Caitlin Flanagan has weighed in on the phenomenon of students studying abroad, and the organizations which profit from them doing so. While these students will all discuss how they are “giving back,” what they are really doing is taking. I was especially struck by her quote from one of these organizations that told students they could go to the third-world to “‘play soccer with some children, help your host mother prepare dinner, or have some down time to read.'” Well – guess what? – they can do that here. Why not help your own mom prepare dinner? As P.J. O’Rourke once said: “Everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to help mom with the dishes.”

I am deeply skeptical of these study abroad programs. I have been losing this battle at my college for some time now to colleagues who cling to the illusion that these “experiences” amount to anything much more than an exercise in self-indulgence whose huge expense is justified by having ones horizons “broadened.” I’m skeptical of that claim, but in any case how about we spend more time discussing how we might deepen their horizons.

Chesterton wrote: “…travel narrows the mind. At least a man must make a double effort of moral humility and imaginative energy to prevent it from narrowing his mind.” Too true, and it’s my judgment that most of these programs are more about upward mobility and creating the sense that one is doing good without actually having to do it than anything else. More charitably, they’re simply a lark on someone else’s dime.

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Jeffrey Polet
Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.


  1. Your quote from Chesterton reminds me of another:

    “If we were to-morrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known. And it is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives. First he invents modern hygiene and goes to Margate. Then he invents modern culture and goes to Florence. Then he invents modern imperialism and goes to Timbuctoo. He goes to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers. He almost rides on a camel. And in all this he is still essentially fleeing from the street in which he was born; and of this flight he is always ready with his own explanation. He says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive.”

  2. Of course, you don’t even touch on the prevalence of college students who go on “missions” to such lands as Spain (because, as is well known..there are no Christians there). Quite an ugly thing if you ask me. If I were to think myself a missionary, or apostle, I would at least have the decency to go somewhere that preaching might cause me to get relieved of my head. Anything else is just a tax deductible vacation.

  3. I beg to differ, though I admire Chesterton, perhaps he was directing his rant only at idiots. I studied in Paris France for 1 year in college, that was 25 years ago. It was one of the most interesting and profoundly changing experiences I have ever had. I gained a sense of history and culture that remains with me today. In particular I took a class on French Cultural History with Professor Bardot. I learned about Primaticcio and Rosso by looking at their work at Fountainbleau and how Francois 1 brought them back after invading Naples. I learned about Colbert (the real one) and Mazarin and his Academie as I walked by it, about Le Vau and Le Notre and I can point to their work in Paris. I can tell you why the Tuileries garden and the louvre are so long, and what was at the end of it which is no longer ( a castle, a queen and a certain monk) I could go on and on. If you don’t recognize any of these names or what they did perhaps you should have studied abroad as well ! It was all brought very much to life by the French themselves. They have a much deeper sense of history and dare I say poetry about life. By interacting with them I learned about myself and how America can be seen from a different perspective, it certainly changed mine.

    As for this community service business of going to Cambodia to “do good” I think it is as silly and self indulgent as the Peace Corps only twice as useless. (There is no continuity to these projects, it is mere PR)


  4. Dismissing foreign study and travel out of hand is intemperate and everyone knows my position on intemperance.

    The ugly American, despite his prideful exceptionalism is well advised to get out there and put a stinkeye on the wider world but you are right in a way, there are places in this country which should be helped by her own citizens before her citizens help someone in the Hindu-Kush. Then again, the old english speaking denizens of Appalachian hollers are damned correct in smelling a rat when some smiling sociologist shows up on their creaking door step with smirking interns in tow.

  5. Why would you pay any attention to Flanagan, who has made a career, with the help of a full time nanny and other assistants, of going around telling other women to be stay at wifes/mothers?

    The woman is as sincere as Phyllis Schlafly.

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