ron barnett delivering his seminar
An interview with...

An interview with… Ron Barnett

Professor Ron Barnett delivered a interesting and amusing seminar on the topic ‘Global Citizenship: Feasible utopia or a dangerous mirage?’ as part of our 2017/18 Education Excellence Series. The seminar looked at the politics and philosophy around this topic and asked us to consider a number of questions around the timing of this topic and what is meant by the term ‘global citizen’ (full seminar can be watched here). Ron has continued the discussion as part of his interview below. 

In what sense is it important for students to engage with the concept of global citizenship?

A genuine higher education is just that, a higher form of education, which extends students in the fullest way; and the idea of global citizenship offers just this kind of prospect, to open to the students a space in which they can situate both their studies and themselves as persons in those infinite horizons.

You suggest the concept of the student as global citizen is messy? What do you mean by this?

The idea of the student as global citizen is messy because there are at least several interpretations of it, with criss-crossings and tensions between some of them (posing issues of the global economy, selfhood, world community, cross-culturality, empathy, worldly understanding, knowledge in a global setting and so on). This is a messy situation.  So a programme for global citizenship requires that fundamental choices be made – as between epistemology and ontology, curriculum and pedagogy, understanding and action and so on.

In what concrete ways could we bring together local and international students to help strengthen the sense of global citizenship at Bristol?

One way would be to look at the development goals of the United Nations (or their latest incarnation) and for students collectively to consider just how a student’s programme offers possibilities for interpretation, action and self-understanding in that context, ie, in helping to take up the challenges of those worldly goals.

Where does the concept of ecology fit in global citizenship?

Ecology speaks of (i) interconnectiveness, (ii) impairments or a falling short in the ‘ecosystems’ of the world, (iii) humanity’s responsibilities thereto. On all three fronts, ecology therefore is itself entangled with global citizenship.  The concept of ecology pushes global citizenship to identify impairments in the large ecosystems of the world – knowledge, economy, culture, learning, persons, the natural environment and society itself – and to identify, too, responsibilities and possibilities for attending to the impairments in those worldly ecosystems.

Is there any particular educational resource or book or article that you would recommend everyone should read?

A book in my library that catches my eye – but which still awaits my proper attention – is ‘Between Naturalism and Religion’ by Jurgen Habermas. It does not deal directly with ‘global citizenship’ but it both engages with many cognate issues – citizenship, liberalism, human rights, religion and so forth – and does so bringing to bear the large and generous horizons so characteristic of Habermas’ work.

Who was your favourite teacher at school/university and why?

This is easy. Terry Moore (who is no longer with us), who was my MPhil and PhD supervisor (at the London Institute of Education).  He modestly admitted to me that he knew nothing about the focus of my interests – in forging a philosophy of higher education – but he (a) gave me space to develop my own thinking, (b) supported and encouraged my efforts, and (c) brought to bear a discipline in my thinking and writing.  I owe him much and was very happy to dedicate one of my books to him.

If you could change one thing about HE in the UK what would it be?

  • Again, this is easy and yet difficult. It would be to require that every programme of higher education could demonstrate that it seriously required (and not frivolously) that their student think.
  • Heidegger remarked that ‘In universities especially, the danger is still very great that we misunderstand what we hear of thinking …’ In other words, we may not even understand properly what is to count as thinking.  And Bertrand Russell was said to remark (perhaps apocryphally) that ‘the English would sooner die than think’ and he added ‘and most of them do’.
  • Serious, searching thinking, that takes nothing for granted and is determined to get to the bottom of things and even emerge into a new clearing, is extremely hard, discomforting and even painful.
  • I see many signs of a reluctance or an inability to think in research, in scholars’ writing, in papers for review, in doctoral students’ theses, in students’ approach to their own learning and so on.
  • We are slipping, unwittingly, into a non-thinking culture. The contemporary French philosopher, Bernard Stiegler, speaks of a general ‘stupidity’.  I wouldn’t go this far, but we can surely talk of a general un-thinkingness.  But a genuine higher education calls for, and even demands, serious thinking.

What one film/book/resource would you like to share with the academic community?

  • Again, this is surprisingly easy. It is George Orwell’s little book ‘Why I write’.  It is a very short book but it can be recommended just on the basis of its first chapter (‘Why I write’) and its last (‘Politics and the English language’).
  • The point here is to care about language and to care about writing and, therefore, for one’s own writing.
  • I fear that I sense little care or concern for writing among scholars these days. There are, of course, exceptions to this generalisation.  There are scholars who write with care, and who have a care for their readers; and there are even scholars who are trying to help to improve the character of the writing of scholars today – such as Steven Pinker, Michael Billig and Helen Sword.  But those efforts are undermined by certain scholars – especially in philosophy and social theory – who are explicit in inveighing against clarity, lucidity and accessibility.  I’ll not name names.
  • But if we do not have a care for writing and a care towards our own writing, why should the reader take seriously anything we have to say?

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