John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What Have I Been Doing Lately? A Posting from Abroad

September 29, 2015adminInsights0

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Five years or so, give or take, one of my much younger colleagues persuaded me, over much resistance, to start writing a blog. This has taken a lot of time and dedication. It is a commitment. And it has competed with many other responsibilities. But I have enjoyed the writing and especially the reflecting that it must be based on. Obviously, to be a blogger you have to have some things you want to say and you have to make yourself do so. And there have to be people that want to and will read what you have to say. I have especially enjoyed the observing and thinking I have done when I get out of my own country and become a reporter from foreign lands, that is admittedly, from the perspective of an US higher education leader. Maintaining a blog takes discipline. And while I think I am a very disciplined professional, there are limits and mine have been largely available time vis a vis my other commitments.

Well I am just returning from several weeks outside the country in Italy and the England, on vacation, with my wife Betsy Barefoot, thank goodness. They lead me to these observations and thoughts.

  1. There is much more of importance going on in the countries I visit than what matters most right now in the U.S. We do receive coverage in the foreign press but we are not the center of the universe. That encourages me to take some things about us less seriously.
  2. The people I talked to are aghast that Donald Trump is garnering the attention he is. And in Britain, there is appropriate attention being paid to the similarities of the rise of Bernie Sanders as a candidate on the left, and Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of Labor. And the pundits are already predicting that his election will drive many more British moderates away from Labor for a more centrist option with the Conservatives. I must be careful about overdrawing similarities in the US and British political systems.
  3. There is more universal admiration for Barack Obama abroad than home.
  4. The majority of people in post industrial, well-developed economies enjoy far greater minimum levels of security than our citizens, in such elementary matters as health care, paid sick leave and vacation. I find them, quite subjectively, to be happier, more content, more focused on their families.
  5. I am amazed at how much vacation time working people, for example, taxi drivers abroad, take compared to our country. They are really serious about their sacred “holidays.” I need to learn from and emulate them in this regard. Americans take less of their authorized time off than any other nationality.
  6. The most ubiquitous symbols of our influence are the US corporate logos and American music. There is no escaping American music anywhere, no matter what the official language.
  7. And after that the most common denominator I see is the hordes of people holding in their hands and using the smartphones made by Apple. Imagine if we could produce something in higher education that everyone not only wanted but absolutely had to have, no matter what their status. Unfortunately, that something is not higher education per se.
  8. My country would be so different if it had a really working train system that our people were committed to using and our government to supporting. I loved my ride in an English passenger train until all lines north and south of London were shut down to investigate and “sort out” a suicide of someone who had jumped in front of a train. I learned that is a preferred choice of suicide method in the UK.
  9. Obesity is much more obvious in my own country than the two I just visited.
  10. There are movies made outside of the US and about people who are not Americans. I learned this experientially by attending with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, the 72nd annual Venice Film Festival, where the majority of films shown and seen by Betsy and me were not made in the US or about Americans. This was made possible for us, by our joining one of the so-called “Times Journeys” marketed by The New York Times. This was a group of US citizens, approximately 25 of us, who purchased the right to be part of this experience, one lead by the senior New York Times film critic, A.O. Scott. It was a peak experience, particularly, to be set in this host city. The Times and its travel company partner, Academic Travel Abroad, will be repeating this opportunity for the September 2016 Venice Film Festival, and also for the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, this coming January 2016. For my readers who enjoy film and are willing to really pay for that experience, I highly recommend these “Journeys.” One of the most pervasive themes in multiple films we saw was the despair of adolescent and young adult, under educated, under or unemployed males, which reminded me of “the male problem” which is so central to the challenges I face in my work with higher education institutions anxious to improve “student success” and retention.
  11. One of the many reasons I have stayed at this work on the so-called “first-year experience” for so long—over four decades, are the attachments I have developed to other academics with whom I initially did some kind of work with, but ultimately became life long friends. Case in point, my wife and I visited what in England is known as “the North” which is the opposite of the American “North.” In England, it is “the South” of the country that has the most wealth and that dominates the government, media, and economic sectors of the country. In a small market village of Guisborough live two retired academics who are two of our most cherished friends. One of them was my partner for a decade or so, starting in 1987, in organizing what the University of South Carolina used to sponsor, our International Conferences on the First-Year Experience. This person is the most competent person in our mutual language of English that I have ever known. He is my very own personal correspondent who reports to me especially on British political news. We are almost weekly e-mail correspondents, and I covet but will never have his writing ability. He keeps encouraging me to retire but I am not heeding his advice.
  12. While in his country, I read about research that is documenting that increasingly Americans are less likely to see and/or meet work colleagues outside of the work environment for social purposes. Now we have other means to both meet people and other reasons for establishing affinity and bonding. I was reminded on this trip that this certainly does not describe me. Most of my closest friends have developed out of my associations within the academy. In many respects then I am not a man of the 21st
  13. And while Britain has its share of the 1% versus all the others and concerns about economic inequality, this country that we used to think so restricted upward social mobility because of its class system, actually has more upward social mobility than our country. In my country, if your parents are not college educated, if you were born into a poor family, if you are African American or Hispanic, it is much more likely you will not improve your status in life, enjoy the rewards of the shrinking American middle class, even for many who do receive a college education. Recent research has shown that both African Americans and Hispanic college graduates were much more likely disrupted and set back by the Great Recession than were other college graduates.

When I was a child, between the ages of 9 and 14, I lived in another country, Canada. I am very thankful I had this experience. It has made me a different person than I would have become had I lived only in one country. It gave me much greater insight into what it meant to be an “American”, particularly the several times I was beat up by other school children because I was an American and they had heard justifiable complaints from their parents about the treatment of Canada by the US government. Foreign travel has also had an impact on my development and sense of my place in our world. This is why it is so important to encourage the same kinds of experiences for our students, no matter what that socio-economic status.

I am glad I just took this trip, and I am glad to be returning “home.” I am proud to be a US citizen, in spite of some of the things we do. I am also a proud “veteran.” But I don’t come home wanting to promote what our right-wing terms American “exceptionalism.” I return home as committed as ever to the work I base here. And my next blog posting will be written from home, not as I return home.

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