Sunday, December 13, 2009

In defense of studying abroad in Paris

The desire on the part of some educators to include 'roughing it' and 'character building' in curricula is as old as time. Once, an education would not have been complete without cold showers and beatings on the sports field. Today, the travesty is that school does not include farming, or, apparently, living amongst the world's destitute. Nicholas Kristof finds it "appalling how many people go through college and graduate school without ever spending time in a village in the developing world." Fellow French Studies students, take note.

To drive the point home, Kristof includes a jab at students who choose Paris over Rwanda. He writes that studying abroad in Paris "doesn’t count." But count as what? Nobody thinks - despite the state of the Chatelet train station - that France is a developing country. No one goes there to fulfill humanitarian and/or Orientalist urges. The point of going to Paris, in other words, is not to leave the West, but rather to better understand the West. It's thus pointless to compare the dangers of Western European study-abroad - where you'll at most get insulted by some croissant-salespeople and sit on a commuter train under a graffiti message urging the death of those of what happens to be your own ethno-religious heritage - with the sort of trips where one might interview a warlord.

Yes, I studied abroad in Paris. The UChicago program I took was a Western Civilization sequence with a focus on France, but the whole experience was an introduction to aspects of that civilization that staying in the States would not have let me in on. Attitudes towards cheese, shoes, and Jews that had not occurred to me as existing all of a sudden became the everyday norm. Some of it I admired, whereas enough aspects did not impress that I was saved from being one of those people who returns from study abroad pronouncing France as "Frahnce" and draped in more (secular) scarves than even a Chicago winter demands. What I got academically out of those three months is a good part of why I ended up in grad school. It made me curious about a place that both is and is not familiar and ultimately, with those 19th century French Jews, about a community that is and is not like one I know well. It's not saving the world one brothel at a time ala Kristof, but nor did the experience translate into a passive interest in this season's Chanel.

Clearly, not every American student abroad makes much of the experience. While some of the fault lies with the "comfort"-seeking American youth, there are structural reasons for some of the drawbacks. There's the fact that our drinking age is 21, while college juniors are often 20 - students who will behave perfectly normally after a couple drinks at 24 are not yet socialized to handle alcohol, and thus look ridiculous even when drinking in moderation. Then there's the tendency of programs to keep Americans with Americans - we were housed in an American dorm, so even adventurous attempts to mingle beyond the UChicago circle meant chit-chat in English.

But the fact that an experience is enjoyable does not negate the possibility that a student will get something out of it. I've heard critics of study-abroad cite alcohol consumption and shopping as evidence that American students should just stay put. But there's time enough for everything, and it's hard to say that a glass of wine and a glance at the tiny, beautiful, out-of-virtually-any-student's-budget boutiques that line the Marais detract from one's understanding of France. I did more schoolwork in those three months than in any other in college, perhaps because sitting in a café amongst the Parisian haute bourgeoisie with 400 pages of readings was more pleasant than doing the same in the basement of the Reg.

The trips Nicholas Kristof describes having taken as a youth,* and that he asks today's college students to consider, were clearly motivated by a mix of curiosity about the world; humanitarian desire to locate problems and find ways to solve them; and a massive sense of adventure. In other words, there was something in it for him. For him, comfort, it seems, makes an experience less fun. To be clear, I don't doubt that humanitarian trips, if done right, are more, well, humanitarian than trips to Paris, however educational. But I'm not convinced that simply looking up-close at thatched huts is Education, while time spent in Paris by definition is not.

*I'm leaving aside the question of how easy it would be for a woman to have done the same, and whether the chest-beating 'I slept in caves in Algeria' as versus soft and effeminate Paris is not a gendered assessment of what is and is not a valuable use of time.


Matt said...

I'd also add that the type of impression you can get while visiting a culture very different from one's own for a short period of time (perhaps especially while young and inexperience, though I'm less sure on this) is primarily a superficial one. I'd not be surprised if undergrads spending some time in Africa mostly split into two groups, one who thought problems there couldn't be solved, so that there was no reason to try, and those who thought the problems were really easy to solve. Neither impression is likely to be very helpful in making real progress.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I just read Simone de Beauvoir's account of four months spent in the US, a book written well, and when she was neither young nor inexperienced. Nor is the US so radically different from France. And... she got the place (nearly) all wrong, on so many levels, such that the word "superficial" comes to mind. I think just about any visit-and-assess is bound to go this route. College-age naivete and a very different environment can't help, but I do think the issue goes beyond either of those. You can't sum up a place you've lived in for years, but you definitely will sound ridiculous doing so with a place you've barely lived in at all.

Anyway, a college student wishing to solve a problem in Africa would probably need either to figure things out a bit before (or rather than) going, or to use the trip not as an end, but as a beginning for further investigation. But I don't think the mere fact of voluntarily seeing developing-world poverty makes one a humanitarian.

Mark Cohen said...

Well done, Phoebe. And Samuel Johnson has got your back with his take on travel and its putative rewards, "To bring back riches from the East you must bring riches with you."

Clementine said...

SImone also (reportedly) had tons of good sex with Nelson (sorry, Jean-Paul) in the US.
On a totally unrelated topic, studying in Paris does count (you should come and I'm here)