Decolonizing the Global City

Feb 16, 2021 9:45:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf uncovers the multiple apparent and hidden realities that form a global city and the steps taken to decolonize dominant narratives in education abroad.

Engaging a Paradox

I have been in the final stages of editing CAPA’s 9th Occasional Paper Empires of the Mind? (Post)colonialism and Decolonizing Education Abroad (due to be published March 2) and have consequently been preoccupied with what decolonization means in the context of our work. The global city, at the heart of CAPA’s identity, is a concept with neocolonial resonances. Power, in terms of wealth and/or influence, is concentrated there. The concept expresses a complex field of meaning relevant to understanding our reality. The challenge before us as international educators is to revise our agenda as much as we can, unearth assumptions embedded in the language we use, and seek to develop perspectives that enrich teaching and learning.

The concept of the global city is, at one level, a symptom of the persistence of global inequalities. It also offers students an environment with multiple narratives in contrast and contradiction. It is, thus, a location and an idea.

These thoughts coincided with an excellent piece written by my colleague Cara Pizzorusso (Analyzing and Exploring the Global City, published January 28, 2021). In that essay, Cara analyzes the manner in which a key course exposes student to aspects of the city that disrupt and subvert expectations. In classroom study enforced by site visits in Dublin, for example, students investigate “the creation of invisible spaces and subcultures that are found on the …margins.” Similarly, they “develop an understanding of changing dynamics and identities of communities within Sydney,” and examine Florence as “an ethnically varied population with complex sociocultural dynamics at play.”

These examples illustrate that decolonization of curriculum involves challenging embedded narratives, unearthing other modes of thought, and revealing alternative histories that may be discovered beneath the surface images of great cities.

In a geographical sense, the global city is also an oxymoron. However huge it may be, the urban eventually becomes the suburban, and melds into the rural. No city is literally “global” but there is meaning in the metaphor, relevance in contradiction.

A composite representation of a global city.A composite representation of a global city.

Studying the Global City

This ostensibly simple notion raises, in the context of education abroad, two challenging questions: What is a global city? What is studying?

What is a global city?

It is clearly not the same as a big city. Birmingham is, for example, the second largest city in the UK. Within the urban area it has a population of almost 3 million people. In Italy, Milan is the second largest city with a population of around 1.5 million, similar to that of Dallas, Texas, or Adelaide, Australia. There are many cities in Europe with populations close to 2 million people including Minsk in Belarus, and Kyiv (Kiev) in the Ukraine; in Asia, mega cities include Dhaka (Bangladesh), Jakarta (Indonesia), and a number of massive conurbations in China largely unknown in the west to all but China aficionados.

I am not seeking in any way to denigrate these important places. They may be much loved by inhabitants, important in regional and national economies, but they are not “global” cities. And, I would guess they are not much known to US undergraduates contemplating education abroad.

There are many ways to seek to define a "global city." An influential work, Saskia Sassen’s The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (1991), argued that definitions relate to economic significance, and the identity of the city as a hub for transnational trade. That makes sense and has a place in the discourse of what makes a city “global.”

There are, however, other ways of thinking about global cities that, although they may be less statistically measurable, are of critical importance. Certain cities transcend conventional ideas of national identity. The assertion that, for example, “London is not England,” or “Florence is not Italy,” or “Sydney is not Australia,” contains a coded message that there is elsewhere an “authentic” version of nation. Somewhere or other, there is a “real” England, Italy, and Australia. A logical implication is that these cities are inauthentic and unreal: a demonstrable fallacy built upon romanticized nostalgia for a past that was essentially poetic construct.

Beyond that illusion, there is some truth in the idea that there are cities with characteristics that transcend national identity. They form a contested terrain where myths coexist with realities, where civilizations meet, and bring creative and intellectual energy, and conflict. They are within the geographic nation but are not constrained by those borders; they are, in that sense, global.

CAPA’s notion of the global city draws upon these concepts but has another dimension that relates to education abroad in particular. In some sense or another, students are familiar with these urban spaces before they arrive. Indeed, these locations are part of a constructed consciousness that does not depend on experience or engagement. What is “known” does not depend on reality but on the propagation of selective perspectives, icons of attraction.

Global Cities are invariably magnets for tourists, visitors, and students who are seduced by possibilities for pleasure and enlightenment, experiences distinct from home, art, architecture, history, and the romance of the new. These attractions are represented through, among other means, the language of tourism drawing upon popular stereotypes and iconic signposts. The following are typical:

  • Florence: cradle of the Renaissance, romantic, enchanting, and utterly irresistible, Florence (Firenze) is a place to feast on world-class art and gourmet Tuscan cuisine.

  • Dublin: brings to mind literary giants, Georgian architecture, and Guinness galore. Nights here are alive with pub crawls and spirited music.

  • London: marvel at the city’s many iconic buildings and palaces, immerse yourself in culture at one of the 170 museums and relax amidst the natural beauty of the Royal Parks… Many famous films have used the city as a backdrop, follow in the footsteps of James Bond or Harry Potter.

  • Sydney: the largest city in Australia. Marvel at the iconic Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, catch the ferry to Manly, have a swim at Bondi Beach and stroll through the historic Rocks district.

These selective statements represent some of the characteristics that accumulate around the global city. That is not to suggest that what they say is necessarily wrong or false. Indeed, the power of the representations (we could all find countless other examples) is precisely that they signify things that can be seen, done, and consumed. They are found, for the most part, in the mental luggage that students carry with them.

An image of Florence from the Duomo.An image of Florence from the Duomo.

The decolonization of education abroad is not about denying that version of reality but is about disrupting those expectations to reveal more complex, multi-layered narratives and histories. An objective, therefore, is to disturb the surface and to ensure that students depart with a sense of the complexity of contemporary reality. What they learn is more than the sum of their imaginations.

What is Studying?

The student lounge at the CAPA Florence center.The student lounge at the CAPA Florence center.

In my long-distant youth I knew what studying was. I attended lectures and seminars, went to the library, read books, made notes, and then tried to make sense of what all of that meant. Studying still means that: integrating passive skills of reading and listening with the active skills of speaking and writing. The classroom, library, book (and other sources of information and knowledge) remain critical aspects of education at home and abroad. There is, however, another dimension that is embedded in study abroad. Situational learning, the significance of where we teach, is critical.

A distinguishing factor between domestic and international education is the degree to which location impacts on curriculum. This is not an exclusive to education abroad, of course. US students at home may well have opportunities to engage with their environments in significant and illuminating ways: a sociology course may, for example, extend the field of study beyond the classroom by having students learn about community power structures through participation; a business student may engage in internships and site visits to understand the intersection of local and international dynamics in the world of trade and commerce, and there are, of course, other examples of how academic objectives may be enhanced by experience outside of the classroom.

The major difference is that in education abroad, location impacts directly and inevitably on what students learn. Furthermore, curiosity about place is likely to be part of the motivation for studying abroad. Students can study Renaissance Art in Miami; read about immigration patterns across Europe in Chicago; acquire insight into Black British history in Minneapolis, and so on, but their learning, however powerful, will remain in one way or another theoretical. In education abroad, they will take courses that might explore much of the same material (to enable curriculum integration) but students will also have an opportunity to analyze and explore the implications of their studies in person, to go beyond theory, and to own their knowledge personally. As Cara indicates, that is one of the intentions in co-curricular site research. The value of making connections between the classroom and the world beyond is a crucial factor in dynamic learning processes.

But, that is not, in our view, sufficient. What we call “My Global City” is a dynamic strategy that (in normal times) serves to enrich learning.

Stores in Earl's Court neighborhood in London.

My Global City

“My Global City” is a calendar of selected and optional events defined thematically. An objective is to give students a mechanism by which they can translate theoretical learning into personal insight – as signaled by “my.” They are extracurricular in so far as they are not tied to a particular course, but they align with learning outcomes and objectives that permeate formal curriculum: globalization, urban environments, social dynamics, and diversity.

We are sometimes asked why such a program of events is necessary. There are any number of “What’s On” and “Things to Do” guides. While that is true, however useful those sources may be, they are essentially random lists. In contrast, “My Global City” offers directions along pathways through complex environments which students may follow or from which they may choose to deviate. In this manner, students are empowered to personalize engagement.

On a very practical level they also intend to enable students to make sense of a challenging environment. The global city is a metaphor that signals the complexity of space; these are not easy places. Perhaps the most obvious characteristic is the scale, pace, and modes of movement. Students must learn to navigate the city using public transport systems and, in so doing, they will encounter the movement of thousands of others, coming and going, for work and pleasure. A consequence of scale also means that there are a bewildering number of choices open to them without ostensible order; recognizing opportunities that align with their interests is not a simple matter. “My Global City” is a tool for selective, personalized urban engagement.

The events that make up the calendar may be time specific, guided, self-guided, available at any time, or, indeed, offered in a variety of diverse delivery modes. We aim to create a transaction between formal and informal learning and to make the division between different modes of learning porous. The thematic organization of events is crucial: it offers structure and meaning within the myriad of activities open to students.

There is no need to become diverted by a false dichotomy between serious intention and “fun.” Learning is enlightening and needs to be seen as pleasure rather than pain. For example, students can go to a football match and enjoy themselves – a good thing! We are not opposed to fun. At the same time, however, they can be directed to observe how fans act; their ritualized behaviors; the segregation of supporters; sport as a form of managed conflict; re-enactments of tribalism; class hierarchies in the architecture of stadiums, etc. etc.

This is, of course, a form of experiential learning. This is not, however, the same as learning through experience. Laboratory rats and dogs are quite competent at that. All humans learn from experience: that thing is hot and has burnt my fingers, ouch, I will not touch it again. “My Global City” is, in contrast, structured, intentional, directed, and related to other modes of learning. It is a further mechanism used to reveal that which exists beneath the surface.


In education abroad, teaching students that the places in which they study are multi-dimensional is a decolonizing strategy, as is the deconstruction of stereotypical representations of national identity. In CAPA’s programs, students learn that urban spaces reflect multi-layered conjunctions of people and histories. Silenced or ignored voices are validated and represented. The conclusion is that there is no history but many histories.

At the heart of that process is the collision of expectation with other realities. We tend to think of decolonization in terms of curriculum reform, to reveal what is frequently hidden by the power of dominant narratives. That is not, however, limited to classroom study. CAPA’s optional, extracurricular opportunities are designed precisely to supplement and subvert those things that students “know” before they arrive. Metaphorically, students go from a Twitter/Instagram/postcard view of reality to a long letter perspective: a text that needs to be written and rewritten, because, after all, when we learn to doubt what we thought we knew we are on a path towards enlightenment and wisdom.


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Michael Woolf is Deputy President for Strategic Development of CAPA: The Global Education Network. Mike has had much of his career in an international context. Prior to working in mainstream international education, he completed a PhD in American Studies and taught literature at the universities of Hull, Middlesex, Padova, and Venice. For four years he worked as a researcher-writer for BBC radio. He has held leadership roles in international education for many years and has written widely on international education and cultural studies. Much of his work has focused on areas of strategic development with particular focus on the status and credibility of education abroad within the wider academic community. He serves on a number of boards and was a member of the Board of Directors of The Forum on Education Abroad from 2006 to 2012. He was the recipient of the Peter A. Wollitzer Advocacy Award (2020) from the Forum on Education Abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: International Education