (p. 182); practices of rescue naturalize variations in human capacities, individualize social phenomena and reduce human beings to manageable technical resources considered from the perspective of efficiency or worth (p. 131). The book is especially valuable given the context in which issues of lifelong learning, standards and inclusion are debated. This context is often determined by achievement of educational goals or not and revolves around claims of successful reform. Instead of conforming to the demands of this context, the book shifts the attention towards the rationale informing the debates (p. 126). The cosmopolitan outlook behind much contemporary educational discourse is largely led by a process of abjection expressing the fear of, and hostility to, those who do not embody such cosmopolitanism (p. 112). Abjection becomes a crucial notion for understanding and critiquing current educational ideas: it is the ‘casting out and exclusion of particular qualities of people from the spaces of inclusion’ (p. 6). Overall, the deployment of the themes of the book makes important new connections between theory and practice and sheds light on subtle forms of exclusion and abjection in education.    


There are also many ideas and matters that are treated in a controversial way, and I mean this positively, as raising constructive criticisms, objections and counterarguments on the part of the reader. Prior to focusing on one such issue that attracted my critical attention, I would like to mention that it is a pity that too many typographical and other errors make the text somewhat cumbersome and its reading difficult. One would expect such a publication to have received better editorial attention..  


Be that as it may, the issue that I found most problematic is the key - and title - word itself: cosmopolitanism. The author justifies the employment of the term ‘cosmopolitanism’ by explaining the inappropriateness of two other terms, ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘modernity”, to convey certain cultural theses in the book´s context. Yet, the justification is too weak, precisely because it operates negatively, that is, it states why the other notions are not pertinent but it offers no positive explanation why cosmopolitanism is the best candidate for describing the cultural theses of a specific era. My objection is that the author uses cosmopolitanism somewhat idiosyncratically, perhaps over-relying on Toulmin´s Cosmopolis (1992), projecting on its ideal and normative plane the descriptive basis on which the modern Western world attempted to found cosmopolitanism.


More simply put, cosmopolitanism should rather be an ideal about humanity´s relation to itself and to nature that comprises ethical, legal, emotional and cognitive aspects that de-naturalize established worldviews. As it is usually understood in political theory, it is about a responsible, lawful, loving and thoughtful treatment of the whole cosmos (humanity and other biota). Inclusion enters the picture through the word ‘whole,’ a word that extends responsibility and obligation to an unlimited number of entities affected by human action. But to have a cosmopolitanism worthy of the name, such an inclusion must be taken for granted, and the emphases and tensions must concern only what counts as obligation, how responsibility must be construed and the level of awareness of historical debt that burdens (principally but not exclusively) those who have been very active in creating inequalities, global asymmetries, hunger, poverty, destruction and other pathologies inflicted upon others. When the emphasis is shifted on inclusion, e.g. in educational parlance, on the ‘no child left behind’ controversy, the issue seems to be: we, the advanced and progressive of the world set the various standards and we are kind enough not to leave anybody out; in other words, we wish everybody to catch up. Then, we have already moved beyond cosmopolitanism proper, for which the issue is not primarily to identify and stigmatize the excluded or to eliminate diversity but rather to highlight and debate global ethical and legal responsibility, while taking diversity for granted. It is no accident that whilst global redistribution of wealth, for instance, is central in egalitarian cosmopolitan debates (e.g., consider the work of Pogge, Beitz, etc.), in the context of the faddish ‘cosmopolitanism’ that operates along lines of inclusion, redistributive justice is excluded and non-theorized.


To distinguish between the self-reflective cosmopolitanism that is demanding on the Western strong subject (expecting redirection of its values and priorities) and not on the weak subject (usually burdened with the task of changing so as to meet the strong´s standards) and the fashionable expansionist cosmopolitanism, we need a term to describe the latter. Thus, Popkewitz´s unease with the employment of the term and his effort to justify its use is understandable. But the recourse to this same term again, for lack of an alternative one that would denote the cultural theses of modernity, backfires because it reinforces what it sets out to criticize. Inevitably, the conclusion is that if we wish to talk about cosmopolitanism, all we have to rely on is the specific modern Western conception that now acquires transcendental value. Therefore, all we can do is just to be aware of its duplicities and be cautious regarding its dangers. However, when dealing with ideals, we need a sense of surplus, of a normativity that goes beyond and questions the sedimented meanings of the ideal urging us to redefine and re-approach it.


My suggestion is that we maintain the normativity that accompanies the term ‘cosmopolitanism’ from antiquity to the present by dististinguishing it from the ‘universalization’ that the cultural theses of modernity have favoured. Following Zygmunt Bauman (1998), I take this term – by now fallen into disuse and by and large forgotten – to encompass concepts such as ‘civilization,’ ‘development,’ ‘convergence,’ ‘consensus’ and many other modern ideas and to convey:

the modern, Western hope, the intention and the determination of order-making. Those concepts were coined on the rising tides of modern powers and the modern intellect´s ambitions. They announced the will to make the world different from what it was and better than it was, and to expand the change and the improvement to global, species-wide dimensions. It also declared the intention to make the life conditions of everyone everywhere, and so everybody´s life chances, equal. (Bauman, 1998, pp. 38-39)

I believe that, thus defined, universalization covers the same conceptual ground as Popkewitz´s cosmopolitanism while being temporally more accurate to account for modern thought and normatively less overarching than the ideal of cosmopolitanism. Finally, a loose employment of cosmopolitanism (such as the book´s) brings along some forced and sweeping theoretical treatments and misreadings (e.g., of Nussbaum´s cosmopolitanism, of ancient Greek relation to time etc.) that cannot be thoroughly discussed here for reasons of space but that could have been avoided, had the author opted for a different conceptual solution.


Bauman, Z. (1998). On glocalization: Or globalization for some, localization for some others. Thesis Eleven, 54, 37-50.

Toulmin, S. (1992). Cosmopolis: The hidden agenda of modernity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 07, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15330, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 2:02:06 AM

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About the Author
  • Marianna Papastephanou
    University of Cyprus
    E-mail Author
    MARIANNA PAPASTEPHANOU has studied Philosophy and researched in Cardiff (Wales) and Berlin (Germany). She is currently teaching Philosophy of Education in the Department of Education at the University of Cyprus. She has edited the book, K.O. Apel: From A Transcendental-Semiotic Point of View, and she is the author of articles on various philosophical and educational topics. Her research interests include utopia, cosmopolitanism, ethics, critical thinking and the modernism vs. postmodernism debate.
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