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Why Europe Still Matters in Study Abroad

The following is by Michael Woolf, deputy president for strategic development at CAPA International Education, a study-abroad provider.
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In a previous post, I raised a skeptical eyebrow at what I take to be a faddish enthusiasm for “nontraditional” locations in study abroad, usually meaning trips to developing countries. As the cliché goes, a lively discussion ensued.

Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy

In outbursts of rhetorical outrage and alliterative spittle, some commentators missed a crucial part of the argument—that the core of the academic agenda of American higher education is still heavily related to the Western intellectual tradition, not to African or Asian sources, however interesting and valid they may be.

It follows that, whether we approve or not, study abroad should align predominantly with those locations that are most relevant to the curriculum of American institutions. “Curriculum integration” has become a key concept in recent years in study-abroad offices and, however it is interpreted, it signals an intention to relate what is studied overseas to the academic priorities of home institutions. Given that aspiration, the great cities of Western Europe offer locations clearly and directly relevant to what is studied in colleges in the United States.

There are three problems in promoting nontraditional over traditional locations; that is, broadly, non-European over European, the developing world over the developed one.

The first is that it ignores the intimacy between the intellectual agendas of American institutions and Western European thought.

The second is that it defines significance through location rather than content; where you study, it suggests, is more important than what you study. In prioritizing place, a quasi-tourist emphasis undermines the serious, academic purposes of study abroad.

The third problem, and the most significant, is that the promotion of nontraditional study abroad is based upon a misunderstanding of Europe and fails to recognize the degree to which globalization has transformed the continent, making it a profoundly rich learning laboratory in which to explore the co-existence and, sometimes conflict, of the old and the modern.

Europe isn’t just a place; it is a complex idea. The physical borders have been fluid throughout history so that even geography does not offer anything like a static model. In political terms, Europe is marked by a series of definitions and redefinitions. After World War II, for example, an institution was constructed, the European Union, to end the cataclysmic conflicts of the first half of the 20th century by creating alliances between traditional enemies. The citation for the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to the European Union in 2012, recognizes a transformation from “a continent of wars to a continent of peace.”

After the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the center of Europe moved eastward. Should Turkey be admitted to the European Union, there will be another redefinition: a reaffirmation of the historical co-existence of Muslim and Christian Europe. Defining Europe is to grapple with the changing face of history.

The great cities of Europe have offered, and still offer, the potential to reconnect with the artistic and literary traditions that have attracted generations of Americans across the Atlantic. Ideas of Europe are embedded in American cultural history (which is hardly surprising given the origins of modern America) and continue to act as a magnet for the curious student and avid explorer.  They are also locations in which history and modernity are juxtaposed in challenging and unexpected ways.

By way of illustration, let us consider Florence, a highly popular destination for American students but one that is likely dismissed by enthusiasts for the nontraditional. It attracts an estimated 45 percent of all American students studying in Italy. Study-abroad students will experience the dynamics of contemporary Italy (Florence has, for example, a population of  more than 4,000 Chinese immigrants, about 13 percent of the foreign population of the city); they will observe the political tensions that permeate the nation; they will be confronted by challenges of urbanization in ancient city streets.

They also enter the Renaissance. There is no other location in the world in which a revolution in artistic sensibility so dramatically infuses the environment. Florence is a multilayered space in which the dynamics of globalization co-exist with evidence of artistic achievements that changed the world.

In London also, students directly encounter manifestations of globalization. Something like 300 languages are spoken by residents of the city; more than 30 percent of the population was born outside of Britain. The impact of urbanization can be observed in any number of other ways. In many cities in Europe, the development of suburbia, for example, creates spaces that are, in some contexts, pleasant alternatives to the frenetic disorder of city centers and, in others, dumping grounds for the dispossessed.

To be sure, the majority of American students who study abroad go to Europe. And there are of course programs in which participants visit Europe but are not challenged to examine seriously the realities of their locations. (There are also programs in nontraditional locations that superficially sustain stereotypes.)

Ultimately, the “tourist gaze” is not created by where the student studies but by the degree to which the educational agenda disrupts preconceptions. The imperative is to create programs that challenge the idea that Europe is somehow a static location that is less worthy of investigation. The argument that study abroad in a nontraditional location is somehow more rewarding reflects a failure of imagination.

However we define the complex space that is Europe, it is clear that educational engagement in that continent can deepen an understanding of the world; it offers an environment rich in potential meaning. In the cities of Europe, students from the United States may learn something about the dynamics that have constructed their reality. They will confront paradoxes and startling conjunctions. These are not comfortable places to study but multilayered environments that disrupt expectations and, in that process, offer profound learning opportunities.

What Charles Dickens observed about London in Little Dorrit persists: a complex space that challenges and enriches the curious explorer:

“A place of past and present, mystery, romance, abundance, want, beauty, ugliness, fair country gardens, and foul street gutters, all confused together.”

[Creative Commons Wikimedia image by Oyvind]

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