Politics-and-Poverty Tourism: the Lure of Study in Developing Countries

The following is by Michael Woolf, deputy president and chief academic officer at CAPA International Education, a study-abroad provider.

GlobusIn a recent Chronicle article, Beth McMurtrie pointed out how American universities often push students to study abroad in “nontraditional” locations, like Africa and India. The focus of the piece was on how this shift—and other changes—is hurting academic ties with Europe. But in study abroad, the preference of new locales over more-traditional places is creating other problems.

While the majority of students still go to Europe for study abroad, the call to expand overseas opportunities in nontraditional locations has become a new orthodoxy among international educators, one that is neither entirely realistic nor wholly desirable. It is built out of a misplaced and sometimes condescending enthusiasm for regions and nations in the developing world that are seen through a Western lens as “exotic” others.

Broadly, the term “nontraditional” is used to signify those study locations that are less traveled to for any number of reasons, whether security, political instability, or less-than-adequate facilities and support services for American students. The locations may also be places where, simply, students do not want to go. They are also almost always places in the developing world. Those locations that are designated “traditional” are usually in Western Europe and are, in contrast, rather popular. One implication is that the nontraditional locations somehow offer study-abroad opportunities that are richer, worthier, or more prestigious.

What does this new emphasis imply to students who, with probably some academic rationale, choose to study in Western Europe? It implicitly sends a signal that their experiences are, to some degree, less valid, less “exciting.” This is despite the fact that the curricula followed by most American undergraduates are shaped by the Western intellectual tradition. The validity of the learning experience is, thus, defined by location, rather than by what is studied there.

The call for program growth in nontraditional locations is based not on academic grounds but on a shallow pursuit of seductive images of the exotic. It also derives from an essential ignorance of the contemporary realities of Western Europe. The traditional locations for study abroad are today dynamic environments that don’t correspond to stereotypical representations of London, Paris, Rome, Athens, Berlin, and so on. In recent years, they have become complex and multilayered learning laboratories transformed by the impact of urbanization and globalization.

A major rationale frequently cited for studying in nontraditional locations is that it is in the United States’ interest for students to learn more about areas of the world that are crucial to national security. There is a strong political case for this argument, but there are uncomfortable implications, too. It frames overseas education in terms of political interest rather than the mutual benefits that accrue from contact among young people of different countries. National security may be a valid basis to build support for study-abroad programs among government officials, but it is not the language of true educational discourse. International education is profoundly weakened if it permits itself to be seen as a tool for U.S. foreign policy

Another problem associated with promoting nontraditional study abroad is that it defines the benefits of study through location, not learning objectives. The experience is seen predominantly as a means of exploring an “exotic” location for purposes that demote academic content to secondary status. The equation of nontraditional with developing nations signifies that the demand is based in part on a quasi-missionary zeal to engage with poverty (from a safe distance). Study abroad becomes a form of educational tourism: “a trip,” motivated, at worst, by a kind of voyeurism in which privileged young Americans go to observe relative poverty in a developing country. That is closer to pornography than it is to education.

There may be valid reasons to expand study abroad in nontraditional locations. An expansion of courses in rarely taught languages or area studies should lead to the expansion of study abroad in relevant places. With the exception of a growing interest in China, no such significant expansion has taken place. For example, the Modern Language Association’s 2009 report, “Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education,” says general course enrollments in language studies grew by 6.6 percent between 2006 and 2009, while the broad category of Middle East/African-language enrollment fell by 5.1 percent.

The growth of study-abroad programs in the developing world should be driven by a combination of curriculum development and an investment in building infrastructure in universities in the nontraditional regions. That would create both an academic rationale for expansion and development and the capacity to meet the increased demand. It would also signal a partnership approach committed to mutual benefit in international higher education.

The reality is that the growth in nontraditional locations is not driven by any of those priorities. It is an unholy trinity of national political interest, a missionary tendency, and the voyeuristic pursuit of exotica.

[Wikimedia image by Stefan Kühn available under the GNU Free Documentation License]


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