Dominant Beliefs and Alternative Voices: Discourse, Belief, and Gender in American Study Abroad

By Woolf, Michael | International Educator, March/April 2006 | Go to article overview

Dominant Beliefs and Alternative Voices: Discourse, Belief, and Gender in American Study Abroad


Woolf, Michael, International Educator


Dominant Beliefs and Alternative Voices: Discourse, Belief, and Gender in American Study Abroad by Joan Elias Gore (New York and London: Routledge, 2005)

THE PROFESSION OF STUDY ABROAD is a curious one. We are simultaneously educators and administrators. As administrators, over roughly the last 50 years, we have made many significant improvements in the manner in which we manage and develop our activities. As educators, we have achieved much less in terms of historical or intellectual understanding of those activities. Joan Gore's Dominant Beliefs and Alternative Voices is a vital step forward in this respect. Going beyond narrative history, Gore offers analytical tools through which to understand, and respond to, perceptions that permeate the field.

At the center of the argument is the notion (taken from Foucault) of "episteme": a cultural norm that generates a pervasive or dominant belief whether or not that belief reflects a credible version of reality. "Historical accuracy is irrelevant" in this construct. The prevailing episteme (or myth) has been shaped by "the evolution of the associations between the Grand Tour tradition and study abroad in the United States." Study abroad is burdened by the notion that it is essentially "an insignificant pursuit by wealthy women." That is despite a history in which, in many early manifestations, study abroad was perceived as a mode of education that enhanced U.S. higher education by making up for its parochial limitations. Gore cites, for example, William Allan Neilson, president of Smith College from 1917 to 1939, who asserted that study abroad was "another device for the better education of the better student."

The method of this book is to define the dominant beliefs and their origins: study abroad is a form of grand tour best suited for wealthy young ladies, and is inferior to domestic U.S. higher education. Against those beliefs Gore offers alternative voices and, thus, constructs a kind of dialogue that is simultaneously a sophisticated analytical tool for understanding history, and a device through which there is some potential for reconstructing the contemporary validity and value of study abroad as an essential component of U.S. higher education.

At the core of the episteme is the notion that study abroad is a marginal activity best suited to women. It is a marred and less credible version of U.S. academic activity that "continues to founder in comparison to U.S. higher education." Gore does not deny the weaknesses in some programs and models but she makes the corrective analysis that those weaknesses are, in many cases, a reflection on exported failures in U. …

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