The propaganda war in study abroad has lasted decades.  I suppose the term “war” can be disputed.   On the one hand, we have occasional but very prominent attacks on study abroad programs accusing them of helping irresponsible youth masquerade as students.  On the other hand,  organisations that lobby for  study abroad programs assure us that studying abroad changes lives, adds longevity and improves brain functions.  It’s as if one side does nothing but  stamp and shout while the other skips merrily in the sun. But after observing them for a few years I have decided they are actually hurling thunderbolts at each other and that I feel uncomfortable with both positions.

I am tired of having American students abroad  condemned  as lazy  in the way that young people are criminalized because a minority commit crimes.  I am equally tired of reading articles and blogs by writers quivering with joy because yet another US official has confirmed that studying abroad is a good thing as if this somehow detracts from legitimate questions about the quality in some programs.  It’s like a tennis match where the players are hitting balls not across the net towards each other but at the spectators.

Denunciations of study abroad abound. Dr Richard Vedder at Ohio University was particularly bad tempered in a recent Bloomberg op-ed in which he characterises students abroad as “goof offs” and affirms that study abroad programs (all of them) are no more than “cash cows” with little academic or cultural content.  His scathing remarks embrace both long and short programs. Even his praise for programs with a strong cultural basis (languages) is lukewarm. He writes “where foreign study is a serious exercise in cultural and language immersion, the study abroad experience has some justification.”  Some justification?!  And therein lies the core of the objection of many anti study abroadistas.  They seem to believe that young people must deserve a study abroad experience.

Vedder notes in his article that he and his wife used to conduct study tours to Europe.  As a distinguished professor no doubt these tours were very informative, but by definition they will not have provided the cultural immersion, which he asserts justifies  studying abroad.  Study tours consist of a leader taking others around presenting the country from their own perspective. Cultural exposure yes, immersion no. You might say Dr Vedder had been a study tour guide and his group  – study tourists.  Nothing wrong with study tourism but that is not the mission of study abroad professionals.

On the other side of the spectrum are the study abroad cheerleaders.  They are always searching out feel good stories that comfort rather than challenge.  And when they do try a survey the outcome is assured by the questions.  A sample question in one such survey reads:    “In order to thrive in the global workplace, more students need the opportunity to participate in a study abroad program while in college—where they can spend time living and studying in another culture. ”  Despite appearances, unsubtle, spoonfed questions like this one are not the problem.   The answers to this question were:  36% strongly agreed, 21% not so strongly agreed,  17% not so strongly disagreed, 21% strongly disagreed and 5% said they did not know.  Now here is the problem, the ‘analyst’ concludes in bold letters  “a strong majority of Americans (57%) recognize that study abroad is a vital component of an education that prepares them for success in the global workplace.”  I don’t care what norms exist in polling,  57% is not a “strong majority” especially from a sample of 1000 souls out of the entire adult American population.   Pew polls are far more restrained in their descriptions of percentages. In one of their polls the same percentage of  57% is “a majority”, 52% is “median.” Or they simply state the figure and let the reader decide. But it is typical of the study abroad cheerleaders to ignore the other 43% who did not agree or did not know the answer to such a leading question.  What matters is anything that appears to vindicate the simple view that study abroad ipso facto breeds cultural understanding.

In wars people are fighting over something. What  are the  study abroad cheerleaders and the study abroad detractors fighting over? Numbers and reputation.  Promoters of study abroad have been almost solely concerned with increasing numbers of Americans going abroad. According to IIE only 14% of Americans earning a bachelor’s degree studied abroad in 2009-10. The same report notes that just 1% of all higher education students study abroad in an academic year.

Equally, the level of ignorance of the world in the US is such that many in the study abroad field (especially if they live in the US) believe any overseas exposure is better than none. In addition, their aggressive optimism is often a defense mechanism against other  Americans ready to pounce on foreign languages and experiences as unnecessary. But this constant promotion of study abroad numbers at the expense of promoting better quality (in public anyway)  can be very stifling for professionals and their programs.

The opposition on the other hand, appears to want to limit study abroad numbers to the most serious students.  And like the study abroad people they too are concerned about reputation but in a different way. They would like students abroad to present  the (false) impression that the US is a country of intellectuals.  Why?  The answer is almost always personal embarrassment.  A seasoned older traveller does not want to hear his younger compatriots laughing loudly in a pub confirming the image of the loud and brash American.

Although I feel distant from both extremes I must say that many detractors of study abroad criticize students out of downright ignorance about cultural learning outside of the classroom.  International educators abroad have certainly recognized that students need more guidance to appreciate and learn about other cultures. Many are trying very hard to recruit more faculty and to help their students meet locals —  and let us neither demean nor underestimate the difficulty of that task.  But they also know that many valuable cultural lessons happen outside the classroom. Students recognize this as well and they treasure the personal experiences abroad that do not happen in a group.  It is for this kind of learning that students are willing to forgo some of the consistency in excellent teaching at home in order to study overseas.

When I was a student in Turkey some of the members of the college  choir invited me to a restaurant.  We were the only younger people there. I did not speak very much Turkish at the time and for most of the evening I was an observer of other people’s conversations.   Then suddenly my fellow  students began to sing. Not a modern, pop tune but an old Turkish folk song.  After a verse or two a large party of  older people at another table  took up the song and for an hour the two generations sang to and with and at each other.  It was a spectacular evening and I learned something that was confirmed during the rest of my year in Turkey. Turkish people of all ages and ethnic origins could all sing these old folk songs and often did in public places.  I could not imagine middle aged and younger  Americans in a major city sitting in a restaurant all knowing the words to so many old songs.  In that restaurant  I learned that if I really wanted to immerse myself in Turkish culture I had to learn to sing some songs — and I did.  And this restaurant experience at the beginning gave me the drive to excel in my classes.

So rather than lurching between empty praise and unfair criticism, can we all just dedicate ourselves to quality of experience and cultural immersion? And let’s get the numbers up.   Let’s declare peace in the study abroad propaganda wars.

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2 thoughts on “Let’s End the Study Abroad Propaganda Wars

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