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.