Conversations on Studying Abroad

Education Abroad in Troublesome Times

Apr 3, 2020 9:06:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"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.


In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf reflects on the changes in accessibility and attitudes toward education abroad from the 16th century to the present.

In the Footsteps of Ancient Scholars 

It is just as well to remind ourselves in these troublesome times that there have been significant challenges before and there will be others ahead. There is nothing new under the moon and sun. Mobility in the service of education has a long history and has gone through upset and, sometimes, cataclysmic turbulenceIt might help to see our current challenges in some kind of historical perspective.  Since the 16th century, the circumstances and conditions that have hampered educational mobility have been largely unchanged: transport, wars, diseases and infectionsfinancial resources, and ideas. The forces that have driven mobility, despite these barriers, are also largely the same; desire for knowledge of, and curiosity about, other places and other ideas.  

The biggest problem in pre-modern education abroad was getting thereDuring the 16th and 17th century, getting around Europe was no easy matter. Despite the vicissitudes of plague [1] , war, and the dangers and discomfort of travel, visiting scholars traversed Europe along the great scholastic routes between, for example, Krakow, Cambridge, Bologna, Salamanca, Oxford, Florence, and Padova. Dangers natural, unnatural, human and inhuman beset these intrepid travelers. 

Nevertheless, the Great Dutch Philosopher Erasmus came from Holland to Cambridge to teach. From 1510 to 1514 he did much to bring Renaissance learning to the unwashed and unruly BritsHe also complained about the undrinkable beer and wine and described the locals as people who “combine extreme boorishness with extreme bad faith.”  That may account for his expression in this contemporary portrait: 

Erasmus Portrait

Given his irritation at things foreign, it is ironic that the major European mobility program should have been named after him. Life expectancy in England in those days was about 35 years. The fact that Erasmus lived to be 70 may have been a consequence of his return to Holland. 

There are many many examples of travelling scholars less famous than he. For example, between 1547 and 1550, the English mystic, mathematician, philosopher and adviser to Queen Elizabeth 1st, Dr. John Dee, lectured throughout Europe and his classes on the mystic art of alchemy were a great hit in Prague. Among his many talents was the envious ability to communicate with angels.  A 19th century painting by Henry Gillard Glindoni depicts the master performing some arcane miracle in front of her admiring majesty: 

Dr. John Dee performing in front of Queen Elizabeth

It was not only teachers and scholars (most of them now unknown) who undertook long and arduous journeys to share their wisdom. I’ve mentioned before my favorite, dogged, heroic students from Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, who trudged across Europe to study with Galileo Galilei at the University of Padua between 1592 and 1610. They waded through dirt and danger to sit at the foot of the master, and to drink too much, and to complain about their housing. They arrived just in time to partake of rampant inflation, famine, and widespread social disorder in northern Italy. 

Money and Access 

There was also a time when only the seriously wealthy could indulge themselves in the luxury of some form of education abroad and nobody worried about equality of access. From the mid- seventeenth century, for over 200 years the “Grand Tour” was designed for wealthy Europeans and Americans It was usually for at least a year (commonly two) -- no short-term stuff and no credit-- and was intended primarily to complete a gentleman’s education, though a few exceptional young ladies trod the privileged pathways. These wealthy wanderers encountered the diversity of manners in the great European capitals and admired the artistic splendors of Renaissance Italy and Ancient Greece. Art and artifacts were literally consumed. The founding of some of the great European and American museums originate in works purchased by during the Grand Tour. 

The Grand Tour exposed privileged youth to higher spheres of attainment and was intended to teach refinement and sophistication. Those learning outcomes were not always the sole objective of the participants who also sought other, less lofty, forms of diversion. The poet Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) described the activities of certain young men in a rather skeptical fashion. Their interests, he suggests, may have gone beyond that of the Fine Arts: 

“Led by hand he saunter’d Europe round,

And gather’d every vice on Christian ground.” 

International opportunities for art, romance, and vice were not entirely restricted to the male gender. In the 19th century, the daughters of wealthy families were served by a plethora of “finishing schools, often in the health, respectable, and safe cantons of French SwitzerlandInstitut Villa Pierrefeu in Montreux is the last institution of its kind offering, for example, “Intensive Etiquette Seminars which cover such topics as: “refining your knowledge of cutlery; after dinner coffee variables; and, precedence and conversation at the table as well as small talk. 

A full summer program of six weeks costs an average of thirty thousand dollars. In short, “unaccredited, expensive, and, typically, family run, Swiss finishing schools took the place of men’s university education for many wealthy Western European women with matrimonial ambitions. [2]  

The Grand Tour and finishing schools served only the wealthy elites. Money was certainly a barrier limiting participation, but bigger obstacles brought education abroad to a shuddering halt. 

And Then There Was a War 

“God created war so that Americans would learn geography.” 

This remark, attributed variously to Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce, is unjust to both God and Americans. However, for two generations of Americans in the 20th century, Europe became a battleground rather than an academic opportunity. Involvement in the First World War (1914 – 1918) is, for example, reflected in the work of the novelist Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) who served in a volunteer ambulance unit in the Italian army. Farewell to Arms (1929) is based on his experiences though they permeate much of his other work and that of his compatriots. The long shadow of that war is palpable in, for example, Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934). The intense hedonism of the protagonists takes place against an awareness of European environments marked by death. In the first decades of the twentieth century, European landscapes emerge through lenses of nightmare: 

See that little stream … we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to do it… a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rags. [3]   

The protagonists of Tender is the Night and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) restlessly move across Europe in unfocused ways, driven by alcohol, loneliness and failure but, also, engaged in some implicit search for a sense of meaning and a set of values in a world changed by catastropheIn the 1920s, while the memories of war resound in the consciousness, an ambiguous Europe also offered an alternative to the stifling conventions prevalent in the America of Presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, and symbolized by Prohibition. [4]   

generation of American expatriates pursued freedom to transcend conventional US norms. In the fiction of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, drinking, in the age of Prohibition, becomes a symbolic act of rejection of American parochialism. That idea of Europe as a place of liberation and tolerance, however misleading it may now seem, persists in the representation of Europe in education abroad. 

War constructs and deconstructs nations. A consequence of the First World War was the destruction of two empires (Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman) and the weakening of another (the British). At the start of the war there were three republics; at the end there were thirteenOut of the wreckage of empire emerged: Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, the Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Serbia, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Trans-Jordan.  

Stephen O’Shea argues that 1916 “was the year that finally polished off the certainties of the nineteenth century, that made hope laughable, that sent God reeling in the minds of the ordinary man and woman.” [5] 

The Second World War into the Modern World  

During the Second World War (1939- 1945), international relations were based around the exchange of bombs and the enactments of atrocities. This is darkly exemplified by the Israeli novelist David Grossman:   

“Going abroad wasn’t done much then, definitely not by our sort. Overseas for us, was strictly for extermination purposes.” [6]

The ending of hostilities in 1945 created a number of significant transnational initiatives over the following decades: The United Nations, The Declaration on Human Rights, the European Union and so on. This was a response to the great fractures that tore the world apart and it created the environment from which education abroad in its current form emerged. The ideological shift towards international reconnection was not, however, a smooth one. The Cold War divided the world. The “Red Scare” in the USA of the 1920s re-emerged in the 1950s. McCarthyism was an expression of anti-Communist hysteria which also expressed itself in a distrust of things foreign. Senator Joseph McCarthy led a campaign to expose Communists that, he argued, functioned at every level of American society, in practice a witch hunt fueled by populist rhetoric. 

Senator Joseph McCarthy

Nevertheless, and despite barriers, the momentum moved inexorably towards student mobility across the globe. In 1975 less than 1 million students moved to another country for educational purposes. In 2019, that figure is estimated to be around 6 million.  

A key event in enabling mass student mobility from the USA was the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Prior to that, trans-Atlantic scheduled airfares were controlled at prohibitively expensive rates (in the early 1950s one-way scheduled flight would cost more than $5,000 in today’s terms). Student air travel was made possible through charter flights with more limited timetables. Deregulation removed U.S. federal government control over such areas as fares, routes and market entry of new airlines, introducing a free market in the commercial airline industry and leading to a great increase in the number of flights, a decrease in fares, and an increase in the number of passengers and miles flown. This was a critical alteration which made mass student mobility possible. 

Bill Clinton might stand as the embodiment of some of these developments. He was the first American President who studied rather than fought abroad in the 20th centuryClinton spent 1968 in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He wrote to a friend that: 

Oxford is a lovely place, a triumph of man and nature. And the atmosphere is conducive to reading, studying, and thinking. [7]

Young Bill Clinton

Making the World Personal 

It is personal. That’s what an education does. It makes the world personal. 

 Cormac McCarthy, The Sunset Limited (2006). 

We live in contested times. Our political environment is, again, not sympathetic to cosmopolitan ethics. Parochial ideologies expressed, for example, by rising nationalism represent another threat to international education. It was believed that globalization would reduce the barriers between nations and peoples. The current momentum is in the opposite direction. Growing xenophobia and militant parochialism of governments and sectional interests is manifest in many parts of the world. The treatment of the Central European University (CEU) exemplifies this situation. Founded in 1991 by George Soros, the university is “committed to promoting the values of open society and self-reflective critical thinking… a new model for international education… and a source of support for building open and democratic societies that respect human rights and human dignity.” [8] A sustained attack by the Hungarian Prime Minister, Victor Orbanforced the university to move much of its work to Vienna. [9]

In the ideological environment in which we currently function, our convictions, like those of CEU, represent an ideology that is an anathema to illiberal minds. What we do is not just about academic studies, exploration and analysis of global cities, engagement with the unfamiliar; it is essentially about values. This aligns with what Henry Miller told us in 1957: “One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.” [10]

We have survived and then thrived despite hostile ideologies, the Gulf Wars, terrorism on a global scale, other viruses and diseases that have threatened student mobility. Fear has not defeated us or those students who comprehend the implication of Robert Louis Stevenson’s axiom: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.[11] Students are inexorably drawn back towards the benefits of education abroad. Domestic education can be enhanced by experiences abroad; trans-national interactions enrich learning; knowledge is not constrained by national boundaries; no country has a monopoly on wisdom. That’s why students struggled across Europe from Poland to the far city of Padua over 500 years ago.  

There is one unlikely figure who has, at this difficult point, a lot to say to us despite distance of time and place. Julian of Norwich (circa 1342 – 1416) wrote a fine book called Revelations of Divine Love, the earliest surviving work of a woman writer in English. She is a bit problematic in the context of international education because she went nowhere and learned everythingHer voice is entirely relevant in these troublesome times. She instructs us to look beyond present difficulties. As war and plague afflicted Europe, she wrote from a tiny hermit’s cell in Norwich, England, a space she surely shared with God: 

All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.  


[1] To give some idea of the impact of plague: in the 14th century, the Black Death is estimated to have killed somewhere between 30% and 60% of Europe's population, as many as 25 million people. Between 1665 and 1666, Bubonic Plague killed 60% of all those who came into contact with it. 

[2] Alice Gregory. “Lessons from the Last Swiss Finishing School,” The New Yorker ,  8 October, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/08/lessons-from-the-last-swiss-finishing-school. I thoroughly recommend this to you. 

[3] F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night, 1934. 

[4] The Volstead Act, 1920 – 1933, prohibited manufacture and sale of alcohol. It was, of course, profoundly ineffective. 

[5] EAIE presentation, Prague, September 2013. 

[6] David Grossman.  A Horse Walks into a Bar ,2016.  

[7] https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/stories/articles/2015/4/6/must-read-bill-clintons-1968-letter-home-oxford 

[8] https://www.ceu.edu/about/our-mission 

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/16/ceu-classes-move-to-vienna-orban-hungary-ousts-university 

[10] Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, 1957. 

[11] The Silverado Squatters , 1883. 


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: London, England, International Education