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Study-Abroad Programs Make Americans Prouder to be Americans

Calvert Jones, a professor of political science, tested American students who went to study abroad and compared them to similar students who hadn't. The results were interesting:

First, I tested the core liberal hypothesis that cross-border contact promotes a sense of shared international community, or what political scientist Karl Deutsch called a “we-feeling” across cultural divides. Theorists define this in terms of warmth, shared understandings and values, and trust. Surprisingly, the hypothesis was not supported: None of the indicators for international community was higher on average for students returning from study abroad than for those yet to travel. In fact, those who had just returned from a semester abroad felt they had significantly fewer values in common and were more likely to say their understandings of key concepts were different from the people of their host country. None of this was sensitive to potential moderators like whether or not students opted to live with a host family. Given the intuitive plausibility of the liberal hypothesis, these results are striking.

Jones_Fig1Blue

How about threat perceptions? I asked students to rate how threatening they would consider their study abroad host country if it were to surpass the United States in terms of material power, such as economic growth or military expansion. In theory, cross-border contact should mitigate perceptions of foreign threat and foster expectations of peaceful change and cooperation, despite uncertainty and shifts in the distribution of power. And indeed, given identical scenarios, those just returned from a semester abroad rated their host countries as less threatening than did students about to leave. So the liberal hypothesis that cross-border contact mitigates threat perceptions was supported, even though the hypothesis that it fosters “community” was not.

Finally, I tested a variant on the “clash of civilizations” hypothesis—that cross-border contact, rather than encouraging a sense of shared international community, promotes nationalism. Perhaps troubling for some, the results strongly supported that hypothesis.

Jones_Fig2Red

Students returning from their study abroad experience were considerably prouder of America along a range of dimensions, including its literature, achievements in the arts, armed forces, athletic accomplishments and political influence. They were also prouder to be American, warmer toward American culture and more patriotic. Importantly, however, they did not display a heightened belief in America’s superiority; there was no difference in that attitude across the two groups. So while cross-border contact heightened nationalism, it did not appear to promote a virulent or chauvinistic form of it.

...We are used to thinking about nationalism and internationalism as mutually exclusive; people who are highly nationalistic are often assumed to lack the cosmopolitan mindset of a “global citizen.” Yet study abroad returnees were both more nationalistic and less prone to seeing other nations as threatening. Rather than fostering a sense of shared international community and warm realizations of “we are the same,” cross-border contact may instead encourage a form of “enlightened nationalism”—a sharper sense of national difference, and pride in that difference, tempered by tolerance and the realization that such differences need not be threatening.

It would be tempting to consider this another data point supporting the well-understood finding that close contact with foreign cultures reduces feelings of trust and empathy. Nothing new about that. That's why people generally prefer to live among people similar to themselves.

But not so fast. I think there's a huge limitation to this study: the fact that it was conducted among American college students. First, let's not beat around the bush: Americans know much less about the rest of the world than people in other developed countries, and are a lot less likely to speak a foreign language fluently. So they are generally ill-equipped to hit the ground running in a foreign country.

Americans are also on average the richest people on earth, and American college students come overwhelmingly from the upper-middle class. The contrast in standard of living between American and even UK college students is large. The gap between what an American expects from a university experience and what is on offer in France, Spain, or Germany is gigantic. Shabby, ancient buildings; no legion of mid-level bureaucrats to find you a place to live or guide you around campus or help you find a job; scummy student digs; overcrowded and often dull or inaudible lectures; rampant absenteeism and cheating. Having no standard of comparison, most American students going to an ordinary Spanish university will feel like they have been dropped into the third world.

I wonder if anyone's ever done a study like this among European Erasmus exchange students. I'd be willing to bet the ones who can actually remember their experience after all that partying probably had a very different reaction.

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