Consequences of Economic Downturn -- Part IV: Borrowing & personal responsibility
Amartya Sen on India and China (in New York Review of Books)

Is Studying Abroad Morally Corrupting?

Jonathan B. Wight

Colleges have been pushing students to study abroad as a way to broaden their parochial horizons.  While there is an academic purpose (to understand the world) there is also a heavy dose of moral idealism lurking in the background.  Someone who has traveled the world is less likely to be morally absolute, more likely to take the view “When in Rome, do as the Romans…."

Thanks to Brent Butgereit, a student attending a recent APEE conference, I received this lovely quote from The Wealth of Nations (V.1.164).  Smith takes the view that sending young people off – unsupervised – during highly formative years will generally result in disaster:

In England it becomes every day more and more the custom to send young people to travel in foreign countries immediately upon their leaving school, and without sending them to any university. Our young people, it is said, generally return home much improved by their travels. A young man who goes abroad at seventeen or eighteen, and returns home at one and twenty, returns three or four years older than he was when he went abroad; and at that age it is very difficult not to improve a good deal in three or four years. In the course of his travels he generally acquires some knowledge of one or two foreign languages; a knowledge, however, which is seldom sufficient to enable him either to speak or write them with propriety. In other respects he commonly returns home more conceited, more unprincipled, more dissipated, and more incapable of any serious application either to study or to business than he could well have become in so short a time had he lived at home. By travelling so very young, by spending in the most frivolous dissipation the most precious years of his life, at a distance from the inspection and control of his parents and relations, every useful habit which the earlier parts of his education might have had some tendency to form in him, instead of being riveted and confirmed, is almost necessarily either weakened or effaced. Nothing but the discredit into which the universities are allowing themselves to fall could ever have brought into repute so very absurd a practice as that of travelling at this early period of life. By sending his son abroad, a father delivers himself at least for some time, from so disagreeable an object as that of a son unemployed, neglected, and going to ruin before his eyes.  (Wealth of Nations V.1.164)

My experience is that many students who study abroad do come back with positive life-changing experiences; study abroad achieves its objectives on many levels.  Of course, there are exceptions.  But for those exceptions – students seeking unsupervised mayhem overseas – wouldn’t the outcome be the same if they had stayed behind?  Students are also largely unsupervised these days when they stay at the home university, so Smith would likely be equally critical of that.

Any thoughts?


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