Shunning American Studies

University students want to study in U.S., but not about it

Opinion | Will Savage | December 2008 / January 2009

While more European students than ever want to study in America, fewer seem to want to learn about it.

Enrollments from overseas have reached a record high this year, with the total number of foreign students in the U.S. rising by seven percent over last year. Yet, as much as students may want to study in the United States, the number enrolling in American Studies has dropped dramatically, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center. The number of British students alone applying for American Studies, for example, has nearly halved since 2002.

Educators credit the loss of U.S. prestige under the Bush administration as responsible for the change.

"Students don’t trust us," Walter Grunzweig, an American Studies professor at Dortmund University told TIME Magazine in November. "We have to convince them that we are not a propaganda branch of the American Embassy."

The roots of the discontent with American society can be traced back to a range of policies that have been widely unpopular abroad. This includes – but is not limited to - the Iraq War, along with the torture of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Keeping in line with their political beliefs, university students are recoiling from degree programs with an American orientation.

Keele University in the U.K., for example, has recently dismissed half of its American Studies department, as applications for this formally top-ranked degree program have dried up.

Although the study of American society and history is declining in Europe, an increasing number of students are enrolling for other degree programs offered by universities in the U.S.  One of the recent favorites has become Native American Studies, a topic in which students are confident even the most pro-American professors cannot make U.S. government policies look good.

Austria, ranked 18th in the number of students currently in the U.S., sent nearly three thousand during the last academic year.  However, more unconventional study abroad locations have become increasingly popular in recent academic years.

"While the U.K. remains the most favored destination of American students abroad, both China and India have seen significant increases during recent years," noted Dr. Lonnie Johnson, the Executive Director of the Austrian-American Educational Commission.

The recent increase has been aided by efforts to enact the reforms called for by the Bologna Process, an education agenda agreed upon by 29 European countries, and less formally with the U.S. to ease the transition from amoung universities. By equalizing education standards, students have an easier time moving back and forth between systems.

"The American Undergraduate education system utilizes a four year program with an emphasis on general studies," said John Yoop, an Associate Provost for Educational Partnerships and International Affairs from the University of Kentucky. "The European system uses a three year program that drops the general studies in favor of focusing on the students major."

The history of students traveling in significant numbers to other countries for higher education dates back to the post World War II era. The U.S. government, in combination with the Marshall Plan, began to set the stage to allow students to study abroad by creating the Fulbright Program. The legislation to start the program was presented to congress by Arkansas Senator James Fulbright, who was inspired to create it after seeing the devastation caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S. military.

Fulbright believed that in order to ensure that such devastation would never occur again, people from all countries needed to be exposed to each others cultures. The program's intent was to "increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange." The first exchanges to take place in Austria were in Vienna during the 1951-52 academic year.

Although the decline in the number of students taking American Studies has dropped sharply, many factors have begun to stall the drop-off. The recent presidential election in the States sparked renewed interest on campuses across Europe. This, combined with the high number of students traveling across the Atlantic, is perceived as a step toward the repair of mutual respect across the globe.

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