Cosmopolitanism and Teaching Texts through the Lens of Human Rights: A Framework for Inspiring Global Citizenship - National Council of Teachers of English
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Cosmopolitanism and Teaching Texts through the Lens of Human Rights: A Framework for Inspiring Global Citizenship

From NCTE’s Standing Committee on Global Citizenship

This post was written by NCTE member Jess Terbrueggen, who is also a member of the Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.

“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a kosmopolitēs [citizen of the world].”—Diogenes

As committee members, we have contemplated what it means to be a citizen of the world and how to inspire such a simple yet complex idea in our students. Though Diogenes uttered these words some two thousand years ago, the concept of cosmopolitanism and identifying as a citizen of the world remains an influential—and at times, controversial—concept today. Cosmopolitanism has been interpreted, explicated, reimagined, and even derided; Socrates and Plato were said to have been unimpressed with Diogenes’s declaration. Whether criticized or lauded, Diogenes’s concept of world citizenship has stood the test of time, being revisited and redefined by various thinkers over the centuries. Prominent figures such as Chrysippus, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, and Martha Nussbaum have all promoted cosmopolitanism in various forms.

Underpinning the idea of cosmopolitanism is the belief that we all share the same fundamental human rights regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, geographic border, or socioeconomic status. While the complexities of cosmopolitanism may seem daunting to navigate in some classroom settings, the idea of basic human rights is straightforward and easily understood by students of all ages, from kindergarten through university.

To that end, the study of literature provides a natural setting for the exploration of these shared universal human experiences and, thus, our collective human rights (and responsibilities). Literature compels readers to examine certain unfamiliar ethical and cultural experiences beyond one’s own identity. It is at this intersection of thought where a reader may encounter new ways of thinking and being. By confronting our own identities and juxtaposing them with that of another, we begin to negotiate the convergent and divergent ways in which humanity exists, underscoring our shared universal experiences. Theories put forth by Martha Nussbaum (2009) support the idea that as we explore literature, the text addresses the reader as a friend and fellow agent; though in a different sphere of life, the authorial voice turns the reader’s sympathetic wonder back on him or herself to consider our fellow human beings with the wonder and generosity that this type of imagination promotes.

As educators, one strategy we can use to inspire global citizenship in our students is exploring texts through the lens of human rights. By teaching literature about, through, and for human rights, even the youngest of students can grasp the concept of global citizenship. By examining our shared human experiences, rights, and responsibilities, we reinforce what it means to be a citizen of the world.

There are many resources available to educators who are interested in integrating human rights into their curriculum. Online resources such as Voice of Witness Oral History Book Series, Facing History and Ourselves ELA Teaching Resources, Amnesty International’s Teaching Human Rights with Fiction, University of Connecticut: Teaching Human Rights Through Literature, Human Rights Educators USA’s Using Fiction to Teach Human Rights, and Human Rights Educators USA’s Curriculum Integration Guide are just a few of the resources out there. Resources such as these offer a wide range of lessons and guides intended to support educators at all levels of their career, working with all age groups, to incorporate the principles of human rights into language arts curriculum.

While most texts have some element that could be read through the lens of human rights, there are texts which are particularly well suited to discuss topics related to human rights. A few useful lists can be located on the following sites: The Institute for Humane Education’s 12 Children’s Picture Books about Human Rights Issues, Global Campaign for Peace Education’s 40+ Children’s Books about Human Rights, Amnesty International’s Human Rights Reads for Kids and Young Adults, and Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center’s Book List: Human Rights for Young Readers.

Seeking common ground is a way to help our students—and ourselves—gain a sense of equilibrium in a world that can often feel uncertain and unstable. Helping to guide our students toward a more equitable view of humanity will not only enhance the lives of our students but also the lives of their peers and future generations. By reinforcing the basic principles of human rights through the exploration of literature, we can foster a generation of kosmopolitēs.

Nussbaum, Martha. 2009. “Ralph Cohen and the Dialogue between Philosophy and Literature.” New Literary History 40, no. 4 (Autumn): 757–765.

Jess Terbrueggen is an international educator, human rights practitioner, and literary arts advocate. She holds an MA in English Education from Columbia University and works at the District of Columbia International School. Jess serves on the Steering Committee as the Washington, DC Regional Representative for Human Rights Educators USA, is a member of the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship, and is a mentor for fellows in the Resolution Project.

The Standing Committee on Global Citizenship works to identify and address issues of broad concern to NCTE members interested in promoting global citizenship and connections across global contexts within the Council and within members’ teaching contexts.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.