These Foolish Things: The Romantics and Study Abroad

Jun 23, 2015 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 International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

This month, Dr. Woolf writes about The Romantics and certain parallels to international education.

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Notions of romance and the romantic are notoriously slippery. For those of us with a predilection towards lachrymose melancholy, a romantic sensibility (as distinct from a Romantic sensibility) may be expressed by some combination of a large whisky, repeated playing of Frank Sinatra’s One for the Road, and endless screenings of Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film Casablanca in which Humphrey Bogart does not say “Play it again Sam”.

Romanticism is, in contrast, a radical, even revolutionary, literary and artistic reaction to realism and classicism that was highly influential between very roughly the 1780s and 1830s. In America, the major practitioners are arguably Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, Hawthorne and Whitman. The primary figures in England are Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Byron; in France, Rousseau; in Germany, Goethe and Schiller. Romanticism also finds expression in music (Beethoven in particular), and Fine Art. In short, in this context the Romantic sensibility is characteristic of art and culture in a historical period.

Digital Charcoal Drawing of Edgar Allan Poe by Charles W. Bailey, Jr.
Photo: Digital charcoal drawing of Edgar Allan Poe by Charles W. Bailey Jr.

There is another, largely pejorative, sense in which the concept of the romantic is commonly used to contrast with the realistic. A romantic view of the world may suggest a somewhat fanciful perception. The phrase “a hopeless romantic” signifies a form of delusion shaped by distorted perceptions.

It is apparent that to seek a single definition of romance, romantic or romanticism (or Romance, Romantic, or Romanticism) is likely to be a largely thankless and probably depressing task.

There are, nevertheless, broadly three relevant concepts: romance as a courtship process, as an artistic sensibility, and as a kind of fanciful delusion. In all three, there are demonstrable connections with study abroad, I will categorise these as “love at first sight/site”, as “the exalted mood”, and as “stereotypical myopia”. In love at first sight/site, students engage in a relationship with location that is analogous to courtship. The exalted mood (William Wordsworth’s term) is marked by heightened sensibility, emotional intensity and a focus on the self, what Hegel called “absolute inwardness”: notions that for good and/or ill reverberate around student experience abroad. Stereotypical myopia relates to the state of semi-awareness in which student preconceptions are not challenged or disrupted: a failure of educational responsibility.

Giotto's Bell Tower
Photo: A dreamy vision fo Florence's Giotto's Bell Tower by Derek Giovanni



Romance is a ritual that seems oddly archaic in these more utilitarian times. It was a process through which (when I was a lad) we aspired to move from attraction to seduction: a set of gestures aimed at intimacy. Important artifacts such as flowers and music were employed as visual and audio aids. For an earlier generation, by way of example, the songs of Frank Sinatra proved to be somewhat effective. This was particularly true of the Capitol Record years, from 1953 to 1961, when liquid tones melted hearts with lyrics such as these:

The way you wear your hat

The way you sip your tea

The memory of all that

No, no, they can't take that away from me

Frank Sinatra’s songs indeed offer an emotional map of study abroad. They Can’t Take that Away From Me is, without doubt analogous to the over-dramatized bereavement associated with re-entry. These Foolish Things presents a similar emotional landscape: “A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces/ An airline ticket to romantic places/ And still my heart has wings/ These foolish things remind me of you.” Pre-departure anticipation permeates Embraceable You: “Just one look at you/ My heart grew tipsy in me/You and you alone/ Bring out the gypsy in me.” While abroad, passion and depth of romantic engagement are metaphorically expressed, of course, in I Concentrate on You: “Whenever skies look gray to me and trouble begins to brew/ Whenever the winter winds become too strong/ I concentrate on you.” In this context a romantic is the sort of person for whom moon and June are logical collocations. They also keep florists in business.

frank sinatra, days of wine and roses,
Photo: Frank Sinatra album by steve

The process of attraction, romance and seduction (with the co-related potential for rejection and abandonment) resonates metaphorically with the student experience in a number of ways. Martha Johnson argues that, in pre-departure phases, student expectations parallel romantic expectations: “The anticipation and preparation are analogous to a long awaited first date, and in many cases a ‘blind date’ by the time the student departs”. [1]

Study abroad is, at some level, an engagement with a dreamed landscape populated by iconic images (the way you haunt my dreams): projections that are formed by a combination of curiosity, imagination, and passion. As in any relationship, the early days of engagement are marked by euphoria, unease, excitement, embarrassment and all the cluster of feelings that frequently characterise rituals of romantic engagement. At some point the student may discover that they love Paris or hate Berlin, adore London but are oddly indifferent to Rome. The language of romance is embedded in the ways in which we relate to the discovery of place.

Photo: Iconic London phone booths by Chris Chabot


The romantic is not, of course, solely about the curious business of falling in and out of love, in the version of love that the Greeks called “Eros”. As Wordsworth demonstrates in “The Prelude” (1799- 1805), something closer to spiritual love, or “Agape”, is expressed through the exalted mood; encounters with ideas and landscape marked by heightened intensity:

This spiritual Love acts not nor can exist     
Without Imagination, which, in truth,           
Is but another name for absolute power    
And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,    
And Reason in her most exalted mood.

Wordsworth engaged with natural and built environments (a field of daffodils and Westminster Bridge) with the kind of intensity that transformed the external world into internal epiphany. Place is more than geography and history; it has the power to transform consciousness.

Big Ben
Photo: Westminster Bridge by Tomas

The Romantics embedded movement in their philosophy both in a literal sense, and metaphorically in that an objective was to travel from one level of consciousness to another higher form of intensity. At the centre of our endeavour is the notion of disturbance as an educational aspiration. The heart of the liberal educational ideal is the aspiration to create experiences that broaden, challenge and disrupt students’ assumptions. In a domestic context, the challenge of new ideas can achieve that purpose. In study abroad the process of disturbance is both physical and intellectual; opportunities to broaden and deepen student thought are enhanced by simultaneous engagement with the unfamiliar in both ideas and locations.

That exposure to new external environments may enlighten and enrich the inner self was well understood by the Romantic poets, as demonstrated by Shelley in “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni”:

               Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion,

               Thou art the path of that unresting sound--

               Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee

               I seem as in a trance sublime and strange

               To muse on my own separate fantasy,

               My own, my human mind…

The interplay of mind and space (precisely shown in the synesthesia of Dizzy Ravine) reflects, in rhetorical and idealized form, the kind of creative engagement that is aspirational for study abroad students.

Walt Whitman - em Camden, 1891
Photo: Walt Whitman by Marcelo Noah

The Romantics were essentially cosmopolitan in that they sought to expand their consciousness beyond the parochial. In a literal sense, many of them travelled widely and recognised that new locations (particularly the Hellenic and Mediterranean worlds) offered radical ways of understanding place as the interaction of sensibility, history, geography, and myth. Perception is redefined and transformed in the process: a core aspiration for international educators.


A far less desirable outcome is signalled by the idea of romance as a delusion and a form of distorted myopia. In this sense, a romantic view may endorse stereotypical constructs. By way of illustration, European locations are frequently presented through unchallenged assumptions that usually derive from romantic nostalgia for lost identities that were, in any case, mostly illusory. Study abroad is littered with romantic versions of national identity filtered through some combination of stereotype, manufactured tradition, iconic images, advertising, commerce and myth. In reality, by way of example, the true Spaniard is as likely to be an accountant as a bullfighter and there are, anecdotally, more accountants than bullfighters in Madrid.

Photo: Matador via Wiki Commons


It is apparent that there are many ways in which consideration of romance resonates with the endeavour of study abroad. It may offer a metaphor for understanding student engagement with new spaces; in the Romantic imagination, it represents a form of enriched and heightened sensibility that could profitably disturb and disrupt students’ preconceptions; in an alternative sense, it should teach us what to avoid: the dissemination of unchallenged stereotypes.

Perhaps most significantly the Romantic Movement reminds us of the power that creative thought and imaginative introspection has to reshape ways in which we construct reality.

The potential for profound alteration remains within all of us as we contemplate, explore, and analyse the spaces of our world.

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[1] Johnson, Martha. 2012 “City as Relationship”, in Eds. A Gristwood and M Woolf, The City as Text: Urban Environments as the Classroom in Education Abroad, CAPA International Education Occasional Paper 1, London and Boston, p.33.

Thanks Mike! 

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Topics: International Education