Next fall I’m going to be studying abroad in Rome. I know where I’m going to live, where I’m going to take classes, where I’m going to go on the weekends. I’m putting together a list of people I can have lunch with in Rome. We’re going to sit at quaint roadside osterias and drink chianti. We’re going to take pictures of ourselves. I’m going to make friends. I’ll spend the academic term in Italy and Greece and then hit up a couple of important capitals afterwards: Prague, Vienna, Amsterdam, Paris, maybe Madrid. I’m putting together a list of people whose couches I can sleep on. It’s going to be edifying. It’s going to be formative. I’m going to grow tremendously as a person. I feel instinctively that I’m part of a tradition. There’s literary evidence.
What was Chaucer’s Scholar if he wasn’t a study-abroad student, after all? What’s Lucentio doing in Padua in The Taming of the Shrew if he’s not studying abroad? Students my age have been hopping around the world from center to knowledge center for hundreds of years. It’s a practice as old as the university system itself. But it strikes me that that was qualitatively different, actually: the typical image of a student who travels hundreds of miles to get to a cultural center so that he can study at the feet of the greatest scholars in the world doesn’t apply to my situation at all. First of all, we don’t live in a world where there are ten or twelve Isaac Newtons to learn from, we live in a world where scholarly standards are high all around and major intellectual advances just aren’t being made at the undergraduate level anyway. Second of all, the United States, despite its defects, has what I would call the best system of higher education in the world. If I were really part of a grand tradition of flocking to cultural centers to learn from great scholars,
I would go to New York or San Francisco, not Rome – and it wouldn’t even matter nowadays, because globalization and the internet have spread cultural prestige so completely across the first world that talking about “centers of knowledge” is essentially absurd – at best, a great university is a particularly large node in a very dense spiderweb, not a spiderweb itself. And the problem with learning from great scholars, anyway, is that the modern university system draws a pretty strict line between great teachers, who are typically not stars and tend to teach undergraduates at places like Bowdoin or Kenyon, and research celebrities like Kwame Anthony Appiah and Richard Dawkins, who tend to teach only graduate students, or nobody at all. I probably won’t have a chance to learn from Umberto Eco while I’m in Italy, and if I do it’ll be in a crowded lecture hall, learning something I could just as easily have read in The Name of the Rose. If I were really interested in getting a top-class, up-close education I would stay right here at Carleton – which, let’s remind ourselves, is the reigning world heavyweight champion of interdisciplinary undergrad teaching. And I probably won’t be working particularly hard in Italy, either. Let’s be honest. I don’t want to spend my whole time in Italy – potentially the longest single period outside of the country in my entire life – holed up with a pile of books. I do enough of that in Minnesota. I want to go to museums and cathedrals, go hiking on the Amalfi coast and take joyrides on speedboats in the Venetian lagoon. I won’t be getting my money’s worth if Rome just feels like Northfield with umbrella pines and better dress sense. So I probably won’t even be studying very much – I’ll be out getting cultured, or at least robbed. In short, I’m ostensibly doing a lot to further my humanistic education by going to Italy – but I won’t be in a center of learning, I won’t be learning from scholars any more brilliant than scholars in America, and I won’t be studying what I learn very deeply or comprehensively. In what sense, then, is it educational at all for me to go to Italy? One possibility is that I’m going so I can get a global perspective, so I can look at the world through a fresh pair of eyes and take in the achievements of western culture in the cathedrals and museums that I visit.
I might not accumulate a lot of raw material as far as knowledge goes, but I may come away with a completely different conception of the human subject – which, let’s be fair, will get me more mileage anyway. That’s the one that I’m pulling for. The other possibility, though, is that I’m going to Italy so that I can go to nightclubs, tool around on vespas, and ride trains with my friends. That I won’t actually have any exposure to culture on a level that’s deeper than what I would get from a textbook, and that essentially I’ll be purposely fitting myself into the prefabricated role of the Educational Tourist. That my motivation for going to Italy isn’t genuine enthusiasm but rather fear of exclusion from the narrative, and that the networking, couchsurfing and train rides, the photographs uploaded to Facebook and travel blogs faithfully maintained aren’t creative, fun keepsakes, but rather something more akin to papers you hold up at a checkpoint when you declare, to the gravelly frowns of the soldiers before you, “No, look, I’m like you, I was an undergrad, I had fun.”