If I were czar of U.S. Education, I’d require every American under 25 to spend a year abroad. Some American colleges, especially well-regarded liberal-arts schools, have such a requirement for bachelor’s-degree candidates already. Of course, there would need to be scholarship funds or work-for-travel arrangements—the Peace Corps and peace-time overseas military deployment come to mind—to ensure that working-class kids and not just the better-off get to go abroad. Then there are nearby places like Mexico, French Canada, Puerto Rico, and Indian/First Nations reservations that are less expensive to get to yet still culturally and/or linguistically diverse enough to make an educational difference for the study-abroad participant.
I’m thinking about this topic because we were visited today by a former housemate who has just returned to the U.S. after 18 months in Paris. At first, she took undergraduate classes at the American University there while living with a French family. Then she found herself a small apartment, actually just a room, near Montmartre and really started working on her French. While there, this 27-year-old Connecticut native walked 300 miles of the Camino pilgrimage from the French Pyrenees into northwestern Spain. She was a lovely young woman when she left; now we found her a lovely, mature young woman who knows what she wants to pursue in life, how to prioritize relationships, and the importance of community. Her time in Paris also turned her into a stylish dresser beyond the laid-back informality of her stay-at-home American age-mates. She’ll complete her last two years of undergraduate education at one of the Seven Sisters college back East starting this fall.
Socrates notably said, “Although I am an Athenian, I am also a citizen of the world.” We Americans are burdened by our provincialism coupled with the dangerous belief that our nation is exceptional and the best in and at everything. We are exceptional, but often in ways that are not positive. For example, we are Number One in Covid 19 cases and deaths worldwide. But it’s not enough to see where we fall short on the news. We need to spend at least a summer, and better a year or more, as a young person in another country and cultural space to experience firsthand how other peoples live. This goes for high-schoolers as well as college kids. Some things will be less satisfactory than at home, but some will impress us as better. Then, as the post-World War I song had it with regard to our returning Dough Boys, “How’re ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” How indeed?