Studying Abroad in Britain – is Britain Broad Enough?

Britain is in Europe, a great place to travel-and now there is the Chunnel to cross to France without even noticing that you are leaving an island. Even if the weather leaves a lot to be desired, the place is green and pleasant and there are lots of flower gardens and ancient and beautiful buildings. There is some pretty good music. It is the home of Monty Python and Harry Potter.

But let’s think a little more about study in Britain for Americans. English culture is very familiar on this side of the Atlantic, in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes insidious. The United States was, after all, a British colony, and most schoolchildren’s first encounter with Britain involves making dioramas of the Pilgrims. Then they learn about the Boston Tea Party, forever triggering the image of the British drinking pots of tea while oppressing their colonial cousins with taxes. Then there is the study of English, which is not just about the language but about the literature too. It is hard to get through high school without bumping up against the British roots of American literature, usually in the form of Shakespeare, Great Expectations or A Christmas Carol and fairly random bits of poetry ranging from Keats to Yeats. Recently, there has also been a steady stream of movies of Jane Austen novels, no doubt leading the American public to envision the Brits as good at dancing and riding horses, bad at intimate relationships and hopeless at predicting the weather, since they’re always getting caught in the rain. But Britain is not presented or understood as a foreign society; rather, it is a precursor, an extension, a cousin.

So what are the assumptions that American students might take to Britain when they go there to study? The main one is probably that things will be essentially the same, but smaller, older and quainter. But of course the point of study abroad is that students will encounter the “other”: the goal is to develop what is called “global competence”-a combination of knowledge, skills and the ability to see and sympathize with the point of view derived from a different set of cultural values. But how can that happen if the host culture is just a variant of the familiar? Actually, Britain is different. First of all, it’s a very small island, called Great Britain, which includes Scotland and Wales as well as England. It is also the ancient home of a huge amount of contested cultural history, three languages and-these days-three parliaments. This is a somewhat fractious conglomerate society with values and an understanding of democracy profoundly different from American society, as well as some very different social problems, especially in this post-colonial era of the European Union. But because people speak English, it is possible to remain blissfully unaware of the extent and nature of these differences: the lack of a language barrier masks the presence of a cultural barrier. The U.S. is culturally a lot more like Australia (which has nonetheless plenty of cultural surprises) than it is like the U.K. There are obvious historical as well as geographical reasons for this, but in both cases the same problem arises: the presence of English soothes the outsider into believing that differences are not significant. You understand what people say, and you think you understand what they mean. But that’s not necessarily so.

The assumption of similarity between American and British culture produced by this same-language fallacy can lead to misunderstandings that prevent American students from connecting to the society. For example, there’s the question of friendship. Young people seem pretty familiar-they certainly look familiar-but, in fact, patterns of friendship are far more European than they are American: people make friendships for the long term. The American pattern of quite intense, short-term engagements and many pleasant casual acquaintances is not the British pattern. Students can be surprised by expectations and by the lack of casual warmth of British students, who may seem closed and chilly, since they are not looking for this kind of short-term connection. This is a real cultural difference-short-term visitors can be an irrelevance rather than an opportunity to British students, and this signals a very different underlying value system.

By the same token, Britain is an indirect, rather than a direct, society unlike the U.S. People will seek to avoid confrontations in personal matters, although they will be aggressive in conversation about such topics as politics-which falls into the “neutral” zone for Brits-whereas in the U.S. people systematically avoid political discussion if they think there might be serious or even trivial disagreement. These conversations can make Americans very uncomfortable, since everything is taken personally, whereas for a Brit this is a kind of game. However, even mild criticism from a professor in the U.K. should be taken very seriously indeed-something else Americans may simply miss, using the U.S. yardstick to measure.

Perhaps the single most important, though often invisible, element in all this is the issue of social organization. Americans have a deep commitment to social mobility-in a presidential election not so long ago all candidates seemed at one point to be vying for having had the poorest possible childhood, complete with lack of indoor plumbing-but in the U.K. social class is a complex issue. The personal lives of candidates are not discussed in this way, although comments may be made in the tabloid press. The rigidities of the class system sometimes result in desires and preferences that are difficult for Americans to understand: why would people want their children to have the same life that they have had, and not a better one? The notion of losing one’s children if they move into a different social sphere is not a preoccupation in the U.S. but continues to exist in certain classes in Britain.

Another factor in British life that is powerful in defining the nature of interactions is the presence of many issues surrounding post-colonial immigration to the U.K. The homogeneous society of the 1950s has given way to diversity that has caused significant change and, in combination with the movement toward Europe, real anxiety and discomfort among some segments of British society. Understanding this reality is key to understanding contemporary Britain.

Then there are the academics. British universities are based on a system of outcome assessment: they want to know what students know at the end of it all. American institutions deal in process, with tests and quizzes and papers at every step of the way, and a desire to make certain that appropriate teaching methods ensure that students are in fact learning what they are supposed to learn. In Britain, how you learn is still not really the issue (although movements in this direction are happening). It is still mostly about what you have learned at the end of it all, and that means that expectations must be adjusted. The classroom is an aid, not the motor that drives the learning, and students who understand this will do better at using the space this opens up for independent and reflective study. And so, if this is indeed a society that does not reveal its subtleties easily or quickly, what can American students do to be sure that they prepare themselves as well as possible for a sojourn in the U.K.? U.S. institutions do not usually offer courses about British culture, as they do about French or Spanish or Chinese society. So, it’s up to the student. Students can do a lot for themselves. They can read contemporary fiction by Kazuo Ishiguro and Zadie Smith. They can listen to Bangra and to Gaelic folk music. They can listen to the BBC World Service news, read The Guardian and The Times summary on line, and buy The Economist, which they should anyway-it’s the best of the weekly world affairs magazines. They can tune in to BBC America and watch The Office and The Vice and Prime Suspect and Cracker and get a sense of the diversity and the anxiety of contemporary British society. They can see the movies of Mike Leigh and Hanif Kureshi and Gurinder Chadha. And there are many books that are as entertaining as they are instructive by cranky travel writers like Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson, and by anguished chroniclers like Frederic Raphael and Iris Murdoch.

Then, upon arrival, the thing to do is to become an ethnographer. A lot can be accomplished by noticing things, by writing them down, and by discussing them with people. A friend made on the soccer field won’t deliver a lecture on race relations in Britain, but he may well explain what it meant when people got into an argument about how team members in a diverse area were chosen. A professor will cheerfully reveal the underpinnings of yesterday’s shouting match in the House of Commons. Someone at the bus stop will fill you in on the changing characteristics of the neighborhood with startling detail, while you wait for the Number 16.

So the U.K. is the best of destinations to study abroad and the worst of destinations. As Winston Churchill had it, the U.S. and the U.K. are two nations divided by a common language. This, together with the complexity of a rapidly changing and diversifying society, can make Britain an ideal location for developing global competence-for the student ready to delve below the surface.

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