US Exceptionalism and Study Abroad

Americanexceptionalism

I recently read a thought provoking article by Michael Goldfarb on BBC news online entitled “Why US exceptionalism is not exceptional.” The author cites a survey in late 2010 by USA Today/Gallup that suggests that 80% of Americans believe their country has a unique character and unrivaled standing in the world.  American politicians proudly claim – “this is the greatest country in the world.”

When President Barack Obama was asked about American exceptionalism in 2009, he replied: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”  (He has, of course, repeated many times since that statement that the US is “the greatest country in the world.”)

According to the USA Today/Gallup poll, only 58% believed that Obama shared the “exceptionalism” belief as compared to past Presidents like Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush at 86%, 77% and 74%, respectively.

Why does this matter so much?

I immediately think of many of the university students that I’ve met over the years who have asked me why they should go abroad when everything “here” (the US) is “the best.”  In their minds, the obvious question is: Why would I need to go somewhere else when I already live in the “best country in the world?”

Why is it so important for the US to believe that it is “the best” country in the world?  Clearly, to be elected in this country, you must repeat this mantra, wave your American flag and ensure that a pin of the flag is prominently displayed on your lapel.  This behavior perpetuates a standard that our youth perceive as the ultimate truth: We are the best – end of discussion. And if this is true, then why WOULD they need to travel anywhere else?

If we work in the field of study abroad, we know how much students’ lives are transformed by an experience abroad.  Data illustrates that both short and long term study abroad impact world view.  We know that students feel more empowered, capable, informed, aware and have a better understanding of their own country and themselves as a result of study abroad.

Yet, we still live in a culture that encourages us to claim that we were winners of a lottery when we were born in this country.

I applaud President Obama for veering off the normal rhetoric for even a nanosecond in 2009;  his comments recognize that each region of the world has traits that are unique, authentic and noteworthy, providing opportunities for us to learn from each other and to elevate the conversation.

I recently read a stunning book by Vikram Seth called “Two Lives” which documents the lives of Seth’s uncle (who is Indian) and his aunt (who is German) during the Second World War. It provides an excellent example of the legacy of exceptionalism (in this case British):   Seth’s uncle, Shanti, served in the British military as a dentist during the war and was stationed in Italy.  He got into a heated conversation about the relationship between England and India with the unit’s wing commander who stated, “…you must say, we did a lot for them (Indians), well, out of goodness…we educated them, we trained them…” Shanti broke into a lengthy reply, highlighted by the following:  “…As for educating us, Indian culture is far older than British culture.  In Roman times, people in the army were sent to Britain as a punishment – it was the most uncivilized country at the time. So why not leave us to ourselves – let us slaughter each other if we wish. None of this is the business of Britain.”

In the context of the overall story, these words are even more stinging than one can imagine. The BBC article cites the historical shift in British exceptionalism as a lesson for the US to consider.  I couldn’t agree more.

For those of you that are ready to hit the comment button to tell me that I am “un-American,” I will simply say that I adore my country.  And I adore many others.  I do not find it useful to rank us against each other, but rather to acknowledge that each has a unique history that forms and shapes culture.  I have traveled to many countries, I have loved the experience of doing so and learned more than I would have otherwise about my own country from afar.  But I have no interest in it being perceived as the best;  in fact I am more interested in understanding how we can ALL be better.

If you are an educator, I would encourage you to share the BBC article with faculty and students. It is a particularly useful pre-departure tool as it creates an opportunity to elevate the conversation about how others view Americans, how we view ourselves and the importance of being aware of “perception as reality” when embarking on a study abroad sojourn.

And if you’re interested in reading “Two Lives” by Vikram Seth – here is a link to the book on Amazon.

  • Great post, thanks for sharing!

  • It’s a shame this mentality is stopping people from studying and traveling abroad . I think it’s good to have pride in your country, but to place it so high that you can’t see good in other places is extremely close-minded.

  • Jorge Zeballos

    Missy, I am glad to see that no one has sent you a message accusing you of being un-American. Having an “outsider” perspective being from South America, I have always bristled at the arrogance of assuming that this is the best country in the world. Great article to chip away at the “exceptional” mindset. Thanks!

    • Thank you Jorge. I hope that this post creates dialogue about the issue. When I talk with Americans who are “patriotic” they have a hard time, initially, seeing that I am patriotic too, in my own way. To love your country does not mean that you ignore its opportunities to grow. For me, it means embracing those opportunities and looking to others’ best practices for ideas. Let’s keep the conversation going!

    • Thank you Jorge. I hope that this post creates dialogue about the issue. When I talk with Americans who are “patriotic” they have a hard time, initially, seeing that I am patriotic too, in my own way. To love your country does not mean that you ignore its opportunities to grow. For me, it means embracing those opportunities and looking to others’ best practices for ideas. Let’s keep the conversation going!

  • I think it is one of the reasons (and there are many!) that students don’t consider overseas study or travel. We are slowly chipping away at the barriers, but more work needs to be done. I hope that this post will create dialogue about one of the root causes of our dismal #s of US passport holders. Please help to keep this dialogue going – I think it is an important one.

  • I think it is one of the reasons (and there are many!) that students don’t consider overseas study or travel. We are slowly chipping away at the barriers, but more work needs to be done. I hope that this post will create dialogue about one of the root causes of our dismal #s of US passport holders. Please help to keep this dialogue going – I think it is an important one.

  • Rick Zimmerman

    I marvel at it all sometimes. What I infer from something tends to vary greatly from others. I do not get the “best” country bit. Best at what exactly? The US is best at some things, to be sure. Other countries are best at other things. To me, that is kind of a gimme.
    I’ll presume that exploring this phenomenon would take more than a few paragraphs.
    However, the exceptonalism bit is something else. Being a civic versus ethnic nation, to me, is exceptional. The US is a paradigm creating nation, which I find exceptional. Pluralism is one of the charter mandates of the nation’s founding. Again, exceptional. The amount of “exceptional” citations should come as no surprise since the nation is made up of the entire planet’s children. As the joke goes, we were all kicked out of the good countries. Which, in itself, is exceptional.
    But this was not what you were writing about (if I may dare suggest).
    How did study abroad and exceptionalism became mutually exclusive? I am often asked why I want to live “over there.” Why do I not want to live with “my own?” What the hell does that actually mean?
    Exceptionalism exists due to a lack of isolationist thinking, not the other way around. Exceptional people came to the US in droves and pushed the envelope further. It is because of the people, not what the government does for people, that the US became a global leader in so many areas.
    The British Empiric “exceptionalism” was mercantilism with an ethnic British rule. The US has no such ethnic limitation.
    American students need to travel and study abroad. If they have an isolationalist background, they will marvel at how they will never feel more “American” than when they are outside of it. It is eye opening. They will see how culture and geography varies. They may learn a new language and eat amazing food. They can then go home and add to that exceptionalism they heat about. They will never go home having been bored.
    While I believe in this distinct synchronistic character of being American, I am not its spokesman. These are my notions and I stand by them. People will have to bring their own perceptions to the table. Bueno.
    I state all this while waiting on my paperwork for my Indian employee visa. It will be my third time working and living there. I seem to thrive while living abroad.
    But, to me, that is very American.

    • Wise words as always Rick. We, like many int’l educators, are cut from a very similar cloth. I too feel more alive abroad and I still don’t get the “best” thing. Having said that, we are a nation full of very stubborn and proud Americans; sometimes it takes the unexpected trip abroad to create that “a-ha” moment and to be able to see ourselves more clearly as Americans. I defer to this guest post written by a friend who traveled to Europe for the first time at 40….perhaps simply sharing these types of stories will move Americans to consider the value of other places. Here is a link if you are interested: http://www.melibeeglobal.com/2010/07/youre-never-too-old-for-your-first-trip-abroad/

  • Saying USA is the best country in the world is like saying strawberry is the best flavour, Christianity is the best religon, blue is the best color and chunky peanut butter is the best type of peanut butter.

    It may be the “best” for you but maybe that’s also because you’re never tried other flavors.

    • Well said! I’m liking your analogy. 🙂

    • OR, like deciding which is the best child in a family. we really ARE supposed to all be one human family….aren’t we???

  • Lwollpert

    I agree with you whole heartedly.

  • Stasia Diamantis

    I love this article—I share the same view as you do and many patriotic Americans have a hard time believing that I do love my country too. It took me traveling abroad to appreciate MORE the things that I have and take for granted. Labeling the USA as the best doesn’t make sense to me, especially if we want to learn from other cultures globally. It has created a lot of negative stereotypes towards us Americans too. If we can put value towards all cultures and learn from all of them, then there doesn’t have to be a best or a worst. There’s always room to improve and USA is no exception to that rule. I find that each culture of the world is unique and special and we can all learn something new by taking a little time to learn about it, whether it be in books or better yet, through traveling there. My study abroad experience in college changed my world view and it made me yearn for more global knowledge that I was unaware about. I definitley know first hand what studying abroad can do, it changes a person for the better and it always makes me sad to hear even close friends say to me that they have no desire to go here or there abroad. People base their general opinions on things, even countries, from media or people they know who’ve been there and had a bad experience. That’s like refusing to read a good book because someone they knew didn’t like it. We all have different tastes and comfort zone levels. I think it would remarkable if we stepped out of those comfort zones once in a while and changed from that experience. I will forever encourage students to study abroad. I know how amazing it is to have that experience and I just hope, in time, that more and more people realize that the illusion of what is “best” isn’t always “the best.” Being better global citizens and learning from other cultures, will help us all to have a better world view. Thank you very much for sharing your article!! I will post it on Abroad Scout 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment Stasia. I think the goal is to determine how to get past this issue for non-travelers. Having a strategy that addresses this may lead to more students going abroad, and ultimately, becoming better world citizens (vs national citizens….)

  • Rouillie Wilkerson

    Great post! However, excusing yourself for having a difference of opinion and an expanded perception of the world outside of our “all American” insular society is utterly unnecessary…
    “I will simply say that I adore my country. And I adore many others.” < Why must you justify and “soften” your appreciation or even preference for someplace other than the US?
    It just goes to show you how deeply ingrained this mentality is in America. It’s taken me years to stop apologizing for not buying into the idea that our country is the center of the universe!

    • Many thanks! I hear your point. My style is to encourage people into the conversation in a more gentle manner. Those who expect me to be in their face will come out, typically, with guns blazing. By simply stating my point, I am hoping to avoid the droves of “anti-American” comments that I anticipated. But I do hear your point and it is certainly a valid one! Thanks for sharing it.

  • Pingback: *Stuff* Study Abroad Students Say | Building a Better WorldBuilding a Better World()

  • Pingback: Melibee Global: Your resource for International Education and Study Abroad News, Information, Resources and Advising | Sh*t Study Abroad Students Say()