“Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.
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I thought about going home for Christmas until I realized that I did not know where that was. Like many Londoners of my generation (post World War II boomers) we have grown into a transformed space. In another piece, I called this “a city of transient shadows” where we “seek to create illusions of home”.
Two things made me think of home recently. An old friend went home to die in Ireland in the same house in which he was born: a remarkable and exceptional demonstration of the persistence of connection that is probably only found in some isolated parts of rural Europe. The other was a conversation we have been having about community and students in education abroad. Like many of our colleagues in this field, we aspire to connect our students to communities in their host environments. We are very good at creating mechanisms that enable students to connect but we have spent less time thinking about what we expect them to connect with: what are these communities? Where are they?
Photo: A community of crows by Scott Cooper
Thomas Wolfe wrote of his protagonist in You Can’t Go Home Again (1940):
…he never had the sense of home so much as when he felt that he was going there. It was only when he got there that his homelessness began.
If home eludes us, how do we find community?
We construct education abroad programmes with an unproblematic sense of what community means. An embedded assumption is that communities can be identified and located in a relatively unproblematic fashion and that, therefore, what we need to do is the relatively simple task of building a bridge or opening a door. That ignores the elusive complexity of what community really means.
COMMUNITY: WHERE IS IT?
Geography no longer defines community. There was, perhaps, a time when the place in which we lived was our community. An important element of working class nostalgia in Britain is for those lost worlds: spaces in which there was a place called home. Emanuel Litvinoff in Journey through a Small Planet (1972) exemplifies a sense of community loss:
Until I was sixteen I lived in the East London borough of Bethnal Green, in a small street that is now just a name on the map. Almost every house in it has gone and it exists, if at all, only in the pages of this book.
Photo: Bethnal Green rooftops by Terraces, Tenements And...
The British comedian Les Dawson’s nostalgic perception of the Manchester of his childhood in the 1930s precisely reflects the way in which an impoverished past is reconstructed and idealized:
... nobody locked their doors, old citizens never died for want of caring, no child ever lacked supervision. Every street was a commune. Each one had its amateur midwife, undertaker, judge and medical advisor...
In the experience of most of us, this is not what we recognize as our community. If we have a sense of belonging to something, it tends to be independent of geography. Facebook or professional alliances may offer analogous constructs. The major international education conferences demonstrate to me that I have a much greater sense of identity with colleagues across the world than I do with the people who live in my apartment block in north London. This is certainly not new: communities in Catholicism, for example, have always formed across and beyond geographical borders.
The dynamics of globalization have reshaped our cities and fragmented notions of community so that where these exist they may be defined not by place but by shared characteristics of behavior or belief. We can, therefore, belong to communities defined by race, gender, profession, sexual preference, religion or any of the other ways in which we seek identity and security. The comfort of similar others offers some form of compensation for the fragmentation of contemporary experience, and protection from the prevailing ideology of individualism.
Photo: Globalization in London by Stephanie Sadler
Community may be a defensive mechanism for those who feel lonely, threatened by hostility, subject to ridicule or indifference. The history of gay rights might be seen in such a context. The Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969 were key moments in the creation of a community that existed both as a defensive mechanism and as an assertion of a collective identity in which pride became a weapon against discrimination.
A community may, therefore, emerge or be created to counter various modes of fragmentation and to assert a collective identity in a world perceived as hostile or potentially threatening. The Muslim community and Jewish community have, as part of their implicit collectivist agenda, a defensive role. This kind of community may also become the public voice of an under-represented set of people with some form of distinguishing weaknesses. The idea that the deaf or the blind is a community exists to give representative strength to disadvantaged groups of individuals who may have only that particular disadvantage in common. Dustin Hoffman once announced that his father had entered the community of the disabled.
These communities offer a sense of location in environments more readily seen as inhospitable to collectivism. They are not defined by geography and the home they offer is not constructed of bricks and mortar. We all belong to several communities at the same time but we may still be without a place we know as home.
Photo: London houses by Stephanie Sadler
ANOTHER FINE MESS: THE NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTION
Since we were kicked out of Eden, we yearn to belong somewhere but we cannot go home again. What we do is aspire to modes of identity that compensate for this dislocation. That is the source of the plaintive anguish in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969): “Oh, to be a center fielder, a center fielder- and nothing more.”
So, as this year ends I thought I might make a resolution or two. I do this every year with the certain knowledge that it is only really possible to give up those things that are futile or that did not matter in the first place. Thus, my resolutions are, firstly, to stop tinkering with a sequence of poems on the domestic life of Old Lucifer, the Devil herself. The working title, “Meet Mrs Beelzebub”, is just not working.
My second resolution is to abandon the idea of going home.
A Jew without faith can never go home again.
Happy New Year!