What Is Global Thought, anyway?

Feature Article by Bingxuan Wang – December 10, 2018

Columbia University Spectator

“The best thing about global thought is [that] nobody knows what it is,” Carol Gluck, the current chair and one of the six founding members of the Committee on Global Thought, says.

Gluck is speaking to me over Skype on a rainy Saturday afternoon from her office in Paris. Her office is located in Reid Hall, Columbia’s Global Center in France, created in 2010 as one of the many University initiatives aiming to establish Columbia’s global presence. She sounds ebullient and self-assured when talking to me about global thought, a concept she has helped develop for the past 12 years, even though she is unable to give it an exhaustive definition.

When we speak of global thought, we are speaking of an idea that lies at the heart of a committee consisting of 35 Columbia faculty members, a young and ever-expanding institution that is leading six research projects, an M.A. program, and a series of undergraduate initiatives.

Since the fall of 2017, the Committee on Global Thought has offered two seminar courses to undergraduates, one in each semester. Professor Laura Neitzel, the academic director for the CGT, as well as a historian of modern Japan, has taught each of these courses so far. The fall 2018 course, “Inquiries into an Interconnected World,” is a broad and ambitious survey course that aims to consider the enormous question of how human beings think about and experience our increasingly interconnected world. The course offered this past spring, “Global 20: Youth in an Interconnected World,” was slightly more focused on the topic of youth in a globalized world, but has an almost equally ambitious range of study. A typical topic for either of these courses in a given week might look something like “‘globalization’ discourse since the 1990s”—a topic broad enough to design a course or write a book on—or simply “everyday life in our global era.”

These courses are unconventional in multiple ways: the broad scope, the contemporary focus, the interdisciplinary approach, and even the “final synthesis” component, which is an in-class exercise where the students and professor derive their final conclusions about the class together. But perhaps all that is special about these courses can be traced to the single uncommon idea of teaching a course on “global thought.”

Young and still developing, global thought may seem vague in its mission and design at first glance. In fact, global thought is not even a field of study—when I use the term during our interview, Gluck is quick to correct me. But while this vagueness can be confusing, it also opens up new methods of thinking and teaching which react to the ever-changing conditions of our interconnected world.

“Global thought is not a thing. It’s a way of approaching the world.” Gluck tells me. “It’s a way of shaking our ideas loose from their moorings, to not be trapped within categories that were created a long time ago to respond to an earlier world.”

Gluck stresses that we’re tackling our problems with outdated solutions inherited from the past. To illustrate what this means concretely, Gluck draws on the example of displaced people. “We have millions of people who are displaced in our world, many of whom will never be able to return to where they were raised. It’s a huge question, and it cannot be answered with the earlier knowledge of immigration or diaspora. We therefore need to think differently.”

And so “global thought” emerges as an empty term but also an encompassing one. Since it is a mode of thinking rather than a field of study, any topic that has implications on a global scale can be analyzed through the perspective of global thought. But how—and more importantly, why—did the idea of global thought come to Columbia?

Gluck takes me back to a meeting she attended nearly 13 years ago.

In January 2006, before the spring semester started, University President Lee Bollinger convened a meeting with six faculty members across different departments. The goal was to create a community of scholars to sit together and talk about how Columbia should learn, research, and teach in an increasingly globalized world—one of Bollinger’s many moves to make Columbia engage more deeply with the world at large. “Bollinger believes fervently in the fact that we do need to think differently about the world today,” Gluck tells me. “And that’s why he has been the engine behind this project.”

Bollinger molded the idea and language of the Committee on Global Thought partly on the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. Founded in 1941, the CST sought to create an environment where scholars from different fields could work closely with each other on fundamental questions that transcend disciplinary boundaries. The CGT very much inherited the interdisciplinary spirit of the CST, but made a shift in focus toward the topic of globalization. The CGT was interdisciplinary from its inception, with the belief that no single global issue could be approached from a single disciplinary perspective.

The committee started out by developing a series of faculty-led research projects, but right from its inception, Bollinger and other committee members also agreed that it needed to have a pedagogical component both on the graduate and the undergraduate level. Barely two months after the first meeting, Gluck took the charge of developing the undergraduate program. From 2006 to 2007, Gluck did a year-long survey consisting of more than 50 meetings with students, alumni, faculty members, and administrators, the common goal of which was to explore what and how Columbia undergraduates should learn about the world in the 21st century.

Gluck produced a report in 2007 with a series of recommendations on how to teach students about the world. The report suggested, for instance, integrating general issues of globalization into the study of specific peoples and regions, employing cross-subject approaches to break down traditional disciplinary boundaries, and so forth. The report then makes specific proposals for not only incorporating a new set of pedagogical strategies into the existing curriculum, but also creating a small number of courses specially designed to promote global thinking.

After three years of survey and background research, the CGT started with concrete programming on the graduate level. A subcommittee was formed in 2009 to put together a proposal for a master’s program in global thought, an arduous task which took two years to complete. The proposal was then submitted to the Executive Committee of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciencesthe Executive Committee of the University Senate, and the New York State Education Department for review and approval, which took another three years. In 2014, the M.A. program in Global Thought finally received its first class of 17 students, a number which has grown to 29 this year.

Running down this timeline, the CGT’s latest focus has been undergraduates: Along with the creation of courses in global thought, the committee has also created other opportunities, including a subcommittee that connects undergraduates to the resources of the CGT and an experiential learning program that sends Columbia undergraduate students to work at immigrant assistance organizations in New York.

The two courses Neitzel designed for undergraduates follow a pattern: The fall course offers a broad survey while the spring seminar zooms into a specific topic. Even though Neitzel seems to be the primary creative force behind both of the courses, she tells me that she went through the designing process in constant dialogue with her colleagues at the CGT. “It’s true that I put together the nuts and bolts of the syllabus, but the course was certainly in keeping with the themes that interest us here at CGT,” she says.

Given the vagueness of global thought, it seems fitting that the focuses of these courses were defined through constant dialogue. In fact, Neitzel emphasizes that the class has no set answers and that the conclusions are drawn from student-led discussions. Again, I’m reminded that global thought is not about producing answers, but instead the way that we approach questions.

Speaking of navigating the challenge of teaching courses with such broad ranges of focus, Neitzel thinks that she doesn’t need to be an expert on everything. “It’s really more about the questions you ask,” she says about the courses. “After formulating questions about a specific region, you can take it to other parts of the world and think about the common challenges and themes across these spaces.”

Neitzel’s been thinking globally since she received her Ph.D. in history at Columbia in 2003, under Gluck’s supervision. Though Neitzel specializes in modern Japanese history, her work is never about Japan in isolation, and she always considers regional studies in a global context.

Nicole Liu, a senior at Columbia College majoring in history who took Neitzel’s seminar on global youth last spring, tells me that while the class taught her much knowledge about the world, it was not designed to inculcate a body of knowledge or teach the correct theories. “The class was not about producing the best analyses of youth problems, but about learning what it is like to participate in those problems.”

Liu recounts one session where the class picked out the terms “developed country” and “developing country” from a report produced by the UN and discussed the assumptions underpinning the text’s use of those words. “Those [terms] are very traditional metrics when you look at the world, but we tried to probe into the basis of those terms and whether the way we perceive them points to our own biases and vantage points.” The class was not trying to reach any definite way of critiquing the UN’s political language, but the discussion helped Liu to begin examining and reflecting on the concepts and rubrics with which she measures the world.

Mohamed Abedelmalik, a senior in SEAS double majoring in computer engineering and economics, was in the same class as Liu and agrees. Abedelmalik says that Neitzel’s course caught his interest because it leaves most questions open. Most courses Abdelmalik has taken in political science or history departments explain things that are already well-understood or are of the past, but the study of youth problems in a global context is still young and a lot of its theories aren’t yet solidified. “The course doesn’t give you definitive answers. It just helps you get started thinking about these questions,” Abedelmalik says.

Liu also loves how closely the course content relates to her own life. The class’s final project was a fairly open assignment and allowed students to explore the topic of youth in context of anything covered in the class. For her project, Liu conducted research on how the history of her family, embodied in the experience of four generations of youth including herself, associates with larger historical circumstances. The topic is one which she had always wanted to explore and had not had the chance to do so in more standard history courses she has taken. “Even though I’m a history major, I don’t really learn about my own history in a history class. But through this seminar I was able to connect my training in history to what I wanted to explore.”

The spirit of thinking differently has been instilled in more of the CGT’s initiatives. “Global 20” is designed to be part of a research project of the CGT, which aims to investigate the most pressing issues concerning young people in today’s world. Different from the way research is traditionally done in academia, this project draws on a wide array of platforms to gather information and produce analysis, including both in-class teachings and outside conversations, a recent one being a workshop conducted with Brazilian students in Columbia’s Global Center in Rio.

“We have academics, activists who work with youth, international organizations who sponsor exchange programs between schools, and we have the Global Centers—that is how our question is shaped,” Vishakha Desai, the vice chair of the CGT and one of the leaders of the research project, tells me. Desai emphasizes to me that the active inclusion of different voices from new channels drastically reshapes the research methodology adopted by the CGT. “[We believe that] thinking has to come before acting. So we are not focused on producing solutions, per se, but it’s more about first of all trying to think about a question differently and then recognize that solutions will be better.”

Neitzel’s courses have so far attracted many students. Her seminar this semester has 26 students, and there are 85 students on the waitlist for her course “Global 20: Youth In An Interconnected World” next semester.

Neitzel expresses her hope for expanding the existing undergraduate course offering in global thought, but is careful to note that there is not yet a concrete timeline in place for how the courses are going to evolve. There might be a lecture course offered, more faculty members brought in to teach the undergraduates, and even an academic degree created in global thought, but all those are only ideas that haven’t been acted upon. “Right now we’re still at the research phase,” Neitzel says. “We want to consider other models that we don’t have and proceed in incremental steps.”

During my conversation with Liu, she shares with me her own interpretation of global thought.

“Someone brought up in class that the best way to understand globalization is to actually travel the world and learn how people in other places understand the world differently from us,” she says. “But I think the point of teaching global thought is based upon the assumption that you don’t have to travel the world to participate in globalization. Participating in globalization is about reflecting on our experience, but also living a human life in a place like New York.”

Whether we realize it or not, globalization is taking place in all places at all times. We are as much contributors to that process as products of it. But that also shows how globalization is abstract and elusive—it’s everywhere, but it’s nowhere. We can’t find an object called globalization, or give it a concrete explanation in the way we might define an odd number.

Global thought, a notion that derives its existence from globalization, is similarly intangible, so pervasive in our thought processes yet so hard to capture. Nobody can pin down its essential substance, because at its core the concept is empty, a fact as unhelpful as it is emancipating. Global thought is about thinking differently, exploring unfathomed paths, with the hope that it might unleash our creativity to produce creative solutions that ultimately change the world for the better.

Sangeetha Bharath contributed reporting.

Originally published in The Columbia Spectator.