Collaborative platform on arts, literature, and thought
By Christopher Gellert
What is it with us Americans and our longings for old stones and cathedrals? You think we would get enough of rocks covered with moss and churches in the good old US of A, churches, by-the-way, that are regularly filled with congregants and not just foreigners armed with flash photography. We’ve inherited this particular vice from our Anglo-Saxon forbears, sons of the landed gentry shipped off after their time at Oxbridge to see the origins of culture, gape at the decadence of the French, the sloth of the Spanish, and generally not dare to blink before the beauty of Italy— the Grand Tour. This tradition, and this vice hasn’t diappeared. It seems that now, the whole thing is done in school, either a semester in college or during the junior year of high school. The paradigm hasn’t changed, only it received the reassuring veil of scholarship from the Academy.
The Grand Tour has a long tradition. In a letter composed from John Jackson to his uncle, the great English diarist Samuel Pepys, dated May 10th, 1700, Jackson details the marvels of the improbable construction of Venice— a town as much a capriccio as any sketch by Canaletto or Tiepolo. His fairly standard description of the sights does not differ substantially from anything a modern visitor to the city might tell you, gushing over dinner about the picturesque geography, the gondoliers. As Americans, we are the heirs to this Imperial tradition of ogling the Continent, this impractical lived beauty—la dolce vita— so foreign to our utilitarian, Puritan founders.
Henry James describes this phenomenon best—there is no better writer, or critic, of the American in Europe. His novels on the subject abound—The Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller etc., but The Ambassadors is his best. It recounts the story of a middle-aged bachelor, Lambert Strether, from a small town north of Boston who is sent by his dowager fiancée to collect her errant son from the Babylon of Paris and assume responsibility of the family business, ensure the family fortune. A man of small means, Strether’s marriage is conditional on the safe retrieval of his fiancée’s son and his return to industrious American shores. Initially resistant to Europe’s charms, Strether becomes infatuated with Paris, enchanted by its avenues, and finally dissuades his purported charge from returning.
We observe this reluctance to accept the pleasure of the foreign early in the novel. After Strether has left America but not yet arrived in Europe —he rests for several days in England—he meets Mrs. Gostrey, who proclaims herself a “superior courier-maid” (17) for Americans. When Mrs. Gostrey first meets Strether she condemns him, “Your failure’s general…The failure to enjoy is what I mean” (16). She later explains to him her self-defined role, “I can’t perhaps give you my formula, but I think that practically, I succeed. I send you back spent, so you stay back” (33). This seems exactly the role that American study-abroad programs assume towards their student-wards. I studied abroad in France for a year, once in high school and once college, and during each of these stays we were herded around on trips to see the sights. Les Châteaux de la Loire! Le Mont-Saint-Michel! Provence! Almost as if we were being stuffed with the history and picturesque beauty of a culture, quite like those poor French geese who are fattened until their livers explode. All the better to send us back to the States ready to assume productive, lucrative, practical careers, perhaps to come back once on our honeymoons and remember our youth. As Americans we are invited to learn enjoy ourselves for a time— so long as we remember to come home.
You need only consult Woody Allen’s recent filmography to understand how Americans conceive Europe. Unlike James, who explores the Anglo-Saxon myth of Europe, Allen crystallizes the fantasy. Midnight in Paris plays like a soft-focus wet dream of la ville lumière. –—How cool would it be to go back in time and hang out with the Lost Generation! Imagine swapping sidecars with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, hearing Cole Porter play en directe, and observing Picasso and Gertrude Stein exchange barbs and stories about women, etc. Even when Owen Wilson returns to our century, the gauzy lighting stays the same— it’s almost worse, the caprice becomes lived and real. And for so many Americans this— and not the Paris of the ghettoized suburbs, class and ethnic riots, police crackdowns, the Paris of Hemingway in Down and Out, and Céline in Voyage au bout de la nuit— is the only Paris seen, the only real Paris.
It’s when this fantasy is collapsed into our formal education that this notion really becomes problematic. When I studied in France, I naturally went there through American programs; both my high school and college made it almost impossible to head out on my own. Each institution had its own campus, its own Anglophone student body—its own colony. If the reason to study abroad is to not simply familiarize yourself with another culture and see the sights, but immerse yourself, as everyone kept telling us the to challenge our “comfort zones,” then few of the Americans I studied left really ever left home. How could they? They were surrounded by their fellows.
The program I went through in college demanded no minimum level of French for students, no requirement to live with a host-family, and students had the option of only spending a semester rather than the full academic year, certainly without the warning that going home over the Christmas holidays would seriously weaken our French. The students were still Americans, Canadians, a handful of foreigners studying at American institutions, and we all spoke English with one another. –This is the American abroad.
There is an implicit disapproval of venturing outside the bubble, which is systematic in how these programs are organized, but sometimes there are even direct cautions not to wander. My first semester in Paris, soon after I signed up for three courses at one of the French universities, the then-director of the program informed my advisor I would not be able to take that many courses outside the campus. After meeting with me in her office she deigned to grant me this privilege, but permission came only once she told me that in the past any student who had tried to take more than two of their four courses at one of the French institutions had always failed. She would accept no crying or whining on my part at the end of the semester to save me from poor grades (Let it be noted that we had already been told by the administrative staff that when are French grades were converted into the American system, allowances were often made for the fact that we were taking courses in an entirely foreign environment). At times it seemed like this was less a study-abroad program than a chic summer camp. We were children to be warned, hands-held.
I do not want to sound churlish. There is a great deal to be learned even in the limited environment of the American study-abroad. I am not one to scoff at cathedrals and old stones. I love cathedrals and old stones. And yet, within the American education model, it is very difficult to escape this mentality of isolationism abroad. There is the presumption that the year-abroad should be streamlined to fit the home-school’s curriculum, and as is often the case with university programs, that tuition dollars should remain in-house. Students rarely leave their fellow and they never leave their home university. But wasn’t it our American pedagogy and our American mœurs that we were going, after all, to forget? To learn a new way of doing things, to live differently?
There is another way. America is the only nation that feels the need to colonize a country before it considers risking its students to the unknown. American institutions themselves are full of students of every flag who come here to study, and they study in our schools, adapt and experience our culture. These students aren’t cast to the wolves either. Universities in countries all-over expect foreign students and organize social events and information sessions to help acclimate them to a new life, but then they’re on their own. They are free to experience a different milieu, perhaps learn something about themselves by accepting a new context and allowing it to change them—casting off old habits and experiencing new rhythms in the day-to-day. It’s only in the States, given license to go on tour and have a jolly good time— and get academic credit for it.
Tanner, J.R. editor. Private Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers. Vol 1. London: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1926. Print.
James, Henry. The Amabassadors. New York: Modern Library, 2011. Print.
Midnight in Paris. Dir. Woody Allen. 2011. Film
To Rome with Love. Dir. Woody Allen. 2012. Film