Study Abroad: The Problem with Seeking "Authenticity"

Mar 5, 2014 9:40:12 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

“Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

In this month's column, he addresses the problem of seeking out an "authentic" experience in study abroad, balancing this with a look at the "inauthentic".

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I mentioned before that I was in Europe. It's not the first time that I was in Europe; I was in Europe many years ago with Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway had just written his first novel, and Gertrude Stein and I read it, and we said that is a good novel, but not a great one, and that it needed some work, but it could be a fine book. And we laughed over it. Hemingway punched me in the mouth.

That winter Picasso lived on the Rue d'Barque, and he had just painted a picture of a naked dental hygienist in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Gertrude Stein said it was a good picture, but not a great one, and I said it could be a fine picture. We laughed over it and Hemingway punched me in the mouth.

That winter we went to Spain to see Manolete fight, and he looked to be eighteen, and Gertrude Stein said no, he was nineteen, but that he only looked eighteen, and I said sometimes a boy of eighteen will look nineteen, whereas other times a nineteen year old can easily look eighteen. That's the way it is with a true Spaniard. We laughed over that and Gertrude Stein punched me in the mouth.

- Woody Allen

In education abroad it is customary to urge organisations and participants to engage with the authentic and the real: to seek contact with what Woody might call “a true Spaniard”. This is a problematic notion (as Gertrude Stein’s entirely reasonable response indicates). If we talk of authentic experience, we also need to have some idea of what we mean by inauthentic experience. When we aspire to meet the true Spaniard, we are presumably seeking to avoid the untrue Spaniard. What would he or she look like? Not like the legendary bullfighter Manolete; that’s for sure.

Heridas de guerra
Photo: Matador by Chema Concellón

Woody Allen raises a question about the nature of authenticity that is relevant to our work: If some experiences are authentic what, in contrast is inauthentic? It may be that some of us experience our environments through a glass darkly or through a “tourist gaze”. We may also have a very limited level of comprehension or an inability to process what we see and hear. Experiences may also be unsatisfactory some of the time, or all of the time (that is autobiographical). However, that reflects some combination of stupidity, bad luck, lost opportunity, a failure of education or imagination: not inauthenticity. It is authentically unsatisfactory.

The notion of authenticity really derives from a set of assumption about what constitutes, for example, the “real” Spain or Italy or wherever. Notions of reality are, in this context, usually rooted in idealized images: Jerusalems of the imagination. Lamentations about the loss of the real England, for example, derive from some version of a dreamed landscape shaped by Ealing comedies or films starring Hugh Grant, conservative (and Conservative) delusions about the good old days, and countless fantasies of pastoral community. They are, for the most part, based on romanticized images untouched and untarnished by time. Visions of the real London rarely focus on, for example, the Archway Road. This thoroughfare (off which I live) is a curious mixture of undistinguished asphalt, traffic jams, mildly menacing feral youths lurking at dustbins, and the occasional bewildered international educator.

Archway station
Photo: Archway, London by Ewan Munro

The notion of the real Spain is filtered through imperfect recollections of Hemingway‘s heroic landscapes, populated by noble and silent men, and mysterious dark-haired, temperamental women of outstanding, if menacing, beauty; but are the beaches of Benidorm really less authentic, less real, than the sawdust bars of Pamplona? British tourists drinking lager in the pubs by Levantine Beach look very real. What would an unreal Spain look like? Where is it? In short, notions of authenticity are usually expressions of conservative nostalgia for lost worlds that exist, if at all, in fictions, myths of nation and identity, monologues by Woody Allen, and, of course, tourist offices.

What we are usually sold as “authenticity” is a version of national identity filtered through some combination of stereotype, tradition, iconic images, commerce and myth. In reality the true Spaniard is as likely to be an accountant as a bullfighter and there are, anecdotally, more accountants than bullfighters in Madrid.

This gets more complicated when we think of “Europe” more widely. Ideas of Europe are embedded in American cultural history (which is hardly surprising given the origins of modern America). In that context, Europe has several manifestations. The first of these is historical, as exemplified by American expatriates and writers in Paris in the 1920s. At a particular point in history, Paris offered an environment deemed more hospitable to literary endeavors, and a place in which the value of the US dollar permitted a lifestyle more congenial to creative, but impoverished, spirits.

French Flappers, Parisian Cafe 1920's
Photo: Image of a 1920s in Paris postcard by Vintage Lulu

There is, in contrast, the place where I live. Neither less or more real or unreal, this is part of Europe in which people live and work, argue, vote, die, and go through the myriad of daily annoyances that beset us all (the Northern Line on the London Underground, by way of example, corresponds to what Dante in “The Inferno” characterized as: “the lowest regions and the darkest, and farthest from the heaven which circles all.”). This is the Europe of nations, countries and places where students study, lose their bus passes, drink too much, and get caught in the rain. It is where we all live.

There has always been, however, another version of Europe in the American mind. That is not made up of separate countries but is a collection of values: a synthesis of High Art and History perceived as alternative to America. A myriad of authors including Washington Irving, Henry James and Mark Twain have helped define this space as “Europe”: a profoundly rich artistic and historical location that exists outside of geography. This is more an idea than a location. It is also part of what students seek when they come to Europe and part of what we think of as authentic.

Photo: Crowds on the Northern Line, London by Moon Lee

We could get even more contested notions of identity: if we think of the European Union, for example, or the eastward movement that creates promise of the reunion of Christian and Muslim Europe. The reality is that Europe is not one place but a complex mixture of geography, history, politics, art and philosophy. There is nothing unique about that. The idea of the East offers another manifestation of constructed space: a relative perspective (where the east is depends upon where you are standing) creates a manufactured entity combining place and myth. The continent of Asia is, in an analogous way, simultaneously an identifiable set of countries, and an idea with shifting significance.

The aspiration to find the real Europe has nothing much to do with notions of authenticity: these versions are all real in some sense or another. The pursuit of authenticity is an unlovely combination of futility and delusion. All experience is authentic. What matters is what you do with what happens to you in Benidorm or on the Archway Road, or anywhere else. The meaningful distinction is not between the authentic and inauthentic. The job of international education is not to seek the “true Spaniard” but to create educational purpose from the complexity of this world. Simplistic notions of authenticity will not serve that purpose and might lead, inexorably, to a punch in the mouth from Gertrude Stein.

Thanks Mike!

Topics: International Education