A growing staple on the menu of most colleges and universities is the opportunity to study abroad, through which a student earns credits by traveling to a foreign land for coursework or a special project assignment. It’s a fine idea. The lives and careers of today’s young people will be inextricably bound up with global events. Simply to be a knowledgeable, effective citizen will require a grasp of previously unfamiliar places and some practice mixing and empathizing with the people who inhabit them. At Purdue University, we have boosted the number of graduates with at least one international experience by 70 percent in five years, to almost a third of the latest class.
Yale University, with the goal of producing graduates who have immersed themselves in the ways and the thinking of an exotic culture that is utterly alien to their own, offers undergraduates a fascinating option: the chance to undertake a “study abroad” experience in . . . America.
Students in the school’s Grand Strategy program, having read such classic authors as Thucydides, Clausewitz and Machiavelli, as well as modern masters such as Henry Kissinger, can earn credit for a summer “odyssey” in the form of a road trip across their own country — or anywhere else in the world, provided the odyssey isn’t dangerous. Yale helps finance the trip, and a written account of the journey becomes a part of the final grade.
John Gaddis, who along with fellow historian Paul Kennedy and former diplomat Charles Hill founded the Grand Strategy seminar in 2000 (they still teach in the program), told C-SPAN in May that their conception represented “our small effort to try to break down some of the isolation that somehow the elite universities have locked themselves into, the bubbles into which they have placed themselves.” It was a great idea, and now is timelier than ever.
At each Purdue commencement, I find myself imploring our graduates not to accept the invitation from America’s knowledge economy to cluster together professionally, residentially and socially with other academically successful contemporaries. More than their personal growth is at stake; the country’s drift into mutually distrustful, even hostile, cultural camps is near the top of almost everyone’s national worry list.
By equipping some with the skills and credentials for success, while cocooning them in what are often highly homogenous intellectual environments, the United States’ higher-education institutions contribute to the growth of this cultural crevasse.
There may be no better example of that cocooning than Yale, home of Halloween Hysteria (when a faculty member was savaged for suggesting that students were mature enough to pick their own costumes) and the official censorship of political signs, cartoons and T-shirts including the word “sissies” (quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald on Harvard men).
After seeing Gaddis’s interview, I called him to talk about the Grand Strategy program. I wanted to know more about summer odysseys across America, and he supplied me with a paper by one of his students, a Massachusetts native who set out on a 7,200-mile trip that took him through 22 states and included multiweek stays in a town in South Texas, an Indian reservation in South Dakota and an inner-city Cleveland neighborhood. His 90,000-word account of the journey is a catalogue of revelations, a genuine voyage of discovery.
In Cotulla, Tex., he became friends with a 45-year-old ranch manager and part-time musician. When the student asks about the revolver on the floor of his pickup truck, the ranch manager casually says, “If it comes to me or them, it’s gonna be them.” “Them” turns out to mean drug runners who don’t merely trespass on private property: “If they see ya,” he says, “they shoot ya.” Our wide-eyed Yalie thinks to himself later, “Where I come from, black ice was the greatest threat to our safety.”
Elsewhere, he attended, and was moved by, a small Sunday church service, apparently the first he could remember taking part in. As a stranger welcomed into the service, he noted the way it provided a “moral foundation” that promoted “kindness, humility, and generosity,” helping to keep families and the community together.
At each stop, our young Odysseus met other Americans his own age, none of whom had a chance of going to Yale or, in too many cases, to any higher education institution. Regardless of setting — urban, rural, small town — he discovered the overwhelming impact of family and culture on the life prospects of children. Coming from an intact, scholarly family, he at first is stunned by the notion of homes where values are not taught and education is not encouraged. Soon he grasps that it is among our society’s true root problems.
“Study abroad” remains a valuable concept. Yale’s wonderful innovation merely reminds us that in our sadly balkanized age, we must work to build “cultural competence” across the “abroads” right here on shore.
Incidentally, that Texan ranch manager subsequently visited the author at Yale. That’s a memoir I’d really like to read.