Nothing New under the Moon or Sun: The State of Study Abroad

Jan 15, 2016 8:30:00 AM / 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.

- - -

As the new semester begins, those of us who labor in this engrossing field look forward to the influx of new faces and the sense of renewal that comes with inbound boundless enthusiasms that students bring with them. Even those of us in “mature years” (a euphemism for doddery) who have seen it all before see these arrivals with a frisson of pleasure. Our lives are divided not so much by the seasons but by academic timetables. T.S.Eliot wrote in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”. The farmer measures out his life by the seasons. Mine, like many of yours, has had another rhythm marked by the strange momentum of ritualized arrivals and departures. Our lives are shaped by the odd construct of the year that is “academic”.


Of course each passing semester does not only bring joy but also traumas. If the excitements are familiar so are the anxieties, concerns, problems and insecurities. What we hope for, of course, are students who are curious, intelligent, motivated, cooperative, thoughtful, hardworking, pleasant and flexible (somewhere between Mother Theresa, Jesus of Nazareth and Nelson Mandela). And, indeed, many of them have at least some of these fine qualities.

And, indeed, some do not have all of these abundant gifts. The disturbing reality is that students are young (something all of once used to be) and do what young people tend to want to do every now and again. Those are things of which we do not approve. They disappoint us and may do such things as complain, drink too much, allow a certain moral lassitude to creep into their social behavior, treat abroad as a place to be superficially consumed: all things of which we were innocent of in the Edenic days when we were students, when it was always summer, and we were as good as the graces. I too remember those days of scholarly commitment and moral purity. However I was a child of the 1960s and that recollection has perhaps roots in delusion (or what my psychiatric advisor has called, with inappropriate laughter, “false memory syndrome”). However, I prefer to delude myself with the belief that I was never guilty of the plethora of sins (venal and deadly) that some of our students seem to enjoy with enviable vigor. That is certainly what, in any case, I have told my own children.

The idea that we behaved with impeccable goodness is, anyway, the myth we try to perpetuate so as to be “models” of excellence to our students so that they should, at least, stay safe in the host environments they briefly inhabit.


What we think of as modern study abroad is essentially a post-World War II phenomenon but it is not without precedent. In my odd moments of lucidity I recognize that it is comforting to assume that what we are doing has never been done before and that we are creating unique educational experiences. This is bunkum.

There is long and vibrant history of academic mobility within Europe that goes back to the medieval world. By way of illustration, students from Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, travelled to Padova to study with Galileo Galilei (1564 to 1642). On arrival these dedicated searchers for enlightenment complained about their housing. In turn, the faculty at the ancient Italian university were not impressed by the excessive drinking habits of the Polish students and complained at length to the university management that, unlike themselves, these rowdy youths were not all curious, intelligent, motivated, cooperative, thoughtful, hardworking, pleasant and flexible. The Padova teachers complained that these study abroad students had abandoned the principles of the past. They looked back at their dear dead youth as a time of innocent perfection, scholarly commitment and moral purity (like mine and yours). There it was always summer, and they were as good as the graces. 

This is what we may call the Edenic delusion: a mental weakness shared by all educators who believe that it was better then (whenever then was) than it is now (whenever now is). You may conclude that nothing really changes. There is nothing new under the moon and the sun.


However, in the golden past, we might assume that visiting scholars who traversed Europe on the great scholastic routes between for example, Krakow, Cambridge, Bologna and Padova were motivated by the highest of standards and the most spiritual aspirations. The earlier precursors of our impecunious and querulous visiting faculty, the wandering scholars of the medieval world, looked towards nobler horizons (we might think). Consider Desiderius Erasmus, the great Dutch Renaissance scholar, who taught at Cambridge from 1511-13. He helped change the known world and redefined the sensibilities of his age. He also complained significantly about his ‘grinding poverty’, the undrinkable beer and wine, and went on to describe the locals as people who ‘combine extreme boorishness with extreme bad faith’. Perhaps he established more than one historical precedent.

From the mid-seventeenth century for over 200 years there was another study abroad model whereby rich youthful European aristocrats indulged themselves in what we have learned to call the Grand Tour. This was usually for at least a year (commonly two) -- no short-term stuff -- and was intended to complete a gentleman’s education by exposing him to diversity of manners in the great European capitals and, above all, to the artistic splendours of Renaissance Art. Italy was the magnet and its cultural grandeurs were literally consumed. The founding of some of the great European museums originate in aristocratic purchasing and collecting of examples of that grandeur.


The Grand Tour was intended to expose the privileged young to the higher spheres of attainment and to teach refinement and sophistication. Those learning outcomes were, we might assume, not always the sole objective. Certainly, not everybody was convinced. The poet Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) described the impact on these young men in a rather more sceptical fashion:

 “Led by hand he saunter’d Europe round,
And gather’d every vice on Christian ground."

International opportunities for art and vice were not entirely restricted by gender. By the nineteenth century the finishing school for young ladies (frequently located in the healthy cantons of French Switzerland) was a center where rich young women could learn essential social skills (aimed mostly at enabling them to find a suitable husband). At these establishment young ladies could study how to “pick up champagne glasses near the bottom of the stems and offer the pear-and-Roquefort tarts from the left” (“Time”, October 31st 2011). Indeed Time magazine reminds us that one such exclusive establishment, the Institut Villa Pierrefeu, still flourishes and offers important opportunities (as described on the institutional website) to learn of some core and key arts, such as:

“Refining your knowledge of cutlery
After dinner coffee variables
Precedence and conversation at the table as well as small talk
Types and styles of invitations,
Dress codes
Do’s and don’ts in conversation
Do’s and don’ts in giving gifts and flowers”

And, of course, “Protocol, Savoir-Vivre, Business Etiquette, Table Service, Hostessing, Floral Art and Table Decoration.”

These estimable institutions once flourished internationally creating what have been called “petticoateries” serving somewhat specialized functions.


Even then, some students moaned, got drunk, behaved badly, treated “abroad” as a place for superficial exploration and consumption. Even then, their teachers bemoaned a decline of standards: a fall from the graces of a golden past that they had dreamed. Nevertheless, we might suspect that, even then, some students listened in awe to Galileo Galilei, that Desiderius Erasmus bought revolutionary perceptions to a generation of students at Cambridge, that the Grand Tour inculcated sensibilities that have enriched all of our lives, that even in the finishing schools of Switzerland young women glimpsed wider boundaries beyond etiquette.

As this new semester begins, let us not fall into the myth of academic Eden. Study abroad offers opportunities (as it has always done) to perceive the world anew, to reshape perception and, if students sometimes misbehave, well they always have done (as you did too). We do not have the power to look into the souls of our students and their motivations are, rightly, their own business. What we can do at the start of each new semester is renew our commitment to creating at least the possibility of profound enrichment, to building experiences that may enhance sensibilities and create a generation of better citizens who might, in some dreamed landscape, yet make a better world.

Thanks Mike! 

Read More From Dr. Michael Woolf

Topics: International Education