A Brave New (Global) World

To the students at the Salzburg Global Seminar, internationalism is an instinctive notion, as is the belief in positive change

News | Christian Cummins | May 2011

Schloss Leopoldskron, a U.S.-owned 18th-century castle by a lake on the outskirts of Salzburg, a grandiose location, hosted a seminar with a very grandiose name: "Global Citizenship: At Home (and?) in the World." Under its high ceilings of rococo stucco, a select group of U.S. students were discussing ways to make our shared world a "better place."

The lakeside castle, with spectacular views over the Unterberg, Salzburg’s landmark mountain, has been devoted to this sort of worthy discourse since 1947, when a non-profit forerunner of today’s Salzburg Global Seminar was founded by three young and idealistic graduates of the elite Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.. The trio, including Austrian-born Clemens Heller, set up the project to promote the sort of "intellectual debate" that would promote cross-cultural understanding.

As I arrived, a group of students, all from Miami and almost all either first or second generation immigrants to the U.S., were in the conference room discussing the UN millennium goals. Luis, who is doing volunteer work at a hospital as he aims to be doctor, gave a talk on the causes of child mortality in Chad and Nigeria. Another student pointed out that universal education could be achieved for half the money Americans spend annually on ice cream. Pricilla, who is a member of the Model United Nations and aims to be a member of the U.S. Congress, decried the slow development of national disaster- prone Papua New Guinea. A guest from the real UN had visited to deliver a lecture of misconceptions about Islam.

These weren’t the sort of students I have been used to meeting. They were so bright, so fresh, so clean-shaven and well dressed and so very, very earnest. In fact, all the students I spoke to said they wanted to change the world, thought they could change the world and indeed had a responsibility to do their bit to change the world.

Alexandra, a 20-year-old journalism student whose family is from Cuba, told me she had benefitted massively from the 10-day Global seminar and discussions of global citizenry:

"The truth is that before this experience here in Salzburg, I was very close-minded and I didn’t know half the things I learned here. I have a different perspective now about the world. I have a different perspective about my role as a citizen of this world."

The choice of setting for the Global Seminar is not insignificant. Schloss Leopoldkron’s history is blighted with intolerance: It was originally built by a Catholic Prince-Archbishop called Leopold Anton Freiherr von Firmian, infamous for exiling 20,000 Protestants in 1731. Many centuries and owners later, the Schloss was purchased and lovingly restored by Salzburg Festival founder Max Reinhardt, who added a lovely baroque library and a Venetian room. The castle, with its long terrace, was considered such a picturesque setting that it was immortalized on film in The Sound of Music.

At the Anschluss in 1938, the Nazis seized the palace, after Reinhardt had fled both the country and the anti-Semitic madness that had engulfed it. He would never see again the castle which had won his heart, dying in exile in the U.S. in 1943. His widow Helene Thimig regained possession of the property after the war and opened it to the Harvard graduates for what was basically a peace project. As the years passed, its focus changed from healing the wounds of the Second World War to hosting rapprochement during the Cold War, to now tackling the issues of a shrinking and globalized world.

But what is a global citizen? The phrase sounds trite – the sort of thing you’d hear on one of those nauseating CNN adverts.

"A global citizen is basically someone who is aware of what is happening around the world," Alexandra said. "No. 1 is simply knowing, no. 2 is thinking of things you can do from your home to reach out to the rest of the world, and no. 3 is actually doing it."

Vincent from Venezuela said he was sure that most of the group in Salzburg would end up becoming leaders of their generation. "I really want to get to the point where I can do something for my community," he said, "not just my local community but in my national community and the international community. That’s why we’re here."

This sort of positivism can make Europeans uneasy. We tend to prize self-irony and expect a healthy dose of skepticism. Such bluntly stated ambition scares us: It tempts us to think of Graham Greene’s naive anti-hero of The Quiet American, Alden Pyle, with his big books and good intentions and his absorption in The Dilemmas of Democracy and the Responsibilities of the West and his disastrous determination "to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world." Or to think of the Bush Administration making aid to the Ugandan government dependent on promoting the neo-con belief in abstinence as the focus of its fight against HIV.

But it is much easier to be cynical than it is to be fair.  Jochen Fried, the director of education at the Salzburg Global Seminar, admited the term "global citizen" can sound aloof, but for many of the students, it is an almost instinctive notion. Many had grown up outside the U.S. from a variety of cultural backgrounds and moved across borders, and thus they were compelled to assimilate different cultures. Only about half of the students were U.S. citizens. "They can relate to having more than one sense of belonging," he said.

When the project’s co-founder Richard Campbell praised "the favorable living conditions" of the seminar’s location, he could have won prizes for understatement. But despite the plush surroundings and the smart clothes, these were not students from privileged backgrounds; most held down jobs while they studied. They were just ambitious visitors from the land of "Yes We Can" on an all-expenses-paid trip to expand their horizons.

The students, Fried said, are "terribly thirsty and hungry to have meaning and value in their lives." He said the notion of global citizenship, although broad, "fits their ambition of being not just good students but also becoming able to make a difference in the world in which they are living."

My own cynicism finally evaporated over dinner (no alcohol, just apple juice) as I chatted to Yamel, who emigrated from Cuba in 2005. Always short of small talk on these occasions, I asked him if he played baseball. He told me he wished he had time, but he was working as an insurance broker during the day to support his pharmacy studies. And this, just five years after he arrived in Miami, after a difficult voyage with very little English. All of the students around the table enthused about the importance of education, education, education. And they bubbled with self-criticism, vowing to read more. Journalism student Natalie, who described the group as "leaders of the future" said her generation had a "duty" to reach beyond the sort of information fed to them by the traditional media:

"We have to learn more," she insisted. I was impressed: I hadn’t met such love of education or fervor for self-betterment since I lived in Africa. In spite of the bombastic title of that seminar, such positive energy is very hard to disdain.

Much money was being invested in these students – and not just for this week in a Salzburg Schloss. This was the new multi-ethnic generation that could help break the affluent WASPs’ strangle-hold on elite life. A week in an 18th century archbishop’s palace might not give them a very accurate picture of European life, but Jochen Fried suggested it also might protect them from feeling intimidated when they advanced to the next stage of their academic career and met the children of privilege at the Ivy League universities. These things shouldn’t matter, but they do.

The program is also a project in transatlantic understanding. The prominent U.S. neoconservative writer Robert Kagan famously opined that "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus," but that sort of thinking isn’t resonating with a new generation, growing up in an ever more connected world.

And while you might not think that 10 days in Salzburg would teach you much about Europe, the seeds of an even short cultural exchange can bear fruit.  Journalism student Natalie said she and her fellow students had been briefly disoriented but then impressed by the complex recycling system at the airport – apparently recycling is a rarity in Miami – and that an engineering student who had attended the seminar last year had been so infected by European ecological thinking that he has spent the past year bugging his classmates to help him set up climate protection projects.

She also suggested that Europeans might show more interest in the real America, not just the country portrayed on their cinema screens: "We went to Salzburg University, and I asked [a student] what he knew about Americans. He said he’d seen Bowling for Columbine"

Well, it’s clear we all still have a lot left to learn about each other.

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