On the Attractions of Studying Abroad in Europe

Jan 15, 2019 2:41:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

What is Europe?

Europe is not just geographical space. Defining Europe by geography is complex, contested, and controversial. Russia and Turkey are within and without. The British use the term the “Continent” to mean everywhere in Europe except Britain. We should also recall the headline that may or may not have appeared in The Times when Britain was enjoying Imperial pomp (and when “Great Britain” was not irony): “Fog over the Channel. Europe cut off.”

Europe is a constructed space. It resonates with the ways in which the East has been imagined through diverse lenses, sometimes as the Orient, an amalgam of invented identities. Europe, Asia, and Africa are invested with meanings beyond geography: complex sometimes paradoxical environments. East and West are not just directions; they are ideas.

Thus, a key question is what is Europe or, more appropriately, what Europe are we talking about? Political, educational, ethical, and mythical perspectives raise quite distinct issues. Europe is, of course, a collection of very distinctive countries and regions as well as a construct in the American imagination.

Europe as a Political and Educational Space

Much in the news and for now, Europe might be defined by the transnational alliance of the European Union which is based around political, economic, and ethical cohesion, however fragile that cohesion might be. Nevertheless, Europe as a union of nations offers one way of speaking about this space. For now, there are 28 members of the EU, including the Disunited Queendom. The European Economic Area is a little larger as it includes 3 out of 4 of the European Free Trade Association countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway, but not Switzerland).

Another and wider version of Europe, based around higher education, was created through the Bologna process which evolved into the European Higher Education Area: one of the largest voluntary inter-government agreements in history. This government-driven, top down initiative aimed to bring some level of comparability between educational systems. One objective was to enhance student mobility. The other implicit but critical agenda was aimed at building a European consciousness among the young.

Political Europe is defined by 28 countries, political and trading Europe by 31 countries, educational Europe is an association of 49 countries including many not in the EU, including, for example, Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, Turkey, and the Ukraine. The artificiality of definitions is further demonstrated by the fact that within the EU there is one Belgium; in the Bologna process there are two Belgiums: one representing French Belgium, the other Flemish Belgium.

Political and educational Europe are clearly not the same.

Europe of Values

Dublin Tourism Industry

Europe has also been positioned as a repository for ethical standards, a moral space. Historically, Europe assumed the role of defender of the Christian faith against incursions of the “infidels”. For almost 200 years, from 1096 to 1291, European forces engaged in conflicts with Islam; the Crusades represented a fight for “civilization.” Fractures within European Christianity in the Reformation in 16th century did not fundamentally alter the association of Europe with Christian values, even if those values were no longer a matter of consensus.

By the 18th century, Enlightenment belief in science, reason, and progress altered European identity but maintained the sense that European values represented the forefront of intellect, art, science, philosophy, and progress. To a large degree, the Enlightenment was made in Edinburgh.

Secular versions of European values emerged in extreme forms in the 20th century. The Nazis located those values in the purity and superiority of the Aryan race. This also narrowed the geographical focus to exclude much of Eastern Europe which became associated with “degenerate” populations. In the Cold War, the moral center of Europe was redefined and bifurcated according to political ideology. Western Europe represented one version of democratic ideals whereas the East stood for principles of collectivism.

The idea that Europe can be defined religiously or racially is no longer credible but what persists across all these historical alterations is the notion of Europe as a bastion of values. In our times, these are reflected in the Charter of Fundamental Rights ratified in the Lisbon Treaty (2009) with ideals rooted in the principles of western democracy. Respect for human dignity, freedom, equality, and justice are crucial elements in the Charter.

Although the values associated with Europe have altered radically, what is consistent is the sense that Europe is more than political or geographical space; it represents a set of ethical principles. No other continent assumes moral codes as a defining part of its identity.

However, the making of identity is not only, or predominantly perhaps, a matter of self-invention. We are all made in images constructed by others. Like the Orient and Africa, Europe has been imagined and re-imagined. We are who we think we are and we are what others believe us to be. Nations, regions, and continents are not objective spaces but are invented in our respective imaginations.

The Construction of “Europe”


Europe has been constructed in the field of education abroad as a “traditional” location: that label is used to suggest that it has a kind of static or dormant significance, less than elsewhere. In actuality, Europe is a fluid, rich learning environment that contains and sustains multiple meanings and ambiguities. It has been represented and constructed in the American imagination over time in ways that are simultaneously true and untrue. Those paradoxes offer great learning opportunities. Europe is, of course, a loose amalgam of various nations. Co-existent with that is a single landscape both real and imagined where alternatives to US identity may be invented.

Disney's Magic Kingdom offers a metaphor for exploring what is persistent in notions of Europe: an idea of Europe based around a poetic device formed more by the imagination than by political, economic, or geographical realities. Disney’s Magic Kingdom is a concrete expression of the transaction between America and Europe . The Sleeping Beauty Castle, at the heart of Disneyland and Disneyworld, is based upon Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. Disney reinvents it in the USA and, subsequently, it is ironically re-exported to Euro-Disney in Paris. It is a quasi-Romantic fiction: modeled out of Grimm's fairy tales, populated by the princes and princesses of the imagination inhabiting castles of dream. The Magic Kingdom offers an ideal metaphor for one aspect of Europe as it is shaped in the American mind, perceived through the filter of pervasive legends and myth.

That Magic Kingdom is not, however, the only way in which America has invented Europe. For the literary expatriate of the 19th century, from Washington Irving to Henry James, Europe was also associated with art, history, and social sophistication. The American infant, mannerless, and crude, came to Europe in search of cultural, social, and political maturity. This secular pilgrimage resonates with what students continue to seek and what education abroad promotes.

In the American imagination, Europe is a landscape rich in art and poetic symbols and, simultaneously, a place of complex histories and social conventions absent in America. The significance of Europe is both unchanging and changed. In the 19th century, the American expatriate sought the kinds of social conventions and complexities felt to be absent in an unsophisticated native land. For the immediate post-World War I expatriate generation, the significances of Europe were inverted; the associations were with anti-conventional and libertarian possibilities.

In the first decades of the 20th century, Europe represented relief from the stifling conventions prevalent in the America of Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. The American world was constricted by social norms and normalcy; in Europe, in Paris in particular, it was possible to reinvent a liberated self beyond the bounds of bourgeois constraint.

The forces that attracted Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, the Crosbys, Robert McAlmon, Malcolm Cowley and a host of others to Paris in the 1920s were (at least) two-fold. One was certainly to escape a US environment within which President Coolidge could assert that “After all, the chief business of the American people is business” and Henry Ford that “Machinery is the modern messiah. ”Europe is a less-industrialized, less conformist construct: a place of freedom rather than conventional constraint.

Of course, no motives are ever single or simple. The exchange rate of the US dollar against the French Franc made Paris an attractive environment in which the writer and traveler could live with limited financial resources. In 1919 1 US dollar was worth 8 French francs; by 1922 13 French francs and, by 1926, 35 French francs. When the value of the US dollar collapsed in 1929, an exodus from France began.


The generation of expatriates that includes Fitzgerald and Hemingway went to Europe to escape bourgeois, parochial America, to pursue intellectual freedom and the unconventional: a space congenial to creative innovation. Drinking, in the fiction of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, is a recurrent motif, and, in the age of Prohibition, it becomes a symbolic act of rejection of American parochialism. That generation sought sexual, psychological, and intellectual freedom absent from an America associated with industrialized, mechanistic conformity. American literary modernism was to a degree made in Paris.

What emerges is Europe as a paradox: rich in dense social, historical, and political structures and, simultaneously a place of liberation from convention. It is, at the same time, a place of magic and myth, of transformation and intoxication.

Europe is not only geography: it is an amalgam of those things that have been perceived and re-perceived: a set of ambiguities, changed and unchanging, a form of mystery that may be discovered or uncovered. All at once it is the Magic Kingdom and it is High Art and it is cheap red wine. These are still to a degree what education abroad students seek.

We know of darker constructs: the Europe of rampant nationalisms and embedded prejudice, the barbaric horrors of the 20th century. Savagery co-exists with high art and literature: the Renaissance and the Holocaust; Ypres and the Enlightenment; Belson and Beethoven. In the current environment, we may also uneasily perceive the re-emergence of old hatreds and traditional animosities. The rise of a xenophobic right is menacingly apparent in many parts of Europe, even in those countries we associate with impeccable liberal tendencies: 18% of the Swedish electorate voted for the far right in June 2018; 21% in Denmark in 2015.

Out of these constructions of Europe, paradoxical identities emerge that directly relate to the attraction of the region to study abroad students. It offers access to a rich history, social complexities, and intellectual traditions that directly relate to the primary curriculum of US higher education. Within individual countries, students can engage with the impacts of globalization. It is a gateway to opportunities that are perceived to be absent from home: a pilgrimage and a place of liberation.

A Mutual Fascination

Ponte Vecchio

The origins of modern America are rooted in Europe. European settlement signaled the first stage of mutual fascination. Icons of American popular culture permeate the European landscape. European pop sings, for the most part, in American accents. McDonalds’ Golden Arches signify the degree to which American habits and customs have become manifest on a global scale. European landscapes continue to be imagined, reimagined, shaped and reshaped in the American imagination. The predominant focus of US higher education makes Europe a particularly relevant location for education abroad. Europe may also represent some version of a return to roots, real or imagined. A peculiar intimacy between Europe and America is pervasive. We continue to dream each other.

Students who choose to study in Europe are offered rich opportunities to engage with complexities and paradoxes. Europe exists in a multi-layered form as separate nations and as a potent idea with many and several dimensions within which perception and reality dynamically intersect. Deconstructing these various and diverse concepts creates a field of learning opportunities that enhance the educational agenda in profound ways. Europe has many identities and contains radically different nations. Students engage with politics, history, myth, and visions: a landscape of ghosts and contemporary challenges, a space in which dreams and realities collide.

Thanks Mike!

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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Topics: London, England, International Education