An Ethical Landscape: Crossing Borders

Mar 17, 2016 5:30:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

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

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The student experience abroad is neither simple nor easily categorized. As practitioners we are, nevertheless, required to simplify: to seek learning outcomes that are amenable to measurement and evaluation. In the contexts in which we work this obligation is entirely reasonable. We need to demonstrate credibility to those who participate in, pay for, and accredit the courses we teach.

Photo: Elementary Italian class homework by CAPA alumna Emily Kearns

However, we are also aware that what students learn may go beyond the explicit academic agenda and may defy classification. The examples of teaching human rights and the historical context of Americans abroad demonstrate the potential for profound explorations that transcend categorization. Students encounter an ethical and historical environment abroad. That we may not be able to quantify learning in those contexts is not an expression of analytical failure. It expresses the fact that the most significant experiences may be beyond classification; it occurs within the mind and consciousness, inaccessible to simplistic counting and quantification.

There are things that we all learn that belong only to the inner self.

Teaching human rights: the moral imperative

In many ways, the subject of human rights would seem to be a topic ideally suited to the several agendas of study abroad. In practice, however, this area of potential investigation receives muted attention. A preoccupation with the specifics of “cultural” and national contexts has created a limited range of vision: metaphorical myopia in which trans-national, global topics are relegated to secondary relevance. As a consequence, intensive microscopic examinations of the veins on the leaf have rendered the forest obscure. The recurrent focus is on matters of “cultural” and national distinctions and, thus, opportunities to study global issues, the context in which nations have developed and function, are lost. The teaching of human rights would offer perspectives on global dynamics and create some insight into the nature of the interdependence of nations.

Human rights also raises the critical question of the degree to which ethical assumptions are uncritically embedded in approaches to the teaching of disciplines that are based around ideals. Peace studies and civil rights might also raise similar questions: in short, are we teaching or preaching? There needs to be a clear distinction between inspiring students to become advocates and activists, and teaching something of the complex political and ethical landscapes in which human rights functions. In the latter case, conversion is not an integral learning objective. These are not, of course, necessarily absolute educational distinctions but matters of emphases. That said, the ethical and political foundations upon which the course is constructed should be explicitly defined so that students and colleagues can make informed judgments about the legitimacy of the approach.


We do, however, need to recognize that all education contains ethical assumptions; it is not value free. It is assumed that knowledge is better than ignorance; that it is better to read books than to burn them; that learning usually confers status. Except in the most totalitarian of environments (where knowledge may be seen as a threat and ignorance a form of social control), the value of wisdom and erudition is embedded in the social construction of hierarchies: professors, teachers, sages, gurus, have an elevated status based upon the fact that they know more than those they teach. Thus, implicit in the idea of education is the concept of the value of knowledge whether that be expressed in terms of individual enrichment, social and political development, or some combination of those.

There are circumstances in which the moral value of what is taught performs an explicit ideological function, most obviously when the subject matter relates to religious or political ideologies. The function of education in those circumstances may be to ensure a level of compliance with prevailing orthodoxies. However, even within the liberal educational tradition in which the ostensible function of education is to question orthodoxies, there are (contested) values embedded in the curriculum.

Education abroad and the historical imperative

In the context of education abroad, these values may be unspoken and unrecognized but they invariably include the notion that engagement with diverse social and political environments enriches learning. By implication, the domestic world does not have a monopoly on truth or wisdom: a view that is essentially inclusive and liberal. A parochial view might, in contrast, perceive the world elsewhere as under-developed, of less value or interest, in need of improvement; this is the classic assumption behind political colonialism and a missionary agenda. Education abroad recognizes the potential for diverse environments to demonstrate that what we believe and know is neither necessarily superior nor inclusive of that which is true or of significance.

Photo from CAPA alumna Lilibeth Resendiz

These distinctions may be demonstrated by constructing an entirely theoretical spectrum along which it is possible to place student intentions in studying abroad. The following are extremities of variables rather than descriptions of what may drive specific student participation. At one extreme end of a theoretical spectrum is what we might call the missionary tendency: the notion that the student has qualities, abilities or insights that are missing in the foreign environment. These may range from a knowledge of the true God to a belief that the student has the capacity to enrich (even transform) the lives of poor, deprived natives (these are parodies of recognizable motivations found, for example, in a perverse form of service learning).

At the other end of this motivational spectrum is the idea that “abroad”, wherever it is, is a richer, more sophisticated environment than that of home. Prioritizing the transformative power of “abroad” implies that artistic, social and political diversity within the USA is of less intrinsic interest and has less educational potential as a learning environment.

Both of these extreme forms of imagined engagement have roots in American political and intellectual history. They are formative assumptions in the construction of the idea of “abroad.”

Manifest Destiny encapsulated a notion of American exceptionalism that has a long tradition within the development of the national myth. The term was coined in 1845 and envisaged a “destiny of growth”. At the root of this version of American identity is a unique combination of intimacy with divinity, and ideals that align with myths of origin. As early as 1630 John Winthrop envisioned a role for the nascent country that combined continuity with biblical sources, and recognition of a unique responsibility: "We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us."  Those dynamics became a recurrent element in national rhetoric.

Image: John Winthrop (public domain)

In January 1961, for example, President-elect John F. Kennedy cited Winthrop’s vision: “Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, State, and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their grave trust and their great responsibilities.”. President Obama also echoed the idea of America’s unique role in his second inaugural address: “What makes us exceptional, what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago.” In this persistent version of the national myth, there is the notion that America has a unique duty to bring enlightenment and enrichment to the world.

In paradoxical contrast, there is a recurrent notion that Europe, in particular, is a richer, socially more complex environment: a dreamed landscape with profound potential to transmit wisdom, social grace and a form of cosmopolitan sophistication. In this context, the American does not bring exceptional abilities but is a youthful innocent anxious to learn of the arcane mysteries of the Old World. That view of Europe is recurrent in American literary history, exemplified by Washington Irving, Henry James, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller and a host of other American writers. Washington Irving defines the European world as space in which social and historical depth contrasts with the relative superficiality and naivety of home. This represents the holy grail sought by some students in studying abroad. It is a kind of secular pilgrimage:

… Europe held forth the charm of storied and poetical association. There were to be seen the masterpieces of art, the refinements of highly-cultivated society, the quaint peculiarities of ancient and local custom. … Europe was rich in the accumulated treasures of age. 

Photo: CAPA Dublin orientation from alumna Sydney Smith

The motivations of American students in studying abroad are unlikely to be explicitly shaped by these theoretical models but they offer paradoxical narratives that, in one way or another, connect with the ways in which the agenda of study abroad has evolved: an opportunity to contribute to the international environment as an idealistic participant and, conversely, as a way in which to become enriched by the sophisticated mysteries to be found in the worlds beyond domestic borders.

Unpacking the baggage

The values inherent in any educational enterprise, at home or abroad, may be unspoken and a matter of embedded assumption. However, making those unspoken values an implicit part of the educational enterprise would serve to enrich potential student learning. In studying abroad, students are part of a tradition of engagement: a context that has shaped their own experiences. We do not spring uniquely formed into the world but carry with us the baggage of our histories and the burdens of our moral universe. Unpacking these concepts reveals where we have come from and makes explicit the moral lenses through which we see the world. Study abroad offers the challenge of exploring new ideas in new environments; it also offers perhaps the greater challenge of introspection: to explore the border between mind and morality.

That agenda belongs to the student abroad. It is a matter for inner consciousness or what is sometimes called the soul. 

Thanks Mike! 

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Topics: International Education