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Cultivating Engineers' Humanity: Fostering cosmopolitanism in a Technical University

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Cultivating Engineers' Humanity: Fostering cosmopolitanism in a Technical University

Alejandra Bonia, Penny MacDonaldb, Jordi Perisa

aDevelopment, Cooperation and Ethics Study Group, Department of Engineering Projects, Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, Camino de Vera s/n, 46022 Valencia, Spain. email: aboni@dpi.upv.es, jperisb@dpi.upv.es

bDepartment of Applied Linguistics, Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, Camino de Vera s/n, 46022 Valencia, Spain. email: penny@idm.upv.es

Corresponding author at: Development, Cooperation and Ethics Study Group, Department of Engineering Projects, Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, Camino de Vera s/n, 46022 Valencia, Spain. E-mail address: Alejandra Boni Aristizábal aboni@dpi.upv.es

Prefinal version of a paper which was published in 2012 in the International Journal of Educational Development, 32, 179-186.


This paper aims to explore the potential of a curriculum designed to develop Nussbaum’s cosmopolitan abilities through two elective subjects offered to future engineers in a Spanish Technical University. To this end, Nussbaum’s proposition of cosmopolitan abilities is presented in relation to the broader academic literature on cosmopolitanism and higher education. From this perspective, the origin, context and pedagogical rationale of the curriculum is described including the discussion of an exploratory study based on discourse analysis and how it has informed our pedagogical practice. Finally we argue for the importance of electives that develop cosmopolitan values for students of technical programmes in Higher Education and the need to consider the implications of their cessation as a consequence of the Bologna Process.

Key words: Cosmopolitan abilities; capabilities; university; learning and teaching; discourse analysis; engineering.

1. Introduction

In her latest book on the subject of Higher Education, Not for Profit. Why Democracy needs Humanities, Martha Nussbaum alerts us to the fact that humanities studies are being reduced in both primary/secondary and college/university education in virtually every nation of the world. She predicts: if this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than rounded citizens who can think for themselves, criticize traditions, and understand the significance of another person’s suffering and achievements (2010:2).

One of the outcomes of the process of adapting university curricula to the requirements of the European Higher Education Area has been that the humanities content in the curriculum followed by future engineers, at least in Spain, (the country in which the authors of this article teach), is being seriously threatened. As a consequence of the reduction in the length of engineering courses, elective subjects are being discontinued. It was precisely these subjects that provided Departments and faculties with an interest in the humanities, an opportunity to include in the curriculum social, ethical and environmental issues (Boni and Pérez-Foguet, 2008). As Robbins (2007) emphasizes, quoting studies based on the sociology of engineering from the 1970s until now, engineers have come to regard themselves as appropriate leaders of society, possessing abilities which allow them to solve social problems using science and logic as agents of technological development, whilst also showing qualities of being impartial and logical and responsible for ensuring positive technological change. Additionally they perceived themselves as having a greater capacity to make decisions than lay people and to have a professional identity and status which qualifies them to exercise power in organizations. For these reasons training in cosmopolitan abilities as proposed by Nussbaum (1997; 2006; 2010) appears to us to be crucial if we are to prepare professionals who have a commitment to social justice (Walker et al, 2009).

In this paper we wish to explore the potential of a curriculum designed to develop Nussbaum’s cosmopolitan abilities, that is, one which sees education as a means of education for global citizenship. This education proposal can be understood as a formative process whose main goal is to empower people through a teaching and learning process which develops knowledge, skills and values in learners to enable them to become members of a global community of equals (Boni, 2006). This vision of development education reflects what is known as fifth generation development education in which a global perspective is particularly emphasised (Mesa, 2000; Ortega, 2008).

We believe in the relevance and need of this type of education not only for the reasons emphasised above, but also because we see it as an appropriate method to achieve the aim of internationalising the curriculum (Donald, 2007) and a way to stress the importance of ethical competences recognised as one of the graduate attributes proposed by the European Higher Education Area (Boni and Lozano, 2008; Kallionen, 2010).

In the first section of the paper we discuss the notion of Nussbaum´s abilities relating them to different types of cosmopolitanism and the literature on higher education capabilities. In the second part, we describe the origin, context and pedagogical rationale of the two elective subjects ‘Introduction to Development Aid’ and ‘Development Aid Projects’. In the third section, we present the results of an exploratory study conducted between 2005 and 2007 with 80 students who followed the first of those elective courses. Using discourse analysis, the aim was to determine whether, and to what extent, the educational intervention had contributed to the development of Nussbaum’s cosmopolitan abilities. We conclude this section with a discussion on how the results of this study have informed our pedagogical practice.

2. Nussbaum’s Cosmopolitan abilities

Nussbaum addressed the issue of cosmopolitan citizenship in her book entitled For love of country? (1996). In this book, Nussbaum defined the cosmopolitan citizen as one who is engaged with the global community of human beings, and provided four reasons for choosing cosmopolitan citizenship as the basis for civic education: 1) the possibility of learning more about ourselves; 2) the need to solve global problems through international cooperation; 3) the acknowledgement of moral obligations to the rest of the world; 4) to be able to prepare a solid and coherent series of arguments based on the differences that we are prepared to defend. These arguments point to the fact that we need to have clear and coherent discourses to argue for cosmopolitan values which are valid for both the local and the global sphere, whilst avoiding “double discourses” which propose democratic values for the local ambit but not for the global one.

In another article (Nussbaum, 2006), she cites the three abilities required for democratic citizenship: firstly, the capability for critical examination or critical thinking which “requires developing the capability to reason logically, to test what one reads or says for consistency of reasoning, correctness of fact, and accuracy of judgement” (Nussbaum, 2006: 388). Secondly, cosmopolitan ability, focuses on “understanding the differences that make understanding difficult between groups and nations and the shared human needs and interests that make understanding essential, if common problems are to be solved, which includes the related task of understanding differences internal to one’s own nation” (Nussbaum, 2006: 390). And, finally, narrative imagination which “means the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions, wishes and desires that someone so placed might have” (Nussbaum, 2006: 390-391).

In her recent book Not for Profit Why Democracy needs Humanities, (2010:10) Nussbaum argues that: “cultivated capacities for critical thinking and reflection are crucial in keeping democracies alive and wide awake. The ability to think well about a wide range of cultures, groups and nations in the context of the global economy and of the history of many national and group interactions is crucial in order to enable democracies to deal responsibly with the problems we currently face as members of an interdependent world. And the ability to imagine the experience of another – a capacity almost all human beings possess in some form – needs to be greatly enhanced and refined if we are to have any hope of sustaining decent institutions across the many divisions that any modern society contains”.

As other authors have noted (Unterhalter, 2006:23), the sense of cosmopolitanism which emanates from Nussbaum´s words can be understood as a thick cosmopolitanism, where, as opposed to thin cosmopolitanism, family, community or national spaces operate no differently to the global space and where cosmopolitan principles are seen as especially weighty.

It is particularly interesting to stress this point since not all cosmopolitanisms are the same. Pietersee (2006) suggests four types of cosmopolitanism: 1) corporate (present in the discourse of neoliberalism, free enterprise, free trade, etc), 2) political (referring to global governance, global public goods and cosmopolitan democracy), 3) social (related to global solidarity and global civil society) and 4) cultural (connected with the discourse of transnational communication and aesthetics).

In the discourse on the internationalisation of universities, finding elements of corporate and cultural cosmopolitanism is relatively easy. Corporate cosmopolitanism can be found in discourses such as the World Trade Organisation General Agreement on Trade in Services. In this agreement, higher education is conceived as a product, an international service that can be purchased and sold by any international provider (Van Ginkel and Rodrigues, 2007: 48-49). Traces of cultural cosmopolitanism can be envisaged in programmes promoting living and studying abroad. These can be enriching although they convey no element of social transformation (Gunesch, 2004), and often end up as a search for student markets domestically and abroad rather than placing the university’s knowledge at the service of less advantaged others (Stromquist, 2007).

Thick cosmopolitanism as proposed by Nussbaum implies a process of self-transformation; as Beck (2006) and Delanty (2006) suggest, the cosmopolitan view is one which is active and reflective. It differs from banal cosmopolitanism which does not incorporate critical reflectiveness and self-transformation. This kind of process could lead to the acquisition of a cosmopolitan capability based on a global, collective identity and ideals of social justice. This cosmopolitan capability is transformative; it begins in the personal domain and moves on through the local, national and global domains (Delanty, 2006).

This notion of cosmopolitan capability is not alien to the discussion about capability and higher education. In a recent article, Walker et al (2009) highlight the two capabilities of university students in South Africa which contribute to a ¨pro-poor¨ professionalism. Following the methodology proposed by Alkire (2007) Walker et al affirm that the two capabilities that can contribute to the development of a professional committed to social justice are the capability to be a change agent and the capability to affiliate. In section 4.2 we will compare the results of our study with the abilities and qualities highlighted in Walker’s et al (2009) paper with the aim of exploring complementarities and synergic proposals.

3. A cosmopolitan curriculum based on development education

We start by describing the classroom dynamics on an ordinary day during the subject entitled ‘Introduction to Development Cooperation’. The students return to the class after having had a short recess to discuss in their groups what their posture will be in the ensuing debate. They have had a long and heated discussion. For nearly two hours they have argued for and against the motion that Globalization has caused and perpetuated poverty in the world. Following this, each side is called in to give their final exchange of views, and Estela, the arbiter who has been asked to make a preliminary judgment in this simulation game, withdraws from the room to deliberate.

In a week’s time she will give her verdict in a five-page document which is as intense and impassioned as the classroom debate itself, and which will discuss the coherence and the relevance of the different views put forward, finding Globalization guilty, albeit with many and varied nuances.

In the previous class, the students had been assigned their different roles in the debate at random – either for or against the motion, irrespective of their personal views on the matter. In that session, and during the week in which the debate was held, the participants gathered all sorts of information to defend their positions, including expressions of opinion, documentaries, newspaper articles, etc. many of which were supplied by the instructor in order to ensure that they were exposed to a wide diversity of opinions and viewpoints concerning the issue at hand.

The aim is to develop critical reasoning by encouraging the students to argue for or against a motion with which they may not, a priori, agree, so that they come to understand that their previous assumptions and beliefs can in fact be called into question. Moreover, the debate is designed to make them more aware of their attitudes during the discussion process, and encourages them to have more respect for, and interest in, the arguments of those who have different viewpoints from their own.

The general impression is that before the debate the students positioned themselves for or against the motion for underlying generic motives that they themselves were hardly even aware of. Following the debate, it is hoped that they could argue equally in favour of, or against the motion, in such a way that they show their understanding of the complexity of the question and how to deal with it with due respect.

At the same time, the discussion has made them realise that the clothes they wear have travelled much further than they themselves have ever done, and that their mobile phones are made with a mineral called tantalum which is mined in deplorable slave-like conditions in the Congo. Through becoming aware of the working conditions of those employed in the bonded industries or discovering that ‘taxes are not paid thirteen kilometres from Spain’ (TV3, 2006) they are encouraged to reflect on issues related to the responsibilities of state governments, international organisations, the trade union movement, the protection of the environment or the role of development NGOs who work to defend those who have seen their rights violated.

The students were all in the final years of their Computer Engineering degrees. During their university experience they have had a strictly technically-oriented education, with little or no attention being paid to issues concerning politics, development, culture or society. However, as a consequence taking this subject, Globalization is no longer an abstract concept; they have now been made aware that they have a part to play in it. This, in turn, has allowed them to see themselves in a different light. To a certain extent, the subject strives to make them less like self-centred engineers, and more like professionals and citizens immersed in a globalised world.

3.1 Origins and context

The students taking this subject will all be graduating in the next two or three years, and it is assumed that one day they will occupy positions of responsibility in business or in public administration. This idea was what prompted the NGO Ingenieros Sin Fronteras (ISF) (Engineers without Borders) to propose that Development Education be integrated into the technical universities as a way of creating and contributing to human development and promoting long-term structural changes in the higher education system.

In this way the main aim of this new subject was to provide a serious and objective approach to the Global South including an introduction to the interdependence of the problems facing humanity, whilst simultaneously raising awareness of the consequences of our actions and our personal and professional attitudes. From the onset, critical thinking, a cosmopolitan viewpoint and empathy towards what is considered different, were understood to be the leitmotiv of this subject.

The Higher Technical School of Industrial Engineers, encouraged by ISF, created, as a free elective pilot course, a programme entitled Introduction to Development Aid at the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia. Two important innovations can be highlighted. On the one hand, in a predominantly technologically-oriented, academic curriculum a more humanistic and social component was being promoted. On the other hand, through ISF, active members of civil society also became involved in the classes alongside the regular teaching staff.

The following year, a second, related subject was proposed, namely Development Aid Projects which, whilst continuing in the same spirit, extended the curriculum. In subsequent years, and promoted by the Department of Engineering Projects1, these two free elective subjects, came to be offered in several other faculties and Schools, including Agronomy Engineering, Civil Engineering, Computer Science, Telecommunications Engineering, and undergraduates in Business Management, Life Sciences and Fine Arts.

According to available information, in the last ten years, more than 3000 students have attended these subjects at the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, although we should mention that in general, the type of student enrolling in a subject of this nature tends to be more aware than the average student of issues such as poverty, inequality, etc. and have a tendency towards more altruistic behaviour (Boni and Berjano, 2009).

3.2 Principal influences and approaches

As mentioned above, when ISF initially proposed the subject, it was grounded in the development education known as fifth generation development education. Many are its influences. Amongst them, we can point to the critical pedagogies and constructivist ideas of Paulo Freire (1970) and Popular Education, and also to education as a Critical Social Science (Torres, 2001; Grundy, 1991), both of whom were influenced by the ‘New School’ and the ‘Modern School’ in the 19th and 20th centuries. Similarly, global education (Yus, 1997; Hicks, 2003) has an influence on development education in the sense that it adheres to the concept of the interdependence of factors to be taken into account including the local-global dimension, and the dimension of past, present and future. It also expresses an awareness of the connection between inequality, justice, conflict situations, environmental degradation, and citizen participation. Moreover the curriculum as it is offered, echoes both the idea of human development (Sen, 1999; UNDP, 2020) and of a focus on human rights as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Bobbio, 1991; Cortina, 1996).

Contrary to the debate which has taken place within the framework of the capability approach in which the focus on human rights in education is seen to differ from that of capabilities (Robeyns, 2006). We suggest, following Walker (2010) that a transformative focus based on critical pedagogy and popular education and which has an ethical base underpinning the values embedded in the Declaration of Human Rights, is perfectly compatible with a capability perspective in education. As for our situation, thinking in the sense of exercising rights in local, national and global contexts is a characteristic of a transformative, cosmopolitan citizenship coherent with the type of thick cosmopolitanism which Nussbaum supports.
3.3 The teaching-learning process

In accordance with the abovementioned points, the teaching-learning process is oriented towards enhancing a meaningful type of learning, one in which the students are encouraged to apply their own previous knowledge, experiences and insights in order to involve themselves in the topics proposed during the course, such as: theories of development, environmental change, poverty, migration, globalization, development aid systems and strategies, aid projects, NGOs, or the role of technology. In this way, critical reflexion and a questioning of previously held views are encouraged so that students feel free to explore new ways of thinking which can lead them to change their previous attitudes and actions.

The classes are divided into two main parts. First, lectures are complemented with practical sessions during which the teacher introduces activities such as case studies, moral dilemmas, role-play, video-forums, conceptual mapping, project drafts, or small or whole group discussions which are designed to complement and encourage debate about the theoretical content of the subjects. Second, in seminars each group focuses in greater detail on specific issues, which are then presented and discussed with the rest of the class.

In this way, participation becomes a key feature of the teaching-learning process. Lecturing is reduced to only a quarter of the total time available, while the rest is devoted to the adoption of different strategies aimed at promoting reflection, debate and critical argumentation. According to our observations, students greatly appreciate this participatory pedagogy even though this is not commonplace in most engineering education contexts (Cruickshank and Fenner, 2007; Robbins, 2007)

We would like to point out that during this time, teachers from different countries and people working for different NGOs (for instance, a farmer from Chiapas, a student from Mali or a journalist from El Salvador) are actively involved in the classroom talking about their experiences. In this way, students are faced with previously unknown realities, thus fostering their critical skills.

Moreover, we offer the possibility of short-term internships in NGOs in Valencia and the surrounding area. From 1995 to 2008, 189 students have had practical experience in 16 NGOs based in the city of Valencia (Calabuig and Gómez-Torres, 2008). They have contributed in different ways to each organization: teaching basic computer courses, developing short studies for development aid projects or accompanying disabled people. The majority of students consider that the experience was extremely positive because they were able to become acquainted with the different problems encountered in each context, and become aware of their ability to overcome prejudices about people such as gypsies, migrants or former prison inmates (Boni, 2007).

3.4 Student assessment

Continuous assessment is carried out by requiring the students to undertake a short assignment (an essay, exercise, analysis, case study, etc.) after completing each module of the programme, to show that they have understood and have assimilated the topics discussed in class. It also includes assessment of the group coursework which was presented to the rest of the class in the seminars. These assignments may focus on a particular issue which is of interest to the group, or they may centre on the analysis of a specific development cooperation project.

Hence, as opposed to promoting simple rote-learning, the aim is to evaluate the development of abilities and values which are directly related to critical thinking, global citizenship and narrative imagination.

4. Cultivating Humanity? Results of the exploratory study

Between 2005 and 2007, the authors carried out an exploratory study whose objective was to find evidence in the students’ discourse which would indicate there had been a certain development of the cosmopolitan abilities described in Nussbaum during the formative process. We are aware that abilities are not exclusively process-related since they reflect values, question beliefs and ideologies, etc. Moreover, these abilities can obviously be acquired not only within, but also beyond, the confines of the classroom. As a result, we consciously refer to this study as exploratory, and maintain that its main objective is to determine whether the educational intervention had in some way actually contributed to the development of the cosmopolitan abilities in the learners.

To facilitate this, the following questions were presented to the students before starting the course: 1) What does the term ‘development’ mean to you? 2) How do you think your values, beliefs, and attitudes influence your idea of development? 3) And vice versa, how do you think you can have an influence on development issues? The students’ reflections were written down and the same questions were repeated at the end of the course although it was made clear that their answers were not being considered in the final mark in order to avoid influencing the answers given.

Before discussing the results of the study, we feel it is necessary to respond to the following questions: 1) Why were these particular questions asked and not others which were more directly related to Nussbaum’s abilities? and 2) Why did we use the method of discourse analysis to carry out the research?

Concerning the first question, it was assumed that the reflection should focus primarily on the term ¨development¨, and that this would inevitably lead to the establishment of connections to Nussbaum’s capabilities. We understand that if students acquire a greater capacity for critical thinking, this will lead them to question different ideologies and beliefs and also the very notion of what development is or should be. Cosmopolitan ability, that is, the ability to comprehend the differences and the interdependencies between people is highly relevant to the objective of a more contextual and integrated idea of development. In other words, what is understood by the term development in each location is dependent on the local context, but, at the same time, there are interdependencies which mean that in order to resolve global problems, both collective and coordinated action must be taken. The second and third questions in the exploratory study focus on these issues. Lastly, the idea of narrative imagination, or the concept of ‘putting oneself in someone else’s shoes’, will be made evident by looking at how the students make reference in their responses to ‘the other’ i.e. the citizens of countries in the developing world. In our discussion of the research results, we will see how the students’ perceptions of these issues have been transformed throughout the formative process.

In response to the second question raised above, it was through the quantitative and qualitative analysis of the students’ responses in the pre- and post-course questionnaires that we were able to deconstruct the discourse in search of clues which would point in the direction of a tentative development of critical thinking, cosmopolitan ability and narrative imagination. The written task required the students to ‘externalise’ their inner thoughts and concerns, to put on paper their ideas and preconceptions concerning the issues that surround the concept of development in a changing world.

Although the term ‘discourse analysis’ has been described as being highly ambiguous (Stubbs, 1983), it is most often defined as referring to the linguistic analysis of any spoken or written text, including larger units of language -above the sentence and clause- taking into account the social context in which the language occurs. Some researchers in recent years, however, have broadened the discourse analysis agenda since “they see discourse both as a product of society, and also, as a dynamic and changing force that is constantly influencing and reconstructing social practices and values, either positively or negatively” (Bloor and Bloor, 2007:12). In this way, language can be seen to play a fundamental role in society, since the relationship it establishes is dialectical i.e. language is influenced by society just as society is also shaped by language.

The analysis we carry out is a critical analysis, since we propose to investigate discourse practices that reflect social action (Bloor and Bloor, 2007:12) by examining the discourse in the pre-course and post-course questionnaires, with the aim of interpreting and explaining the students’ use of certain linguistic choices in order to uncover what Fairclough (1995) calls ‘member’s resources’ i.e. “what people have in their heads and draw upon when they produce or interpret texts – including their knowledge of language, representations of the natural and social world they inhabit, values, beliefs, assumptions and so on” (Fairclough, 1995:24).

We will carry out a thorough analysis of the questionnaires written by the students attending the subject ‘Introduction to Development Aid’ over a period of two years, namely those covering the academic years 2005-2006 and 2006-2007. There were a total of 80 informants, 37 female students and 43 male students. Their nationalities were Spanish (63), Colombian (8), French (5), German (2), Australian (1) and Polish (1). The questionnaires were hand-written in Spanish2 and then transcribed and an analysis of the students’ discourse was carried out. We used both quantitative and qualitative methods. The initial quantitative analysis was facilitated by using tools from the field of corpus linguistics3 to identify the different aspects of lexis, grammar and the use of the language in the texts. Thus after making frequency word lists and carrying out concordances using the WordSmith4 programme (Scott, 1996a) the next stage involved the study of longer parts of the texts.

4.1 Results of discourse analysis and discussion

The first clear evidence shows that the students wrote much more about the different issues in the post-course questionnaires compared to the pre-course questionnaires, in fact, this amounted to 50% more words in the texts.5 Although there is not necessarily a direct link to be established between the development of critical thinking and the length of the texts written, it does suggest that the students had more to say, were more informed as regards the different topics, and had more confidence to write in this exploratory survey about the different questions dealt with during the course. Moreover, a closer analysis of what was actually written in the texts reveals that the subjects seem to have carried out a critical examination of not only the main issues relating to development and globalization, but also of themselves and their role(s) and responsibilities to society, both globally and locally.

In English we tend to make a grammatical distinction between ‘function’ words (e.g. of, that, the, in, and) and ‘content’ words or grammatical and lexical items (Quirk et al., 1987). The first most frequent ‘content’ words in both the pre- and post- questionnaires are: ‘development’, followed by ‘country’, or ‘countries’, and ‘life’.

Concerning the ‘key words’, or these words that show a statistically relevant difference in their use in the pre-course and post-course questionnaires, the most notable differences involved the words north, sustainable, and human. In the case of the latter, human is used 35 times with the term development in the post-course questionnaires, whereas it only appears twice in the pre-course questionnaires. This contrasts with the more common definition of development given by many of the students in the first question of the pre-course questionnaires relating it to economic development.

In the post-course questionnaires, however, there are notable differences concerning not only the students’ perceptions of ‘development’, but also the complexity, richness and rigour of their arguments which reflect critical thought by not simply centering on ‘economic’ issues, but considering development as dependent on multiple factors: economy, education, employment, housing, trade balance, technology, etc. providing the population with quality of life, and the nation with sustainable growth.

In the same way, the term sustainable appears only 5 times in the pre-course questionnaires, whilst in the post-course text, we have 50 incidences, collocating with such terms as development, welfare, and environment. This points to the fact that there has not only been an increase in the use of these tokens, but also that there has been a qualitative change in the student’s reflections as in the sentence “I am now familiar with the term sustainable development, a way of growing without harming…”

Not only are the students aware that the welfare system is unsustainable, but they also admit that the same is true of their own personal growth, in terms of the consumer society in which they are immersed as expressed in the following text: “I think that living in a consumer society, my personal development is unsustainable”.

We turn to the next point which concerns the issue of an action-oriented approach as a component of cosmopolitan ability for tackling common problems. In general the students were quite negative in the pre-course questionnaires concerning their capacity to change the status quo. In some cases, it all depended on the different governments in power: “Everything is in the hands of the USA and the European Allies”, and they feel they have little influence on development.

Certainly there were few students before the course who showed they had faith in themselves being able to make any changes as the following quote expresses, “I don’t believe I can make a significant influence on world development”.

However, when the course had finished, the participants appear to have acquired a more global, interdependent and cosmopolitan vision of their roles in striving for a fairer society, as well as showing a certain indication of having become empowered, of being made aware of their capabilities, and of knowing they can influence what is happening through individual and collective action: “We have seen quite clearly in this subject that there are many ways of taking action, of helping in the field of development, and it has also helped me to have a much more positive vision of the world”.

We understand that by using certain forms more in the post-course questionnaires, the students are showing their growing personal involvement, at both the personal and collective levels, in the search for solutions to problems in the field of development, and other complex issues concerning human relations in general on a global scale.

Discourse analysts study the use of modality in texts as it often reveals what the writer’s own perspective, attitude or stance is through the use of certain verbs, adjectives, adverbs and so on. Unlike the nouns we analysed above which showed a far greater incidence in the post-course questionnaire, the verbs I suppose, I think, I guess, I believe, were less frequent in the post-course questionnaires. We understand that this shows that before taking the course the students were, as is logical, less confident about what they were writing about, having mostly only a working knowledge of the different issues involved in the field of development.

According to Quirk et al. (1987), modal verbs, such as those indicating permission, obligation and volition involve some kind of intrinsic human control over events (1987:219). In the case of must, two main uses have been established: logical necessity, and obligation or compulsion. We have found in our data that nearly all the different forms of must are used in the texts, although the use of the present tense 3rd person singular must and 1st person plural we must is much greater in the post-course questionnaires, indeed, there are nearly five times as many examples of its use in this case. This expresses what Quirk et al. (1987:225) call obligation or compulsion since there is an implication that the speaker or writer is ‘advocating a certain form of behaviour’ indicating that the actual order of things in the world must be changed, seeing certain actions as imperative, and above all, expressing that he or she is to be found within the confines of that action as indicated by the pronoun we, thus showing a higher grade of personal implication as part of the process of developing cosmopolitan citizenship as for instance: “That is why we should work in many different ways” or “for the world to be “sustainable”, we must: reduce our level of spending in the north”.

In order to acquire a narrative imagination, people have to understand what it is, and what it feels like to be the other. The terms north and south are used significantly more in the post-course questionnaires (pre-course north is used only 4 times, whereas in the post-course questionnaires it is used 45 times), indicating that the students are much more aware after finishing the course of the north-south divide, and the fact that where one is born determines so many factors related to the well-being of an individual, and ultimately, that development is an issue that should concern people as much in the north as it does in the south as stated in one questionnaire: “I can confirm that a person’s social condition and the place where he or she is born will directly affect his or her idea of what development is”.

Pronoun use in some genres has been strongly associated with the creation of social identities and the different social relations which can be established between writers and readers and the broader context being referred to in the texts. These features of reader-writer visibility are used to express attitudes and feelings and create a greater interaction with the reader. As a consequence, they can provide insights into the narrative imagination and empathy of the writer in relation to the other actors who are mentioned in the texts.

In Spanish (the language used by all of the students in this survey, although not necessarily their native tongue), personal pronouns are less frequently used than in English, (especially with verbs) as a sign of grammatical person and number as these aspects tend to be shown more in the form of verbal morphemes (MacDonald, 2005).

Studying the use of personal pronouns in critical discourse analysis enables the analyst to distinguish which groups the writers belong to, and which are distanced from them, which pronouns indicate ‘inclusion’ and which are used (whether intentionally or not) for ‘exclusion’.

It is interesting to note in this case that although the majority clearly identify themselves with the rich and affluent north, they show their criticism of this individual and collective we and show a strong empathy with the other, or those who were born in the poorer parts of the world - the south: “that is why, we, who enjoy a life that anyone would envy, headed by our governments…” or “we are getting richer all the time, and they are getting poorer, this situation, if it continues, will explode…”

Many of the students in their post-course questionnaires comment on how taking the subject has radically changed their attitude, not only as regards development issues, but also concerning a whole myriad of subtler matters concerning their own moral consciences, their values, and the possibilities each one has for bringing about changes – they are now much more positive. They express things like “at the beginning of the course I really felt I had little influence on the topic of development. Now I really believe I can do something, both on a personal and professional level” or “after seeing how my ideas concerning development have changed during this course, (...) I am now sure that if I give my wholehearted support, on an intellectual, scientific and human level I will be helping to have an influence on the issue of development, I hope, in a positive way”. Remarkably, after the end of the course one student writes “the world seems a smaller place and at the same time, your power to influence becomes greater”.

4.2 Important lessons arising from the study

This study, although conducted as an exploratory exercise, has provided useful information and arguments for three objectives: first, to improve pedagogical practice, second, to develop more practical reasons to support humanities studies in a technical context, and third it has helped in the development of other teaching proposals.

Firstly, we have shown that, as we have moved through the teaching and learning of these topics, a reflective and critical process has been generated which has promoted the acquisition of an interdependent and global vision of development. It is a vision of the students’ potential to construct a more just society, and as a result, more case studies have been introduced which demonstrate the impact that individual attitudes and collective strategies can achieve. For example, more attention has been paid to the issue of responsible consumption and fair trade and to successful examples of International campaigns such as calling for a ban on land mines.

Additionally, as the study showed that narrative imagination was the least used, we have increased the amount of time devoted to thinking about and describing experiences which have an intercultural dimension. Thus, more examples of evident intercultural activity have been brought into the classroom – for example, those related to the presence in Valencia of immigrants from different cultures; also, specific material such as moral dilemmas which make the connection between an intercultural dimension and the future professional work of the students have been developed. Similarly, the opportunities to undertake work experience in companies which are engaged with immigrant communities or with children of gipsy families, have been increased.

The second major contribution of the study has been the elaboration of arguments in favour of proposals for humanist currícula in engineering studies; as we have highlighted at the beginning of this paper, the humanities are being seriously threatened under the Bologna process and, consequently, in our University several/many humanities-based subjects have disappeared from the engineering curriculum. Being able to demonstrate that students can develop their cosmopolitan abilities while at university has provided us with more arguments to support the humanities in the world of engineering. If, as our vision shows, the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia has among its goals “to provide its students with an integral education through the creation, development, transfer and critical reflection on science, art and culture, whilst being respectful with ethical principles”6, then cosmopolitan abilities must be considered.

Lastly, the results of the study have been a source of inspiration for the development of other proposals such as a Master´s course for professionals in the field of international cooperation. Taking into account what Walker et al (2009) suggest as the way to define the capabilities that can contribute to the development of a professional committed to social justice and the results of this exploratory study, we have designed, through a participatory process a Master´s course in Development Policies and Processes. We have asked practitioners and academicians as well as former students with a development background, what could the abilities which a professional in the development sector should have. Then, we have added our own considerations obtained from our exploratory study and other research in the field of capability approach (such the two capabilities mentioned by Walker et al, 2009) and in the ambit of critical development aid capacity building (Clarke and Oswald, 2010). Quite divorced from managerial approaches so currently in vogue in the field of international cooperation (Thomas, 2007), this Master´s course in Development Policies and Processes includes content and skills related to both local and global dimensions; critical discourse on development; issues, strategies and skills related to human development and the capability approach, as well as issues related to power and social change (Belda et al, 2011).

5. Conclusions

In this article we have discussed the rationale, pedagogy and outcomes of a humanities curriculum offered to engineering students at the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia (Spain). The curriculum comprises two elective subjects entitled ¨Introduction to Development Aid” and ‘Development Aid Projects’. The source of inspiration for the construction of the curriculum was the three cosmopolitan abilities proposed by Nussbaum (1997; 2006). These three abilities can be understood as those which together constitute thick or emancipating cosmopolitanism which itself reflects activities associated with the internationalisation of universities. Also the three abilities can be seen to form what has been defined as cosmopolitan capability which is derived from a personal, reflective process of self-transformation and which is founded on a collective global identity and on social justice. This cosmopolitan capability is transformative and begins at a personal level before moving through local, national and global dimensions.

Pedagogically, the curriculum is based on development education, meaning education for global citizenship. In this paper we have discussed the relationship between development education and the three cosmopolitan abilities, together with the associated literature on a capability approach. We have also presented and discussed the results of an exploratory study, the purpose of which was to determine whether 80 students who followed the curriculum showed any indication that they had acquired traces of Nussbaum´s three abilities. Having analysed the students’ discourse we can confirm that there are signs that would indicate that the cosmopolitan abilities described by Nussbaum have indeed been developed. Similarly, the study has served first to improve pedagogical practice, second to encourage a continuing engagement with thick cosmopolitanism at the University, and third to motivate further exploration of other methods and strategies to increase the acquisition of cosmopolitan abilities in technical universities.


We wish to thank Clive Carthew for proof-reading this article.


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1 In Spanish Universities a matrix structure predominates. Whilst Schools and Faculties offer courses it is the Departments which supply teachers to these Schools and Faculties. Thus, it is common practice for a Department to provide teachers to various Schools and Faculties.

2 Although the students’ texts were written in Spanish, the extracts have been translated into English. All the original questionnaires are available on request from the authors of this article.

3 Corpus linguistics is the term that is used to define the approach or methodology which studies language use by gathering samples of what is actually said or written (a corpus), using computer technology for its analysis.

4 WordSmith Tools is an integrated suite of programmes for looking at how words behave in texts. (Scott 1999)

5 Pre-course questionnaires: 19.787 words; Post-course questionnaires: 29.591.

6 More information of the mission, vision and the strategic plan of the Universidad Politecnica de Valencia can be retrieved at http://www.upv.es/organizacion/conoce-upv/mision-vision-en.html [assessed 16th June 2011].

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