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The Ugly American

International Education and the Image of the U.S. Abroad

By Alex Neff

In 1959 William Burdick and Eugene Burdick published The Ugly American, a novel chronicling the mishandling of foreign policy by culturally ignorant U.S. diplomats in a fictitious South East Asian country. Senator William Fulbright, who had introduced the Fulbright Scholarship in 1946, denounced the book and thereby assured its commercial success. This early link between study abroad and the term “Ugly American” is ironic but perhaps fitting.

In the 1950s study abroad was just becoming a standard albeit small part of U.S. higher education. Over 50 years on many more students are going abroad than ever before. However, the U.S. still suffers from a negative image abroad inspite of the best efforts of study abroad professionals.

The image of the Ugly American is unchanged since 1959: someone who is ignorant of and indifferent to foreign cultures and believes the U.S. is superior to other countries. Sometimes this ignorance and arrogance is full-blown, as in the crime sprees by U.S. soldiers in Japan. Sometimes it is subtle, as in the assumption that Americans can always make do by speaking English wherever they travel.

Encountering Anti-American Sentiment

Our students who travel abroad are often surprised to encounter anti-American sentiment, and few students seem to have given much prior thought to the way in which the U.S. is viewed by other countries. Part of America’s public relations problem has to do with international politics and, despite Senator Fulbright’s high hopes, it is difficult to imagine that study abroad could do anything about it. The U.S. is a relative newcomer to world affairs. High tariffs and an isolationist foreign policy made us a virtual hermit nation for much of our history. We were briefly roused from our isolation in 1917 after three years of war in Europe threatened to destroy Western civilization. But in 1920 we buried our head in the sand once more by refusing to join the League of Nations. Only since the 1940s has the U.S. been consistently at the center of world affairs.

Even now, our commitment to globalization is unclear. Consider the fact that the United Nations has to beg the U.S. Congress to meet its financial obligations -which remain unpaid. Or the fact that the U.S. provides less international aid as a percentage of GDP than any other industrialized country.

America’s Self-Perception

Other countries see a certain amount of hubris in the American conception of its role in the world. Compared to many countries, the U.S. lacks experience as a world power and the realism that goes with it. We often seem unaware of the contradictions between our ideals and our actions. When we lecture other countries about respecting minority rights, we seem to forget the injustices against African Americans that we have tolerated and tried to justify for centuries. When we speak about the rule of law, we seem to ignore the fact that we have the highest homicide rate of any industrialized country. And so on. The discrepancies between our words and deeds is not lost abroad, and our students must face them.

When asked to defend controversial U.S. policies the ugle American response is to put ignorance on display and attempt to justify U.S. policy against all attacks. Some predeparture literature propagates this approach by reminding students to be “cultural ambassadors” of the U.S. It is far better for students to see such encounters as a chance to find out more about their host country and what issues are most important to the people there.

But even if all U.S. study abroad parti-cipants heeded this advice, with only 3 percent of all undergraduates ever studying abroad, it would be naïve to think that this could have any significant effect on the conduct of U.S. foreign policy or of the way in which it is perceived abroad.

The image of Americans abroad is also a product of our general lack of knowledge about world affairs and world cultures. According to a recent report by the American Council on Education, only 18 percent of U.S. college graduates have even minimal proficiency in a foreign language, and only 7 percent of students meet a basic standard of “global preparedness.”

If most college students graduate with no foreign language skills, no experience studying in another country, and no understanding of the international dimensions of their major is it any wonder that Americans have an image problem abroad?

Who Is to Blame?

At least part of the blame for the failure of study abroad to change our ugly American image falls on the study abroad profession itself. International education is still struggling to find its place in academia. To many professors, study abroad is viewed as glorified tourism. Those of us in the profession are accused of trying to pass off a semester in an idyllic location with a low drinking age as a creditable academic experience.

Unfortunately, brochures from study abroad programs in Australia, for example, show more photographs of beach volleyball and surfboards than they do of classrooms and libraries. Many students are no doubt drawn to study abroad for these reasons. In a survey of college-bound high school seniors by the American Council on Education, 71 percent of students cited their main reason for wanting to study abroad as “seeing other parts of the world.” Only 6 percent said they were mainly motivated by academic reasons such as “learning another language” or “studying things you can’t in the U.S.” (American Council on Education, “Studentpoll,” Vol. 4, No. 3).

Faced with the challenge of attracting students by giving them what they want, international educators defend study abroad as broadening students’ horizons, fostering global understanding, or creating world citizens. While this no doubt happens, study abroad has engaged in so little self-criticism that such statements are really little more than self-aggrandizement.

Too Little Assessment

The Institute of International Education defines study abroad as any experience outside the U.S. that earns a student academic credit in a U.S. institution. By this definition, the student who speaks no French and takes a 2-week study tour of France with other American students is counted as a study abroad participant. Short-term experiences like these are becoming the norm. In fact, less than half of study abroad participantstaking classes taught in another language. Otherwise, students will return from study abroad experiences still confused and overwhelmed by the country they visited and more convinced than ever of the superiority of U.S. culture.

Obviously, the U.S.has a legacy it can be proud of—a form of democratic government that has operated well for over two centuries, the world’s most resilient and strongest economy, and a recognition of the value of the individual. But no superpower can remain one for very long unless it makes it a point to understand the rest of the world, inside and out. To avoid the label of ugliness, our pride must be tempered with humility.

ALEX NEFF is a Program Officer at Brethren Colleges Abroad.

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