Wednesday, November 30, 2005


Demonising America

This essay is from a listserv I subscribe to...It made me feel a little
better, and I hope it helps you too. Thanks to Dr. Woolf for his permission
to republish (an obfuscation report first!)
Dear Colleagues,

I've just returned from two excellent conferences in Miami: CIEE and
The Forum on Education Abroad. Both conferences, in different ways, raised
some significant issues and contained some very pertinent debates. The
Forum's work in particular, with its concern with practical and applicable
measures, seems to me to be creating an important agenda.

Although the conferences were substantially different there was one
common thread that I'd like to ask colleagues about and that might lead to
some interesting discussion. Speaker after speaker (especially the keynotes)
constructed a version of America that was deeply negative and presented
a bleak perception of the US environment as anti-intellectual and
politically bankrupt. I share, by the way, a sense of unease with current realities
in the USA (and incidentally in my home, the UK). That said, I don't think
that this construct is either true or helpful in general, and is especially
damaging in the context of international education for the following

1. It perpetuates a negative stereotype of the USA which enforces
prejudice elsewhere (in Europe for example) and will negatively impact on the
capacity of US institutions to attract international scholars and students. It
also gives study abroad students a very negative perception of their own
culture and environment. I'm not suggesting that our community should lie about
the realities or perpetuate a myth that everything is wonderful but that,
rather than present a uniformly bleak picture, there should be a commitment to
a more nuanced view that recognises ambiguity. The anti-American
sentiment that is expressed routinely within our community by American colleagues
seems to have become a kind of rhetorical mantra.

2. Above all, I don't think that the US intellectual community
recognises the value of its own dissent. Instead it has constructed a demonised
version of American identity without integrating into that identity the
tradition of dissent which is integral within American civilization and is,
incidentally, more than apparent in the current situation.

In short, I wish my American friends and colleagues would stop beating
themselves up so much.

This seems an appropriate thought for Thanksgiving - which I hope you
are all enjoying.

Best regards


Dr Michael Woolf


Foundation for International Education

114 Cromwell Road

London SW7 4ES

United Kingdom.

Telephone: 020 7591 7776


follow up:

I'll add one last thought before I subside into silence.

There is a great, long and noble tradition of American dissent:
Thoreau, Whitman, Luther King, Guthrie, Ginsberg, Vidal, Bob Dylan,
Philip Roth etc. etc. etc. We all have our heroic naysayers.

This is also part of the American tradition. Shouldn't that be part of
the American culture that we represent and present?

I am proud of that aspect of the culture that I spent many years studying
as an outsider.

In an nutshell that's why I think we should present a more nuanced view.

Best regards

Mike Woolf

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