This program reflects our belief that a genuine study-abroad program must offer to students something more than a license to take any courses that satisfy their university requirements, and to enjoy the novelty of a different country without any guidance. Study abroad should provide not an exercise in touristic exoticism but rather an experience in how to integrate difference into one’s world.
Cultural immersion is, therefore, only a beginning. The primary goals of intercultural programs should be:
- firstly, to enhance students’ sensitivity to and understanding of the inner workings of other cultures;
- secondly, to teach them to appreciate and respect these cultures as they do their own; and
- thirdly, to lead them to self-reflection, and to re-evaluation of both the culture visited and their home culture.
One semester is too short a period to achieve these goals by simple interaction with the “natives.” To accelerate the process of cultural comprehension, our program requires all its students to participate in two cross-cultural “core courses” which offer complementary perspectives on Czech/European and American cultural ideologies and practices. They are
The study of Central Europe has been misleadingly neglected in both Western Europe and the U.S.
Prior to 1945, the cultural and geo-political construct of “Central Europe” comprised Germany, the (former) Hapsburg Empire (Austria, the Czech lands, Hungary, Slovenia), and Poland. After 1945, the Cold War displaced this “Central Europe” concept by redividing the continent into Communist “Eastern Europe” and non-Communist “Western Europe,” Even now, decades after the end of the Cold War in 1989, “Central Europe” has not quite been recovered as a geographic, cultural, and analytic category. Instead, we often hear about “East Central Europe” or “East Europe and the Balkans.”
Yet Central Europe, through its multiculturalism, resistance to political consolidation, and other characteristic regional dynamics, has foundationally influenced the shape of 21st-century Europe. There, “Enlightenment” ideas were institutionalized in state structures and practices. There, ethnic nationalism arose and prospered, and from there spread continent- and world-wide. There, the practices of the paternalistic welfare state were initiated and tested. There, Marxism and Communism first provided a popular alternative to economic, political, and diplomatic exploitation by “capitalists” who through unrepresentative institutions maintained control over their states and some even over entire empires.
In short, in gaining a more balanced, nuanaced, and accurate understanding of contemporary Europe, the sentiment behind the European Union, and European mental habits, an in-depth exposure to Central European intellectual. history is invaluable.
The program also has another ambition—to open discussion about the idea of “Western culture.”
This concept is, from our point of view, an overgeneralized and inadequate one because it does not recognize certain central differences between European and American cultural paradigms—and, in particular, the profound divergences resulting from the contrast between European ethnic/integral Romanticism and American (particularly U.S.) subjective Romanticism.
Consequently, the essential difference between Europe and America (the U.S. specifically) is that the European civilization is made up of ethnically homogeneous nation-states. Each of them defines itself against others, making its language and history a centerpiece of their identity. Pluralism exists only on the supranational level while each state jealously guards its unique cultural experience and perpetuates it by carefully guided socialization. This results, logically and intentionally, in marginalization of minority cultures within the bounds of nation-states. While this may come as a shock particularly to Americans, Europeans consider this valorization of one’s culture over others absolutely natural and necessary for the protection of their cultural heritage. Here, the fundamental emphasis in the U.S. culture on equality, diversity, and the placing of authority in individual judgment stands out in high relief and begs for examination.
European ethnic groups have not existed from time immemorial. The history of Central Europe offers an excellent example of nation-formation in the recent past. Since the program is based in the Czech Republic, we examine the Czechs as a classic example of an ethnic group that has had to fight hard to acquire cultural autonomy and, eventually, their own nation-state.
However, examining Czech culture is just a first step. The next logical question to ask is how these self-consciously culturally and ethnically exclusive European nations can work with each other. What is the place of non-Western groups and non-Caucasian races in Europe? How can minorities within culturally compact nation-states maintain their own culture? Here the European integration process provides some answers.
And finally, how to relate the European experience to the American one? Are Europeans similar to their transatlantic neighbors or are they, in spite of superficial similarities, fundamentally different?
One discovers early on that European cultures are much more “authoritative” entities: they decisively valorize their cultural heritage, as defined by certain appointed cultural “authorities” to whom members of the nation are acculturated to defer. By contrast, the U.S. cultural paradigm is, in principle, more “democratic” since it tries to accommodate all groups precisely by not valorizing any one above any other. This leads to a constant erosion of differences and to a reluctance to recognize any authority external to the self as a measure and a rule. This can be both a loss and a gain, a weakness and a strength.
It is certainly instructive to trace the development and implications of this distinctive American ideology, as well as the ingenious, cultural-paradigm-based demands of disempowered and marginalized groups in American society to be included into its pluralistic culture. But can the American strategy of inclusion be applied to address European “minority” vs. “majority” dilemmas without subverting the cultural uniqueness that every European nation cherishes and wishes to retain?
We believe that exploration of this uneasy relationship between Europeans and Americans, significant as it is for Europeans and Americans, will be of equally great importance for non-Westerners as they come into closer contact with misleadingly-labeled “Western culture.” Similarly, “Westerners”—whether Europeans or Americans—have much to learn about and from the multiple perspectives of various non-Western cultures.
That is why we bring Europeans, Americans, and non-Westerners into close contact in our classes and during common cultural excursions – so they can all experience, interact with, and learn from each other about the “other” and themselves. In this process, knowledge, empathy, and reserving judgments are invaluable and indispensable.