A Look at the New World

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

For an unworldly Hoosier boy, the prospect of going to Europe sounded romantic and adventurous. Back in the 1960s, Notre Dame began to develop its first study-abroad programs—there are now some 20 possibilities—and the one based in Angers, France, started in 1966, the fall of my freshman year. So that semester I enrolled in a class with what you might call zero-based understanding of the French language. Sans an iota of previous instruction, I dreamily hoped I could conjugate enough verbs to spend sophomore year in France.

I’m now convinced a mother’s prayers rather than linguistic mastery sent me across the Atlantic the following August. The word callow grossly understates how at least one 18-year-old felt during the initial weeks of innocence abroad.

To have lived in France at that time, particularly during the massive student and laborer protests of spring 1968, allowed an outsider to witness a country going through the throes of revolutionary change. Schools, including the university where we studied, closed. Workers struck. Postal and transportation systems stopped. Demonstrations, often bloody, abounded.

What was happening back home proved just as engrossing, as I learned the value of studying America from different vantage points. The assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy, the growing opposition to the Vietnam War, the violent racial unrest and Lyndon Johnson’s surprise decision not to seek re-election all received maximum attention abroad. The commentary raised searching questions about the stability and future of the United States.

For the first time, I read beyond the sports pages of newspapers and magazines. I developed the daily habit of picking up the International Herald Tribune. As I went through the pages, my youthful ambition of someday becoming a sportswriter began to fade.

What was occurring elsewhere at that tumultuous time constantly competed with the daily enchantments of a provincial French city. As I followed the swirling currents of events overseas, I started to finagle for ways to get closer to them.

Saint Augustine once wrote, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” The thinking behind that precept, I realize today, influenced trips on my own away from Angers: to Israel and its newly occupied (still controversial) territories, to Greece under the control of a military junta that had just seized power, and to the Soviet Union in some chillier days of the Cold War, among other places.

I now better understand that period’s career-shaping consequences. In one of his countless quotable asides, G.K. Chesterton, a connoisseur of paradox, observed: “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” To a degree, my student experience served that ironic purpose. Despite seductive diversions in journalism and politics, I finished graduate work in American literature and American studies, continuing all the while to remain fascinated by what the New World means to the rest of the world’s peoples, cultures, political systems, businesses and everything else.

Since 1997, I’ve taught away from the Notre Dame campus on five occasions. I trace this pedagogical wanderlust to my own, long-departed student days at the University. After returning to Notre Dame to join the faculty, I looked forward to a time when teaching off-campus might arise. Learning a new language or revivifying my moribund French seemed as remote as running a 4-minute mile, but English-speaking assignments did present themselves.

In each case, I made sure to pack blank notebooks for the random jottings that new activities and perceptions provoke. The teacher would also be a student, learning about another country and more about one’s own in the process.

In a foreign clime, I discovered that the unexpected can be amusing, even telling. During an atypical cold spell at the University of Notre Dame Australia in Fremantle, I was surprised one morning to find several sun-accustomed young Aussies wearing gloves as they took notes. At University College Dublin, after encouraging more robust discussion among Irish graduate students about America’s influence, each session lasted longer than the previous one, and, blessedly, there was no impatient fidgeting. In a seminar at Saint Augustine College of South Africa, I listened to passionate arguments from blacks and whites that journalists there should concentrate more on positive news to help build that country’s fledgling, post-apartheid democracy rather than being preoccupied with coverage of social and political problems.

At one foreign post, a student expressed his cross-cultural shock at my Yankee severity by complaining to the dean that the visiting instructor actually seemed serious in demanding regular attendance. Beyond such classroom contretemps, extended sojourns elsewhere opened my eyes to distinctive traits of another culture and what they signify for life there.

In Australia, for instance, you hear repeated reference to “the tall poppy syndrome.” This, I quickly learned, has no relevance to gardening. Down Under, the egalitarian ethos remains so strong that to stand out from everyone else raises eyebrows. The indigenous impulse to find out why someone is different takes the shape of public examination—often undertaken by media sleuthing. That process can, and usually does, reduce a person’s standing, with the “poppy” returning to the relatively same level occupied by fellow Aussies.

In Ireland, it doesn’t take long to realize that contemporary politics intertwines with history at almost every turn. The Easter Rising of 1916 is a key moment on the road to an independent Irish Free State, formed in 1921 and followed in 1949 with the creation of the Republic of Ireland. But the origins of the republican movement, with its goal of ending British sovereignty throughout the island, dates back to the 18th century—and, to be sure, Catholic/Protestant “troubles” took root a couple of hundred years earlier than that. To understand the current Northern Ireland peace process and general day-to-day political life in Ireland, a historical primer is as essential as a morning newspaper.

Outside the classroom, citizens of others countries are naturally eager to tell a visitor about their own domestic matters. Before long, however, the discussions evolve into questions (and opinions) about the United States. In today’s globalized world, fascination abounds about our influence and dominance, especially in the realms of popular culture, economic involvement and governmental policies.

Few conversations circumvent political matters. What’s striking to a visitor is the fixation on the American presidency that exists abroad. The United States might be this time’s sole acknowledged superpower, yet that status tends to get personalized by focusing on the occupant of the White House. It’s as though there’s a realization that our president’s decisions will ultimately mean something—for better or for worse—to everyone beyond our borders.

During the later years of Bill Clinton’s time in office, it was common to be interrogated in winking, wry ways about the relevance of his private appetites, leading to the more encompassing concern about whether Puritanism survives as the American creed for someone in public life. With George W. Bush, a certain quizzical fear about his administration’s foreign policy has constantly competed with the broader fascination with the U.S. role in the world.

I was stunned by the question a South African woman stood up to ask in Johannesburg at a public lecture that took place even before the war in Iraq began. She wanted to know if I thought September 11 was “fortuitous” in permitting the president to pursue his international objectives.

By implying that the multiple tragedies of that September day could have been fortunate happenstance suggested a depth of worry and criticism I never expected—and tried, however vainly, to refute. As it turned out, though, her question proved more restrained than some of the pointedly scabrous queries that followed. It was an unsettling but instructive evening.

A year later, during the U.S. occupation in Iraq and while teaching at Notre Dame’s London Centre, I was struck by the assessments about America one found in European sources. Books, magazines and newspapers surveyed the subject from several angles, and the BBC World Service devoted a six-part radio documentary, “Age of Empire,” to the global reach and stature of the United States today. Examining these appraisals, I came to the conclusion that foreigners view us differently from how we see ourselves.

In his 2004 State of the Union address, President Bush repeated an assertion he had made in earlier speeches: “We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire.” Such statements notwithstanding, people abroad perceive an empire in fact (of daily commerce, cultural influence, political involvement and military presence) that belies protestations to the contrary.

Explaining this “no, I’m not/yes, you are” phenomenon, one British analyst has written: “The United States is now an empire in all but name—the first case in history of an empire in denial.” Another non-American observer puts it in less starkly Freudian terms: “It [the United States] is an empire, in other words, without consciousness of itself as such.”

How foreigners, rightly or wrongly, react to what they interpret as Yankee imperialism covers a spectrum of response. Support, rejection and bewilderment joust with each other whenever the subject comes up. Sometimes, however, a reaction can be worrying. During office hours last spring, a Notre Dame student in the London program told me about a troubling recent occurrence. While reading by herself in a coffee shop, she sensed an older man at a nearby table watching her. As she looked up, he asked, “You American?” When she admitted her citizenship, he began yelling at her in an unknown tongue before storming out and abandoning a fresh cup of coffee. Now the object of everyone’s attention, the student promptly departed, wondering what triggered his outburst. She’ll never know—but also will never forget the incident.

Particularly with a foreign program, what happens away from the classroom can rival in educational benefit the more formal course work. In my own student days, I happened to be in Moscow when Robert Kennedy was assassinated in California during his presidential campaign.

At the Tass News Agency office, as I stood in front of several huge, black-and-white pictures of the New York senator sprawled out on the floor after the shooting, the man next to me inquired if I might be American. I nodded a yes. I remember his next question as though it were posed yesterday: “Why do you Americans kill the Kennedys?” His curiosity about national complicity—rather than the tangled webs of conspiracy theories—put the matter in a sobering, even disturbing perspective.

Near the end of my last overseas sojourn in London, I spent a rewarding Saturday morning touring the Chelsea home (with its soundproof writing study) of Thomas Carlyle, the 19th-century historian and essayist. My attention focused on an observation of his I stumbled upon: “What we become depends on what we read after all of the professors have finished with us. The greatest university of all is a collection of books.”

Carlyle is right — but only up to a point. Continuing enlightenment also comes from immersing oneself in the surroundings and cultures of people other than ourselves. Recognizing this makes the world beyond our shores less foreign—and our understanding of America more acute. In addition, one would hope, it somehow helps the perennial student-traveler in trying to become a better teacher.

Robert Schmuhl is professor of American studies and director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy at the University.