Cultivating Cosmopolitanism in a World of Echo Chambers

September 20, 2016
By Educator Innovator

Out of Eden, a program of our partner Project Zero, aims to nudge students toward an open-minded, curious, and authentic embrace of difference.

At the end of July, Project Zero held its seventh annual Future of Learning institute for educators. This year’s theme focused on “nurturing digital and global citizenships.” Taking a broad conception of citizenship, the institute explored how educators might support youth to develop the skills and dispositions to engage meaningfully with others in their own communities and in the wider world. Across three days, presenters raised a number of important issues that connect to the aims of Out of Eden Learn and underscore the complexity of our enterprise. In this post, I reflect on these ideas, with particular attention to the concept of “cosmopolitanism.” As I’ll discuss further below, cosmopolitanism is a valuable but often elusive stance that involves being open to and even embracing cultural difference.

We often position the goals of Out of Eden Learn in light of two broad challenges that plague our interconnected lives: 1) the fast pace of our lives and exchanges with others, both online and offline — and thus the importance of slowing down; and 2) despite the potential of the internet to broaden our perspectives, the prevalence of “homophily” online. In other words, on social media, we often “flock together” or connect with like-minded individuals and those who are similar to us in other important ways. This pattern is described powerfully by Ethan Zuckerman in his book, Digital Cosmopolitans (2014). A featured speaker at the Future of Learning institute, Zuckerman explored this problem space and invited us to consider strategies for countering homophily.

The heart of the issue, as Zuckerman described, is that we self-sort and subsequently narrow our worlds without even thinking about it. Our habits of friending, liking, following, and googling are key drivers here. We forge or solidify friendships on Facebook and follow people on Twitter according to our existing bonds and shared interests. Our interests also drive our online search and reading habits. We turn to known (and therefore trusted) sources for news and information, and what we click on or “like” often informs what we will see on those sites going forward. Recent data from the Pew Research Center suggests that, within the U.S., exposure to online news and dialogue about racial issues varies significantly by race: “African-American social media users are nearly twice as likely as whites to see posts on social networks about race or race relations.” On a global scale, our patterns of flocking together mean that social media are typically “nationalist echo chambers,” says Zuckerman. Such trends would be concerning at any moment in time; they feel especially problematic at this historical moment. Mass migration, the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, rising extremism, and the polarized political climate in Europe, the U.S. and beyond suggest an urgent need to broaden our perspectives and understandings of people beyond our local and national borders. That is, we need to find ways to support “cosmopolitanism.”

An age-old ideal explored by Kwame Anthony Appiah (2006) among others, cosmopolitanism is an ethical stance or attitude that engages with difference (whether it be cultural, political, racial, ethnic, religious or other types of difference) with an open, appreciating disposition that acknowledges our shared humanity and sense of responsibility for one another. Unpacking what cosmopolitanism looks like and what it takes to get there is key. For Zuckerman, we have much to learn here from individuals whom he refers to as “xenophiles”:

“Xenophiles are lovers of the unfamiliar…people who find inspiration and creative energy in the vast diversity of the world…Xenophiles aren’t just samplers or bricoleurs who put scraps to new use; they take seriously both forks of Kwame Appiah’s definition of cosmopolitanism: they recognize the value of other cultures, and they honor obligations to people outside their own tribe” (p. 170-171).

Notably, in his talk, Zuckerman pointed to Paul Salopek as an “extreme xenophile” who exhibits a love of the unfamiliar through his slow journalism, deep storytelling, and determination to walk the world in support of both.

Yet traveling the world, either on foot or through other means, isn’t the only way to engage with difference. Many of us already live in diverse countries, cities, and/or communities. And, as noted, the internet and social media provide opportunities to bring us in the way of different perspectives and lives regardless of where we are living. So opportunities for engaging with difference are often a few clicks away, if not outside our doorsteps — should we take them up. However, per Zuckerman’s point about homophily, achieving cosmopolitanism in our digital lives requires us to be proactive in terms of broadening our networks and our go-to news sources. One strategy recommended by Zuckerman is to follow citizen media outlets such as Global Voices, which provides local, on the ground reporting from 167 countries in the world and translated into more than 40 languages. Another strategy is to intentionally diversify whom we follow on Instagram or Twitter.

Virtual exchange programs are yet another promising avenue for countering homophily and, ideally, nurturing cosmopolitanism. At Out of Eden Learn, our curriculum and platform are deliberately designed to connect youth from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Our model is in keeping with Appiah’s emphasis on embracing difference while also finding affinity with David T. Hansen’s notion of cosmopolitanism as “reflective openness to new ideas, values, and people” in balance with “reflective loyalty to the known” (The Teacher and World, p. 115). A recent survey of students who participated in Out of Eden Learn suggests promising takeaways. One 12-year old student in California in the United States shared,

“I learned that how other kids live their lives all around the world. some kids have different interest than me and some are very similar. I loved learning about other people and what they liked to do and what they do in their free time.”

Another 12-year old student in the Netherlands, reported,

“I loved learning about [other students’] homes and cultures. I loved to read their stories. They are all beautiful no matter how long or short they are. I loved listening and reading stories from around the world.”

And a 13-year old participant in Oregon in the U.S. shared,

“I have learned about how different or similar someone who lives on the other side of the world can be from me. When you learn about a place you usually just look at things like the types of food people eat, the clothes they wear…but this allowed me to see in depth what life is actually like for others.”

Despite these positive testimonials that are suggestive of cosmopolitanism, we are ever mindful of the limitations of a structured and circumscribed online (or even offline) learning experience. Is Out of Eden Learn sparking genuine curiosity about the wider world, stimulating meaningful connections and promoting intercultural understanding among youth? Or, are we merely inviting youth to skim the surface of difference — catching brief and inevitably partial glimpses of the lives of other youth? This concern echoes those raised in a recent op-ed column in the The New York Times, in which Ross Douthat warned that thin or superficial cosmopolitanism is prevalent and may indeed be the typical outcome of efforts to promote “global citizenship” and multiculturalism.

As we carry on with this enterprise, we are asking ourselves hard questions. While our learning goals and model are arguably aligned with conceptions of cosmopolitanism, we are compelled to wonder about the lasting impact of youths’ exchanges on Out of Eden Learn and other thoughtfully designed intercultural experiences. Critically, what do such encounters mean in terms of the attitudes youth develop, the ways in which they interact with people face-to-face, and the life choices they ultimately make – the friendships they develop, the neighborhoods they choose to live in, how they choose to engage civically, and perhaps even the decisions they will make in the voting booth? These questions are pertinent both to our core curricula and to our new learning journey, which invites critical reflection around a timely and politically charged topic: human migration. Certainly, any single educational experience, however powerful, cannot be expected to shape a young person’s disposition in ways that counter other forces in his or her life. Perhaps our best hope is that Out of Eden Learn nudges youth down a path of open-mindedness, curiosity, and authentic yet respectful inquiry about difference. As we continue our work, we’ll be looking closely for signs that suggest youth are on this path and ways we can support their journey.

By Carrie James
Originally Published at Out of Eden Learn Blog