Will This Actually Help Make the Case for Study Abroad—Never Mind for Scientific Inquiry or for Higher Education?

Researchers at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA, are reportedly studying student brain scans in order to determine how study abroad impacts brain function. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education [http://chronicle.com/article/One-College-s-Method-to/230661/], the researchers have scanned the brains of 30 freshmen and will re-scan their brains when they are juniors and just after they graduate, tracking ten categories of brain activity.

Whether this study is actually a crackpot idea or not, it certainly is going to sound like a crackpot idea to most people.

Moreover, it does not take much imagination to envision the responses from the “lunatic fringe” media and social media. These will almost certainly include dire warnings that traveling abroad may actually change how your brain functions–in much the same way that “brainwashing” or cerebral implants are supposed to do so, creating the potential for all sorts of nefarious schemes hatched by foreigners who wish to undermine our American way of life.

Of course, the responses from the “lunatic fringe” should never determine what anyone does or does not choose to investigate.

But if, as a number of critics have already asserted, this study is essentially a publicity gimmick that is unlikely to produce meaningful results, then it would seem to be ill-conceived. For the short-term, heightened exposure for the institution would need to be measured against the potential longer-term damage to its academic credibility.

But perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps we have reached the point in higher education that no publicity is bad publicity—that we simply solicit “customers” like a barker for Barnum’s circus.

[For a broader discussion of the premature publicizing of scientific studies, see also: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/01/business/beyond-publish-or-perish-scientific-papers-look-to-make-splash.html]


3 thoughts on “Will This Actually Help Make the Case for Study Abroad—Never Mind for Scientific Inquiry or for Higher Education?

  1. This does sound like crackpot research. There isn’t one study abroad experience and a single factor isn’t isolated. Maybe in country A colleges are poorly organized and undemanding, or in country B there is boring television, or in country C drugs are widely used, or in country D Americans are hated causing student stress, and so on.

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