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.
James was prescient about this. Americans never really stop being American, no matter how long they’re away. No American ever becomes an immigrant; she remains an expat. This is because Americans fundamentally have no desire to cease being American, in the way immigrants seek, in some capacity, to lose themselves. And because travel is a promise of life-changing experience that is forever renewed and betrayed, returning to America always feels like a tragedy; you persist, clod-like, unchanged. If anything, you come back more American, or more conscious of it, which is maybe the same. “It is,” James wrote, “I think, an indisputable fact that Americans are, as Americans, the most self-conscious people in the world, and the most addicted to the belief that the other nations of the earth are in a conspiracy to undervalue them.”
What you get instead of the experience you crave is a false cosmopolitanism. A peculiarly sheltering attitude that is really a variety of Americanism, it carries with it the confidence of knowing the world from having briefly glimpsed life in one or two small corners of it. Even scholarly programs fall prey to this attitude, and their professed cosmopolitan values end up aligning with American interests abroad. The Fulbright program has sent tens of thousands of Americans abroad on government fellowships and also brought scholars to the US. Started by a liberal Republican senator at the onset of the cold war, it was intended (Fulbright claimed), “to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs.” Fulbrights would show the countries that hosted them that America’s intentions in the world were curious and benign. In the subsequent decades, as scholar exchanges proliferated, the US invaded Korea, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Grenada, Afghanistan, and Iraq, a couple of times, while subverting or overthrowing governments in two dozen other countries, making these places safer, if not for their natives, at least for more Fulbrights. In much the same spirit, many universities, no longer content to invade the poor urban neighborhoods around them, are themselves building campuses in places like Abu Dhabi, Singapore, and Beijing, where things like democracy don’t exist as obstacles to endless expansion.
If the mass of Americans don’t travel, America’s foreign policy thinkers and commentators on international affairs travel too much. We have an elite with a “study abroad” worldview. Just look at press reports about nations embroiled in the eurozone crisis, in which wise commentators rely on their particular knowledge of some country’s “national character” to explain its profligacy and need for fiscal discipline. Tim Parks, veteran translator and commentator on Italian affairs, originally from Britain, set the tone in the New York Review of Books by deploring the Italian “mentality” that led the nation to provide its labor force with generous salaries and provisions, and to depend on local, rather than global, allegiances. Parks applauded the rise of the unelected technocrat Mario Monti—who promised to destroy labor unions and cut old age pensions—since, under Monti, we might learn what it would mean “for a country to change profoundly.”
Meanwhile, Adam Gopnik took a break from his kids to weigh in on France in the New Yorker, praising the mild-mannered then-candidate François Hollande and indulging in a quick appraisal of the “flashiness and bling” of Nicolas Sarkozy, which purportedly “left the French unmoved.” Holding forth as a France-watcher leads Gopnik to a high-handed denunciation of the anti-European bias of much of the French left. It is “as though the EU had been the product of some Brussels bureaucrat’s utopian folly, rather than a miracle of coexistence wrought by a handful of quiet visionaries after more than fifty years of catastrophe,” Gopnik writes. “Social democracy in Europe,” he continues, is “embodied by its union.”
What Gopnik seems to miss is that the source of left-wing anger is not the European Union, but its monetary union, which is now imposing financial disaster and thwarting democracy throughout its member countries. Social democracy comes not from some abstract Europe but from individual countries, which offer it up in vastly different forms. Supposedly dreaming of Europe but really besotted with France, Gopnik won’t look into what “Europe” is currently being used to justify and do. He thereby confuses the dismantling of the welfare state with a socialist Europe that does not yet exist.
And thus two Anglo-American pundits, who appreciate a Europe where you can travel easily from one place to the next, end up supporting—perhaps in spite of themselves—a ruinous, anti-democratic consensus that some Europeans will simply have to tighten their belts. It turns out knowing a country intimately can leave you eager, but fundamentally unprepared, to speak about the world, which involves thinking about the intertwining of many countries—something a cosmopolitanism worth its name would consider. Countries are only keys to other countries, languages to other languages, people to other people. “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere,” James wrote. You don’t have to leave to know that.