The Intellectual Situation
When everyone seems to want to get to America, braving visa fees, electric fences, and trigger-happy Minutemen, why would Americans ever want to leave? The food is fattening and cheap, the gas even cheaper, and the housing stock deplorably abundant. Not a lot of jobs, sure, but other countries have even fewer. Yet every spring, as the California poppies rise along the highways and the cherry trees blossom, enormous numbers of American students pack up their dorms and hightail it to foreign climes. Students who study abroad hardly comprise a majority, but their numbers are growing rapidly — nearly 300,000 in 2011, more than three times as many as two decades ago — and at elite universities, skyrocketing.
Where are they going? The UK, Italy, France, Spain, China; Oxford, Bologna, the Sorbonne, Barcelona, Beida: these are the places of choice for the wandering American student, and hordes more head for even more countries each year.
Cosmopolitanism has lately become a popular term in academia to describe a desirable mode of being, two-thirds Edward Said, one-half Barack Obama, and only a fifth Bernard Lewis or Rory Stewart. To know one’s own traditions while respecting and learning those of the Other, to extend sympathy in ever-expanding circles — noble ideals. In practice “study abroad” abandons or bungles them. “Vomit abroad” is more like it, and yet it’s become the ruling injunction of college: now that you’ve gotten in, get out and see the world.
One of the reasons to leave is to gain freedom from actually being educated. College is already scandalously untaxing: a four-year daycare program that insulates young people from practical experience before shunting them into the inevitable and dreary professional track (or into debt and unemployment). But this is nothing compared to the ease of going to college abroad. Nobody cares what grades you get, still less whether you go to class. No need to bother with a foreign language, since chances are you’ll study in English. The months pass in a fever dream of joyous irresponsibility. Socially, too, study abroad is an accountability-free paradise. Abroad, the emotional difficulties that come with making and sleeping with friends in the US vanish in an instant: three months from now you’ll never have to see them again, except on Facebook, in blurry NSFW photos from a Tenerife rave.
What study abroad lacks in rigor it makes up for in safety. This is surprising. Henry James, laureate of study abroad, sent one heroine after another into the cauldron of Europe, where each was assured not just spiritual crisis and personal betrayal but usually some kind of horrific death. If spared the Eurasian flu festering in Roman swamps, the Jamesian naïf still always faced the danger of society, that multifarious and labyrinthine thing that James thought America lacked, along with the church, aristocracy, clergy, country gentlemen, palaces, castles, “thatched cottages,” and “ivied ruins.” Poor Americans! Now things are better, since we have a corrupt and decaying society here, too. No college student suffers the moral and spiritual strain of James’s young American heroines — braced though they were against reality by the abundance of goods, services, and friendly faces that met or smothered their every need. But the cliché of the willful American versus entrenched society endures. When things got too pleasant for students in Italy, most favored nation of study abroad, the Italians’ tolerance for generations of Americans pooling their Chianti-stained vomit in the streets of Perugia finally gave out, and they put one of us, Amanda Knox, on trial for murder.
T. E. Lawrence, the prototypical study-abroad student (from England, the original study-abroad nation), fell so in love with Arabia that he donned the attire and imagined himself a sheik; like a more sophisticated John Walker Lindh, Lawrence fought alongside Arab irregulars and helped bring down the Ottoman Empire. Most modern students abroad are less ambitious — and why wouldn’t they be, when “other cultures” have molded themselves in order to accommodate American students? (The University for Foreigners was where Knox was enrolled, at the time of her roommate’s death.) They have softened the flavors of their food, built supermarkets and shopping malls indistinguishable from our own, and above all, learned English. Even if the student is not on a program organized by her own university, surrounded by the chattering voices of her freshman dorm, the accents she hears are still familiar ones: American, Australian, British. No figure is more common than the American who studies in a foreign country and returns not having learned ten words of its language.