Study abroad strengthens belief in America
December 24, 2020
Why should the Ashbrook Scholar travel? Given the supports to her education offered on campus—great professors, a shared community of inquiry, a program that focuses on the great texts themselves, rather than on scholars who chatter about the texts—why venture abroad? The French essayist Michel de Montaigne suggested a reason:
Traveling through the world produces a marvelous clarity in the judgment . . . . We are all of us confined and enclosed within ourselves, and see no farther than the end of our nose. This great world is a mirror where we must see ourselves in order to know ourselves.
To put it in more political terms, spending time in foreign lands gives one perspective on one’s own country. When Lindsey Grudnicki opted to spend her junior year abroad, studying at Queen Mary, University of London, she vowed to seize the opportunity to broaden both her personal and political perspectives.
At Queen Mary, she might have surrounded herself with fellow Americans, since about 200 other Americans were enrolled there. “I got to know a couple, as it is natural for people of the same cultural background to flock together when they are in a foreign place,” Grudnicki admits. But she also “made friends who were British, Bulgarian, and Dutch, as well as from Northern Ireland.”
She steeped herself in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of London’s East End, “which is traditionally home to a large number of immigrants and low-income residents. Getting on the bus near campus, I would hear Arabic, Chinese, and a variety of African languages spoken.” The student body at Queen Mary is diverse, since the school “was founded to educate the working class, and still carries that mission. There are more international students and more children of immigrants on this campus” than on others in the University of London system.
Grudnicki enrolled in courses not taught at Ashland University, choosing subjects “that were culturally-specific to Britain.” She took “a full year course called ‘Representing London’ that involved reading 18th century literature about the city—part of Boswell’s voluminous journal and novels like Moll Flanders that showed the seamy underbelly of the city—while doing historical site visits. I took semester-long courses on Thomas Hardy, the Romantic poets, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. I also took two history courses: ‘Society and State (in Tudor England)’ and an especially interesting course, ‘Gladstone and Ireland.’”
The British university system allots only two hours of seminar time per week to each course in which a student enrolls. Students are expected to work with their books, unsupervised, during the bulk of the week. Working in this independent manner is strikingly different from studying in the Ashbrook Scholar community, Grudnicki found. In an essay she wrote for Res Publica she commented on “the blessing of the Ashbrook Program family, where the professors know you almost too well and it is a challenge to get a word in over your peers in class.”
But the open schedule allowed Grudnicki to put some space between the grindstone and the end of her nose. Instead of spending “all my time striving for the best grade,” she traveled during her long weekends. “I said to myself, there’s never going to be a year like this again.” An English major, Lindsey journeyed about Britain, visiting the homes of favorite authors: “I went to the Lake District and saw Wordsworth’s cottage, I saw Beatrice Potter’s cottage, I visited Dylan Thomas’s home in Wales. I got a sense of the communities these writers were a part of, which helped flesh out their imaginative worlds.”
Moreover, Grudnicki “travelled a lot around the UK, visiting all four kingdoms—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and seeing the Republic of Ireland also. Travelling from Cork in the south to Belfast in Northern Ireland was really fascinating. In Europe, you can travel for an hour by train and find yourself in a totally different place.”
She went to continental Europe as well, travelling east as far as Poland. This was a pilgrimage to her own ancestral homeland, and to the home of her favorite Revolutionary hero, one who is seldom remembered today: General Tadeusz Kosciuszko. “He helped train Washington’s soldiers, fought at the Battle of Saratoga, and designed West Point. Afterwards he returned to Poland and in the 1790s, after Poland tried to pass a more republican constitution, he led an uprising that failed.” But Kosciuszko’s democratic idealism inspired poetic tributes from the likes of Coleridge, Keats, and Byron, while 19th century Americans commemorated his assistance to the Revolution in statues that still stand in Detroit, Boston, and other cities.
Grudnicki is writing her senior thesis on Kosciuszko, who was “viewed by the two generations who followed him as a purer son of liberty than Washington or Jefferson (with whom he formed close friendships). I’ll consider how Kosciuszko was portrayed in British Romantic poetry.” One poignant story that Grudnicki will cover shows the Polish General’s clear-sighted view of an American weakness. “Kosciuszko had an estate in America that he willed entirely to Jefferson, asking him to use it to free his slaves. Of course, Jefferson didn’t do that.” As one who has experienced the perspective that travel brings, Grudnicki can appreciate this admirer of America who gave his adoptive homeland not only material aid, but also the benefit of a foreign perspective.
The traveler who fully engages a foreign culture can earn at least a partial right to judge it. This inevitably happens as one experiences foreign customs and compares them to one’s own. Grudnicki’s essay for Res Publica commented on what she sees as a real limitation of the British university system (and of most non-American university systems): the selection of students for specific fields of study, determined mostly by secondary school exam results. “There is no ‘undecided’ option for students entering university” in Britain, Grudnicki wrote, “no opportunity to discover your true interests as you develop into an adult.” Much as she relished the opportunity to soak up British culture at its source, Grudnicki found herself returning to America with a new appreciation for that “belief inherent in our national character that we can reach for our dreams, whatever they may be.”