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Changing Landscapes of Education Abroad

March 20, 2023
by Michael Woolf

Reviewing the Situation

I'm reviewing the situation...
I think I'd better think it out again!

(1968. Lyrics by Lionel Bart, film directed by Carol Reed).

Those lyrics encapsulate the rationale for the forthcoming CEA CAPA symposium on June 3rd, immediately following the NAFSA conference in Washington, D.C. We aim to create a collegiate space in which to explore the landscapes of education abroad, to share views of the shifting sands of our endeavors. As the impact of COVID-19 recedes and challenges to international ideologies increase, this is a timely moment in which to reassess our principles, theories, and practices. [1]

We need to be aware that our discussions will not take place in a neutral or necessarily benign ethos. External conditions, that predate COVID-19, continue to be a threat to what we do and believe.

The topics I talk about here reflect things that bother me (a Jeremiah complex perhaps) rather than a predetermined agenda. I hope that they may encourage you to participate in our symposium either formally as a presenter or as a critical participant. We envisage that some sessions will engage with these topics, but we are open to alternative proposals that review the varied landscapes of education abroad.

The Myth of New Realities

Recent events have not been kind to international educators. During the COVID-19 pandemic we discovered the limits of our potency. It is common for us to imagine how we may change the world. Instead, we have learned how the world may change us.

So, there was a view that COVID-19 would fundamentally alter the ways in which education abroad functions. I am not underestimating the trauma of the pandemic, but long-term alterations have really not become particularly apparent. It was commonplace to argue that the paradoxical notion of virtual reality would emerge as a significant challenge to conventional student mobility. Instead, the programs developed were temporary, pragmatic responses to the closing of borders.

The belief that a "new reality" would emerge derives from the fact that we imagine that what happens to us is of profound importance. We might have considered a historical precedent. From 1918 to 1920, Spanish flu was probably responsible for more fatalities than the First World War. But, by the early 1920s, the impact faded, drowned out by the music of the so-called Jazz Age. The lesson is that we may not be at the center of history, perhaps we are footnotes in the narrative of human experience.

Sustainability and Mobility

Even before COVID-19, the dependence of education abroad on mobility was problematic from the perspective of ecological activists. All our voluntary toing and froing contributed to the degradation of our planet; we are accused of being complicit in global warming. Of course, yes, but...this blames consumers rather than producers.

Technological revolutions in travel, allied with deregulation of airlines [2], enable us to move relatively inexpensively across the world. These developments have stimulated the curiosity of the young about worlds elsewhere. It is fruitless to believe that consumers of travel services, such as our students, can be restrained within parochial insularity. That is like trying to get a cork back into a bottle of champagne.

In 2019, the global airline industry made a net profit of $26.4 billion. As demand continues to grow, the anticipation is that in 2023, airlines will make a net profit of $4.7 billion despite economic and political uncertainties. [3] Within the next two years, a return to pre-pandemic levels is extremely likely.

A political imperative is that producers need to be encouraged or coerced into spending a greater percentage of these El Dorado levels of income on developing cleaner, greener fuels. The priority should be to locate responsibility for action where it primarily belongs, not to blame the young whose aspirations, in the longer term, enhance our environments, diminish prejudice, and broaden collective knowledge.

Political Environments

Nationalism and Parochialism

Evolution has made Homo sapiens...a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, "we" and "they."

- Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

What are the impacts of the rise of militant parochialism and radical nationalism on education abroad? Simply, like it or not, we can no longer maintain the illusion that we function within an ethos of, at worst, benign indifference. We peer myopically into dark spaces.

From 1989 onwards, the power of the "isms," that shaped conflict throughout much of the 20th century, eroded. A consequence was the lifting of restraints, freedoms restored. But other, older dynamics were also liberated. We have moved into paradox. We speak of the interconnectedness of countries while, simultaneously, traditional hatreds and historical alienations have created suspicion, isolationism, and disconnection. The divisions of the Cold War have been replaced by the collision of open and closed ideologies.

Hungary exemplifies a closed system. Prime Minister Viktor Orban describes refugees as "Muslim invaders" and "poison." He has made no secret of his desire to create a European alliance of ultra-nationalists. The 2019 attack on the Central European University in Budapest was an explicit assault on intellectual freedom and international values. Orban used traditional anti-Semitic tropes to demonize the founder, George Soros, and forced the university to move most of its work to Vienna. The word "international" is shorthand for Jew for Orban, as it was for Hitler, Stalin, and, among many others, Henry Ford.

In the context of education abroad "international" represents a cluster of ideas and ideals in which we believe. For others, it represents a threat to national identity, "civilization" menaced by alien infection.

Bigotry has moved, in many contexts, from private thought toward legitimized public discourse, and, in extreme cases, government policies. White supremacy, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, persecution of Christians, discrimination against Roma, racial prejudice - discourses of hatred construct strangers as aliens, a menace to community security and identity.

COVID-19 enforced that bigotry. For centuries we have blamed infection on foreigners, a tradition sustained by the "Chinese virus" and the "Indian variant." In early modern Europe, from 1348 onwards, Europe suffered recurrent outbreaks of plague. Roma and Jews were seen as bearers of disease that threatened Christian communities. The association persisted. Thus, over 500 years later, in 1886, Edouard-Adolphe Drumont describes Jews as "a sort of perpetual discharge...dropping vermin wherever they pass, offering a constant danger for public health." [4]

Strangers are dehumanized by myth and stereotype. They are constructed as unhealthy intruders, a problem requiring a solution. In 1936, the Nazis established the Racial Hygiene and Demographic Biology Unit. Roma and Jews were considered unhygienic. "Cleansing" is not a metaphor but a genocidal objective.

Such bigotry does not belong only to history. The politics of hate offers a powerful narrative that is in direct collision with the ideologies of international education. We do not believe in walls but seek to build bridges. Strangers are not aliens. We are enriched by encounters with people who may think and behave differently. These are unwelcome principles in many parts of the world to which we send students, including the most popular: the United Kingdom and Italy.

The Campus as Battleground

Universities have traditionally been sites of debate wherein diverse views are examined and challenged. The concept of civil society is relevant here. It describes associations of interests working for versions of social good. However, "civil" has another meaning that is vital to creative debate: polite, courteous, and respectful of others. Political correctness posturing as progressive thought and narrow conservative ideologies have created environments in which dissenting views are shut down; discourse is rendered uncivil. There is safety only in anodyne space.

Learning environments are made problematic, not by a dominant ideology but by a collision of ideologies. A precedent is the dispute between creationism and evolutionist theory in the years following the First World War. In Tennessee, the Butler Act of 1925 made it unlawful "to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man, as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead, that man has descended from a lower order of animals." This law was challenged in the Scopes Monkey Trial in July 1925. High school teacher John T. Scopes agreed to admit to teaching Darwin's theory of evolution so as to challenge the dominance of the creationist creed. The clash between the defense, led by Clarence Darrow, and the prosecution, led by William Jennings Bryan, represented a dramatic collision between irreconcilable versions of truth.

Assaults on critical race theory and DEI resonate with that history. The classroom has become a political battleground. Adrienne Lu describes ideological warfare across the US: "State lawmakers in 13 states have introduced at least 21 bills since December that aim to restrict colleges' efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion". [5]

Higher education policies are subject to external political agendas:

Two influential conservative think tanks legislatures could dismantle the administrative structures that support diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at public colleges. Model state legislation, written by scholars at the Manhattan and Goldwater Institutes, if passed, would prohibit colleges from hiring diversity, equity, and inclusion officers; bar trainings that instruct staff to identify and fight against systemic racism; eliminate requirements for employees to commit to diversity statements; and could disallow even institutional commitments to social justice and recommendations that students be addressed by their preferred pronouns. [6]

This is not an environment in which respect for alternative perspectives flourishes. It belongs within a tradition of authoritarian repression. Simultaneously, at the other end of the political spectrum, there are many occasions in which conservative speakers on campus have been silenced.

In her commencement address at Harvard University in May 2022, then-New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern presented the apocalyptic implications of a situation in which competing ideologies seek to silence opposed views rather than engage with them:

If we don't find once again our ability to argue our corners, yes with the passion and fire that conviction brings, but without the vitriol, hate and violence. If we don't find a way to ensure difference, that space where perspectives, experiences and debate give rise to understanding and compromise...a crevice between us becomes so deep that no one dares cross to the other side. We are at a precipice... [7]

There are familiar scenarios over that precipice. The Soviet Union sought to silence Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Boris Pasternak, Vasily Grossman, Mikhail Bulgakov, and a host of others. Public book burnings in Germany from May 1933 dramatically encapsulated the emergence of Nazi ideologies. In the US, dominant views of obscenity led to the banning of books by Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Allen Ginsberg, and many others who challenged what were thought of as "community standards."

In August 2022, 52 books were banned by one Utah school district. For the most part, the works address LGBTQIA+ or African American experiences. From the other end of the political spectrum, the teaching of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been attacked on the grounds of the language used (despite Twain's consistent anti-racism). John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is one of many novels accused of propagating racial stereotypes. Alice Walker might also be excluded on the grounds of anti-Semitism and endorsement of Holocaust denial theories. F. Scott Fitzgerald would not pass approval, nor would Graham Greene, or Evelyn Waugh. The following recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature would also likely be seen as offensive and offending: Rudyard Kipling, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, William Golding, Eugene O'Neill, and so on ad nauseam.

If the purpose is to protect students from the challenge of dissent and to insulate them from ideas that disrupt preconceived assumptions, there are few books that could be retained. In revising curricula, the choice is between exclusion and revision. Metaphorically, you may burn books or read them more carefully.

Conflicts of values are also manifest in the denigration of disciplines essential to the achievement of international educational objectives.

The Humanities Problem

For many years, the rationale for study abroad was described in somewhat utopian terms: to increase understanding between diverse people, a force for social good. In these more utilitarian days, emphases have shifted towards individual benefits. The belief that students are endowed with a key to the global elite because they study abroad requires willful disregard of other potent determinants of future success, notably class, accidents of birth, race, nation, gender, inherited privilege, and which university students attend (and some combination of such).

A consequence of this new utilitarianism is the emergence of a false hierarchy of knowledge. According to current orthodoxy, what matters are STEM disciplines. Humanities and social sciences are denigrated. A spurious justification is that those disciplines better prepare students for employment opportunities.

Anti-intellectual, populist political primitivism has gained credence in the public arena. Denigration of the humanities is global; a few examples suffice: Australian Education Minister Dan Tehan (degrees in arts and social sciences) introduced differential pricing that privileged STEM. Baroness Morgan of Cotes, formerly Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education in the UK, (jurisprudence degree) argued that "the subjects that keep young people's options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects." [8] In the US Republican presidential nomination debate in November 2015, Marco Rubio (political science degree) insisted ungrammatically that "welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers." [9] Japan's national universities have been informed by the education ministry that they should cease teaching the humanities and social sciences and move into areas with greater utilitarian value. Uganda's President Museveni (economics and political science degree) describes humanities courses as "useless."

University leadership has in many cases bought into these arguments, demonstrating contempt for the function of education as a social good, and has surrendered to political populism for spurious economic reasons; ignoring research that casts doubt upon the variance in employability of humanities and STEM graduates. [10] They have discounted employer opinions that repeatedly value the skills acquired in liberal education.

The closure of humanities departments is frequently justified because of "falling demand," a consequence of abject failure to challenge hypocritical misinformation from politicians, who have themselves benefited from degrees in the very disciplines they attack. As Frank Furedi argues: "It is not a surprise that many young people are turning away from the humanities. These subjects have often been a target of philistine contempt from successive governments and business interests." [11]

Disdain for the humanities also exposes the hypocrisy of commitments to decolonization of knowledge. Humanities and social sciences are at the heart of postcolonial studies. Literature offers ways of representing silenced or muted voices; history the skills and methodologies required to uncover hidden narratives. In the gargantuan volume The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (1995, ed. Ashcroft et. al.), of 526 pages only five relate to STEM disciplines. Rhetoric that privileges STEM disciplines demonstrates neocolonialist assumptions about the interdependence of technology, science, knowledge, progress, and power.

Study abroad expands rather than restricts the agenda of education, creates flexible and curious citizens better able to contribute to civil society and adjust to the demands of an evolving workplace.

All knowledge has value. By way of example: it would be foolhardy to argue that we should teach alchemy as a practical skill, though it has been taught within the context of international education. Between 1547 and 1550, the English mathematician and philosopher Dr. John Dee lectured on alchemy in Europe.

In the current environment, a justly "underrepresented" discipline but, beyond flippancy, learning something about alchemy is not irrelevant. It offers an insight into the 16th-century mind and, significantly, demonstrates the fact that knowledge is conditioned by time and space. Simply, what is important now has not always been so and will not necessarily be so in the future.

Understanding the conditional relevance of knowledge is critical to the relationship between education and employment. It is not only alchemists who are redundant. Entire fields of employment have disappeared, and entire fields have emerged in living memory. What this suggests is that if students can listen creatively, speak effectively, read with discrimination, write accurately and intelligently, and think critically they are better equipped to prosper as happier citizens and more productive employees.

The employability agenda has been perverted to argue that the primary function of universities is to serve commerce and industry rather than the creation and dissemination of knowledge and wisdom; that the humanities and social sciences have no significant role in political, social, and economic development; that we no longer need to teach young people about the meaning of histories, the power of the imagination, the forces that have shaped their reality.

What Else?

These are some things that bother me but they by no means exhaust the range of potential discussions. We might also consider:

The "culture" problem - do generalized notions of culture propagate anodyne stereotypes rather than critical analysis? We take students from one country to another country. Militant nationalists believe that culture and countries align. Do we share that assumption?

Critical is used to mean essential and a process of thoughtful deconstruction. Does that ambiguity muddy the waters?

Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion - do JEDI agendas currently reflect American parochialism? Is there a hierarchy of marginalization?

Comprehensive internationalization - made in America? Is quality defined by alignment with Western systems of higher education? Do we need to rethink through a lens of greater humility?

International, global, and globalization - what do these terms mean? International and global are often used as terms of approval (competence, citizenship) but globalization is ambiguous.

Religion in education abroad - a critical indicator of diversity. Why is religion underrepresented in curricula?


The boundary between the darkness and the light was shifting all the time, but too subtly for us to be aware of it, except when it was too late.

- Michael Dibdin, And Then You Die

What we do and believe is under attack by agents of xenophobia and parochialism. We need to affirm the tenets of our faith, and challenge disdain for forms of knowledge that underpin our ideals: What kind of civilization would we inhabit if we knew no history, literature, or creative arts? Why is engineering, physics, or mathematics more significant? The idea of a hierarchy of wisdom profoundly distorts the importance of all knowledge, that of historian and chemist, philosopher and physicist, poet and engineer.

If nothing else, I believe that our symposium will demonstrate that the richness of our world is built upon diverse foundations.



[1]Event information at:

[2]The most important legal alteration was the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 which created a free market in the commercial airline industry, a critical alteration which made mass student mobility possible.

[3] IATA Press Release No: 56, 6 December 2022:

[4] i‰douard-Adolphe Drumont, (1886): La France juive, essai d'histoire contemporaine. Paris: Marpon et Flammarion, v.1. p. 456.

[5] Adrienne Lu, (March 9, 2023). "Lawmakers Expand Their Assault on Colleges' DEI Efforts". The Chronicle of Higher Education.

[6] Eric Kelderman, (January 20, 2023). "The Plan to Dismantle DEI". The Chronicle of Higher Education.

[7] For a full report and video see:

[8] Nicky Morgan, (2016): "Speech at the Launch of "˜Your Life' Campaign," Department for Education, November 10, online, available at:

[9] Susan Jones, (2015): "We Need More Welders and Less Philosophers," CNS News, November 11, online, available at:

[10] For example:

[11] The all-out assault on the humanities:


Michael Woolf is the Content Creator - Blogger.
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