John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What Were My Observations This Time?

John N. Gardner

Since I began my other life as a part-time, but still serial, blogger a few years ago, I have considered myself more and more to be a reporter of sorts, a foreign correspondent for the US higher education student success movement when I travel abroad. There is no better way for me to reflect on my own country and its higher education system than through foreign travel. And because I work for an independent non-profit organization which is not dependent on the traditional academic calendar, I have much better control of my calendar and can finally take vacations at the best times for my wife and me, which are most often those times that many other higher educators are still “in session.” So we become accustomed to taking vacations in the “shoulder” seasons: just after the official summer has ended and schools have resumed, say the first two weeks in September; or early to mid January just after school has resumed again; and/or late April, early May, before the official summer holiday season. Sounds like we don’t like kids doesn’t it and are taking vacations at times when we can most likely avoid them! Not true. We love kids. But these shoulder reasons are really superb for travel because the weather is ideal, temperate; destinations are less crowded; often rates have not yet gone up for peak season, etc.

So the latest trip of this travelling blogger correspondent was very briefly in Milan, Italy, to visit the world famous LaScala opera house (for a ballet!) and then on to the Cote d’Azur in southern France, April 26-May 10, 2013. Some thoughts from this time out of country:

  • The Italians are even more disillusioned with their government than we are with ours. Youth unemployment is a huge problem and many university graduates are having to leave home and country to find work elsewhere especially in the EU. Younger Italians know that they will not enjoy the same level of benefits from their country’s social safety net system as have their parents.

  • Every generation of parents want their children to live better than they have. This is less likely to be the ultimate outcome in Italy, France, and the US, the three countries in reference. So are we educating our students to live lives the quality of which may be measured by indicators other than material accumulation?

  • The European train system is a marvel. It would represent a huge difference in the US way of life if we were to commit to mass transit other than providing the most governmental support for the aviation industry.

  • It is apparent why the Europeans live longer than we Americans; they have profoundly different dietary habits; they exercise more; lead lives of lower stress; vacation more; spend more times with their families.

  • While both Italy and France have become very secular, France, for example, celebrates a national holiday forty days after Easter to mark what is believed to be the ascension of Christ. . We have no such holiday in the United States. This year that date fell immediately following the annual French holiday commemorating the end of World War II (always May 8). While we too officially sanctify the idea of separation of church and state, we too have official holidays for events central to the Christian tradition: Christmas and Easter.

  • In every town in France, no matter what the size, there is a prominently placed monument recording the names of the dead who served France in both World Wars, especially World War One. This would not be true of the United States. Most American college students have little if any idea what the long term effects of the American participation in World War II were in terms of how we live now (for example, as a racially integrated society thanks to the Civil Rights movement which was given huge impetus by the return home of African American veterans who had fought to defeat racist fascism and could no longer tolerate it at home).

  • Even if we required every American college student to take required courses in art history and art appreciation, it is hard for me to imagine my fellow citizens ever having the level of interest in, respect for, and willingness to invest public funds to display art. On this trip we found significant displays of public art even in public parking garages, the most uninteresting, uninspiring public spaces in America!

  • It is finally becoming apparent to an ever widening sector of the population in all three countries that the official governmental policies of “austerity” are not working; are making citizens suffer needlessly; are not contributing to economic recovery; are actually delaying a full and more normal recovery; and were the products of unproven dogma inflicted upon the rest of us by conservative ideologues.

  • The average French citizens we talked to weren’t happy with their government either, one whose leadership was elected on May 6, 2012, when we were also in France. Poor Prime Minister Hollande: he can’t please his own Socialist party on the left; and he certainly can’t please those on the right. His poll numbers are terrible and he is perceived as lacking leadership direction. But these same citizens love our Obama!

  • In the tourist service economy, we met young, university educated students working in the hospitality industry. They truly are much more mobile and bi-lingual than our students. They have an enormous advantage of being members of the 17 nation European Community which enables them to work on their passport, and receive social welfare benefits, anywhere in the EU. Just imagine if our students had such freedoms!

  • We met plenty of obviously middle class citizens who drove upscale taxi cabs, a more prized occupation by far in Europe than the US. These individual transportation entrepreneurs can afford to not be employees of major corporations and/or government agencies because they enjoy the benefits of universal health care regardless of their occupations. These workers travel widely themselves and all we met had the money to visit the US regularly—and do.

  • Higher education institutions are not nearly so visible. You do not notice nearly the same extent of public space and signage devoted to pose secondary education as you would customarily see in the US.

  • For men, in France, it remains a much higher status occupation to be a career restaurant server, in upscale establishments, than would be the case in the US. And it is obvious that women are discriminated against and much less likely to serve in these roles. These men see themselves as members of a long standing “profession” which gives a whole different meaning to the concept of “service” than in the US. And, again, as with the taxi drivers, these workers can pursue this profession and be eligible for universal health benefits.

  • In establishments where we experienced cultural elements of France unimaginable in the US, such as contemporary stylish architecture in public spaces, abundant lavish use of colors, a love for high fashion in clothing, amazing varieties of wines, cheeses, deserts, —all examples of prized French cultural achievement, we would still hear ubiquitous American music.

  • Gross illustrations of economic inequality such as homelessness, people living in substandard housing, panhandling, were much, much less visible to me than in my own country. I was in France almost two weeks and only once did I see a French version of a “trailer park” and their version looked much more stabile in terms of the structural appearance of the modular homes than I would see in my American south.

Two of the disciplines that were most intellectually liberating for me as a college student were sociology and anthropology. Nothing else I studied yielded for me a fuller appreciation for the range of possible human behaviors and creations that we have come to know as “culture”, broadly defined. I am reminded on each trip abroad, how much more I have yet to learn and how when I do, it puts my own country in perspective. And that perspective reminds me of the socially redeeming value of my profession of higher educator.

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