It took a while for ideas to settle out in my head from the Student Affairs Practice in Europe tour. During our travels, I kept mulling over a number of issues and I couldn't determine which would be the 3-4 items that were most critical. After getting some distance, I arrived at three essential areas; the promise of the arts, balancing care and independence, and forming the dialectic that allows us all to learn.
The promise of the arts was very graphically demonstrated at the Universite du Luxembourg conference that pulled EU universities together. The universities who participated in the conference are attempting to implement the Bologna Declaration - the EU educational integration statement. One of our colleagues at Universite du Luxembourg, Francois Carbon, has a huge commitment to the arts and uses it as a way to involve students positively with each other. His description was most interesting because it focused solely on how it happened, as opposed to what difference it made. It became abundantly clear that Francois' use of the arts was involving students in cultural exploration that was very powerful. His students, along with faculty/staff and community members, prepared for and performed the play, "Three Penny Opera." Hearing how effective this was caused me to wonder why multicultural education is so difficult in the U.S.A. The sad reality in the U.S.A. is that universities try so hard to provide multicultural and diversity programs, only to have them poorly attended or accomplish little in lasting change. In the case of the Europeans, using the arts became a stimulus for multicultural dialogue, thus reducing the tension, engaging students with each other, and letting them learn naturally through their experience. I don't have evidence but my guess is that this strategy is far more effective in stimulating learning across and between student cultures.
Another confirming example of using arts to bridge cultural barriers is the recent New York Philharmonic trip to North Korea. If you haven't seen the CNN documentary on this, you should make a point of it. The documentary references the decades of antagonism and suspicion that preceded the tour, only to see it evaporate when exposed to the universal language of music. Wagner, Gershwin, Dvorak, and the North Korean and U.S.A. National Anthems all brought performers and listeners together in profound exploration of sameness as well as difference. Is this not multicultural education of a different, and perhaps more effective, sort?
The focus on care versus independence in European and U.S.A. higher education results in a very stark contrast. Europeans repeatedly expressed their confusion related to the degree of oversight institutions in the U.S.A. exercise in order to care for their students. There were so many examples where European students are expected to behave as adults, take adult responsibility, and suffer or learn from the consequence of their actions. The safety nets and care provided by student affairs and other staff/faculty seemed incongruous with the goal of fostering autonomy and self-sufficiency. There is another side to this question and that is which system is most successful in graduating students. Although most of our European colleagues were not able to provide figures, it seemed apparent that there is much less attention placed on student success as measured by graduation rates. But what is the best measure of student success - gaining a degree or being responsible for one's own learning and progressing through university at a pace that is balanced with family, work, and launching oneself as an adult? Probably there is a middle ground where Europeans could take more care but there is likely to be increased "success" of students in the U.S.A. if they were required to take more responsibility for their own learning and life.
The importance of dialectic is my final realization and it is the result of the other two. Whether it is multicultural learning or helping students become successful, it is respectful dialogue that helps us all progress toward the models that will allow us to achieve the most. Throughout the two weeks traveling with my colleagues, we consistently expected to go into European settings to help "them" learn how to implement student affairs principles and practices only to find out that what they were already doing had significant merit from which we could learn as well. This is mutual and appreciative inquiry, maximizing curiosity, and the evolution of practice that can help us all do our best in fostering student learning. We all hopefully learned a lot!