US Exceptionalism and Study Abroad

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.