The Culture Problem

Aug 25, 2022 1:00:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CEA CAPA Education Abroad's Deputy President for Strategic Engagement Dr. Michael Woolf. This month, Dr. Woolf examines the rhetoric of culture and nationalism abroad and how students can be aware of them as part of their international education.

Countries Are Not Cultures

Let me begin with a simple fact. What we do is take students from one country to another country. Countries are artificial constructions, created by some combination of will, accident, war, colonialism, negotiation, and invasion. Within Europe, The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 ended over 80 years of conflict and established the idea of the nation-state, defined by political interest, not necessarily by cohesion of identity or even by a common language. A dramatic illustration of how countries are constructed is in the colonial division of Africa, as described by Lord Salisbury in 1890:

We have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s foot has ever trod: we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew where the mountains and rivers and lakes were (cited in McCorquodale and Pangalangan, 2001: 867). 

It is self-evident that countries do not correspond to cultures in any meaningful sense unless culture is conceived as everything that happens, a definition so inclusive that it means little or nothing, as in this representative assertion:

Culture refers to values, beliefs, attitudes, preferences, customs, learning styles, communication styles, history/historical interpretations, achievements/ accomplishments, technology, the arts, literature, etc., the sum total of what a particular group of people has created together, share and transmit. 

The borders of countries are artificial, a consequence of historical dynamics. The small countries of Belgium or the United Kingdom precisely demonstrate a global reality; most countries are marked by fragmentation and division. National anthems are poems expressing myths of community intended to create illusions of common purpose. Countries are also temporary. Where is Yugoslavia? What was Yugoslavian culture? The collapse into six republics, and subsequent bloody conflicts, demonstrates the absurdity of the notion that there was a culture that could be called Yugoslavian. We might ask where American culture is located? Would it be in New York or rural Georgia? Similarly, is Italian culture located in Venice or Palermo? These are questions without credible answers. 

Education Abroad and Nationalist Rhetoric

However, there are two contexts in which the assumption is that countries and cultures align. The first is in the rhetoric of militant nationalism. The second is in education abroad. That is not what we intend of course, but it is an implicit consequence of rhetoric, such as this attempt to define adaptability: “the individual’s capacity to suspend or modify some of the old cultural ways and learn and accommodate some of the new cultural ways”. The assumption is that students come with the “old” and encounter the “new.” Yet, a crucial question has not been asked: simply, are differences between countries and peoples more significant than similarities? The unexamined assumption is that a student from the US has “cultural ways” which contrast with “new ways” encountered abroad. These distinctions are determined by location. 

The message to students is that in going abroad they will encounter barriers, “new ways,” that they will be helped to cross or negotiate. That is enforced in the rhetoric that says that in going abroad students are taken out of their “comfort zone.” The American home is exceptional because comfortable, whereas abroad, wherever it is, is uncomfortable, disturbing, scary.

Pre-departure materials designed to prepare students frequently enforce that message. These documents represent a damaging norm:

Living and studying abroad and experiencing a culture that may be dramatically different can be challenging, yet extremely rewarding...Review the cultural aspects of living abroad before departure so that you are prepared through any adjustment period you may experience. [1]

Another pre-departure guide advises students that:

the culture you are entering has a distinctly different worldview from mainstream US–American culture...the more you know about what culture is and how it works, the better you will be able to manage and adapt to a new cross-cultural context. [2]

Both messages warn students that they are about to meet problematic conditions, “a distinctly different worldview” from something imagined as “mainstream US–American culture”: a concept without meaning.

A credible comparative approach requires specific, nuanced analyses of similarities and differences, and the degree to which these are substantial or superficial. Thoughtful consideration of our realities inevitably reveals complex scenarios rather than simplistic distinctions. In any case, avoiding stereotypical constructs based upon a monocultural view is an intellectual imperative. Statements that begin with propositions such as “the French are,” “English people tend to,” Americans believe,” “Australians like,” and so on are reductive simplifications of complex realities; precisely an approach to identity that we should seek to disrupt.

There are, however, people whose ideological assumptions are based upon the singular coherence of national identity. The French National Front went into the recent presidential election with Marie Le Pen’s slogan “France for the French”. European right-wing nationalist parties have similar convictions: “Our Culture, Our Home, Our Germany” (Alternative for Germany); “Pure Poland, White Poland” (Law and Justice Party); “Keep Sweden Swedish” (Sweden Democrats); “Let’s Take Back Control” (UK Conservative Party Brexit slogan). Similar thought is found in slogans such as “Make America Great Again,” or the Indian BJP’s commitment to “One Nation, One Culture.”

At the heart of these concepts is a desire to protect monocultural cohesion within a country’s borders. In these narratives, that essential cohesion needs to be defended from the invasion of foreign elements. That view was succinctly summarized by candidate Éric Zemmour, ironically from a Berber Jewish immigrant background, in the recent French presidential election: 

The first problem is...the invasion of migration. We have a big problem, and we absolutely have to solve it, otherwise France in 20 years will no longer be France, but an area like Lebanon with communities fighting each other.

For Zemmour, “people are first of all a product of their culture, their people, their customs.” He envisages a:

generalised offensive against French and western culture, against the white heterosexual man. These people want above all to make the French and all westerners feel guilty, ashamed of their history, so that they amputate themselves, destroy themselves, abandon their culture, their civilisation. 

Zemmour uses “these people” as a shorthand for those who resist his view of immigration as a “war” against White, heterosexual, Christian Europe led by Muslim immigrants and liberal sympathizers. “It is by destroying our cultures, our history, that they...allow a foreign culture, history and civilisation to come and replace it” (Gray, 2021).

Replacement theory is at the heart of right-wing xenophobia. Following the re-election in Hungary of Fidesz-KDNP in April 2022, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán described a “suicidal policy in the Western world”:

the great European population replacement programme, which seeks to replace the missing European Christian children with migrants, with adults arriving from other civilisations. This is also how I see gender madness, which sees the individual as the creator of their identity, including their sexual identity. And this is how I see the programme of liberal Europe, which leaves behind Christianity and the nation states that up until now have held the West together, while putting nothing in their place. [3]

In these narratives, heterosexual, Christian, and white culture is under siege from alien forces engaged in a “war” against “civilization”. The underlying assumption is that countries and regions are definable in relatively simple, coherent ways. 

There is perhaps a context in which culture might offer a way of studying another country or region. To do so, culture needs to be redefined in more traditional ways. In that sense, literature, painting, theater, and music, might offer examples of how environment influences the creation of imaginative artifacts, and how, in turn, those artifacts shape environments. Even in that sense, however, it is clear that the creative imagination is not constrained by national borders; it transcends geographic boundaries.

Paris was, by way of example, a magnet for creative innovators prior to World War I. It was not, however, an expression of French culture. Max Jacob (1876–1944), a poet and painter, came from the provincial town of Quimper in Brittany in 1904; but Chaim Soutine (1893–1943) came from an obscure Jewish shtetl (settlement), Smilavichy, near Minsk in the Russian Empire. Marc Chagall (1887–1985) was born Moishe Shagalin a Lithuanian Jewish Hassidic family from Liozna, near the city of Vitebsk. Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920) came from a Sephardic Jewish family living in Livorno, Italy. The pre-eminent figure amongst these strangers in Paris was Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), born in Malaga, Spain. The important artistic and literary communities in France have always been international and diverse in character.

James Joyce seemingly offers an alternative perspective on early 20th-century artistic innovation. His most influential novel, Ulysses, is rooted in the parochial life of Dublin. The protagonists demonstrate the close, even closed, nature of life in the city but Joyce employs styles and perspectives that subvert such an interpretation. The plot loosely follows that of Homer’s Odyssey, a classical Greek epic poem written about eight centuries before the birth of Christ. The central figure, Leopold Bloom, is the son of Jewish Austro-Hungarian immigrants. Joyce was a migrant from Ireland to mainland Europe. He tells us that the book was written between 1914 and 1921 in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris. 

In short, what might be perceived as parochial is shaped by a cosmopolitan consciousness. As Joyce said: “For myself, I always write about Dublin because if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal” (cited Ellmann, 1965: 520). Creative revolutions in art and literature undermine the idea that cultural artifacts exist neatly within, or are defined by, the borders of a country. 

In contrast, embedded in the ideologies of militant parochialism, whether it is described as French, Hungarian, or European, is the delusion that going to, or coming from, another country necessarily involves crossing barriers that distinguish what resides within from that which exists beyond: strange, disorienting realities. Borders separate the familiar from the unfamiliar. That essentially reactionary message resonates disturbingly with what we tell education abroad students to expect.

We tell students that they are going into a “host culture” (in singular form)—a metaphor that implies that they will be welcome as a guest. At the same time, a paradoxical and contradictory notion that students are taken out of their “comfort zone” is part of common discourse (uncomfortable guests?). Thus, we also echo the nationalist concept that the culture of foreign countries is problematic. We teach students to anticipate a negative response, culture shock, in their new environment. What is this painful condition caused by crossing the border into another country? The University of Miami offers a typical definition:

These feelings and symptoms include:

  • disorientation

  • isolation

  • frustration

  • depression/sadness

  • extreme homesickness

  • having negative feelings about the host culture

  • sleeping or eating disturbances

A man holding a map looking confused in front of Tower Bridge in London

Caption: Culture shock in action!

(Photo by franckreporter on iStock)

In that respect, the rhetoric of nationalism and education abroad is in uneasy alignment. Cultures in other countries represent behaviors, customs, and structures that collide with our own with disturbing consequences. 

The ideologies of Zemmour, Orban, or indeed of Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, and many other, represent the resurgence of xenophobic nationalism. These dominant political narratives are in direct collision with the ideals and aspirations embedded in international education: moral and political imperatives that recognize that human similarities transcend differences shaped by nation, tribe, or culture; the conviction that encounters with the unfamiliar enrich rather than threaten; that the stranger is not an alien.

Unintended Implications

Notions of culture (cross- or inter-) reside at the center of the discourses of education abroad and they are well meant, but they carry unintended implications that align our endeavors with the rhetoric of ultra-nationalism. We might ask how culture has become such a pervasive notion in education abroad. On the one hand, it is a mechanism for avoiding more difficult conversations in areas of politics, diversity, conflict, power, religion, social dynamics, and so on. Perhaps such reluctance is behind the relative failure of education abroad to achieve parity of esteem with other areas of academic endeavor, at least in the eyes of some colleagues in mainstream higher education. 

On the other hand, Bill Allaway, the founder of the University of California’s Education Abroad Program, expressed another theory (in conversation with me many years ago). His view was that modern education abroad emerged after World War II at a time in which McCarthyite, anti-Communist hysteria created an environment in which interests in international matters were suspect. It became safer and simpler to talk in anodyne terms about vaguely conceived notions of culture. Historical expediency led to an unexamined orthodoxy which subsequently became embedded in the theory and practice of education abroad. 

An emphasis on cultural distinction as a characteristic of encounters in other countries takes education abroad in two damaging directions: one is towards a lack of specificity, into landscapes of imprecision. The other moves us uneasily towards a rhetoric of militant nationalism which is dependent on the idea that cultures are located within, and are defined by, the borders of countries. A consequence is that we do not say what we believe, nor should we believe what we say.




Works Cited

Ellmann, R. (1965). James Joyce. Oxford University Press: New York.

Gray, F. (November 27, 2021). Immigration is war: an interview with Éric Zemmour. The Spectator. https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/immigration-is-war-an-interview-with-eric-zemmour

McCorquodale, R. & R. Pangalangan, (2001). Pushing Back the Limitations of Territorial Boundaries. European Journal of International Law, 12, 5: 867–888

Thanks, Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Michael Woolf is Deputy President for Strategic Engagement of CEA CAPA Education Abroad. Mike has had much of his career in an international context. Prior to working in mainstream international education, he completed a PhD in American Studies and taught literature at the universities of Hull, Middlesex, Padova, and Venice. For four years he worked as a researcher-writer for BBC radio. He has held leadership roles in international education for many years and has written widely on international education and cultural studies. Much of his work has focused on areas of strategic development with particular focus on the status and credibility of education abroad within the wider academic community. He serves on a number of boards and was a member of the Board of Directors of The Forum on Education Abroad from 2006 to 2012. He was the recipient of the Peter A. Wollitzer Advocacy Award (2020) from the Forum on Education 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

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