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ERASMUS in America (Cultural Integration)

Heard of a guy called Desiderius Erasmus? He was a 16th century scholar from the Netherlands (Rotterdam) who, among other things, defended the concept of free will and the ability of people to learn and adapt through broadened influences and experiences.

In modern times, old Desiderius is better known through the all-caps version of his surname — specifically, the ERASMUS student exchange programme that has taught nearly two million European students since its inception in 1987.

The basic concept is this — take young university students from more than 30 European countries (including the still non-EU states of Turkey, Switzerland, Norway, etc.) and plop them down in a school in another European country for three or six months or a year. In the host countries and institutions, all the students in the programme live and learn together. They work to learn the local language, culture, and educational system together, while at the same time getting to know people and cultures from several dozen other places.

The project was launched in 1987 by the European Commission, in the run-up to the establishment of the finalized European Union in the early 1990s. After several years of pilot student exchanges, the EC and EU member states found the concept highly successful, with the next generation of European citizens better integrated and informed, and supportive of diversity in language and culture. The programme has grown from about 3,200 students in 1987/88 to nearly 160,000 students in 2006/07, with more expansion on the way. The new “lifelong learning” portion of ERASMUS will give students and former students a change to do it all again, in another place, sometimes in a partial teaching role.

Graduates from the programme report feeling highly satisfied with the experience, saying that they leave feeling more “European,” “integrated,” and more culturally aware. A French friend of mine summarized the programme this way: “Most people have a great experience, keep life-long friends, and it looks great on the C.V.; I would highly recommend it.”

Of course, ERASMUS is not without out its critics. Opponents call it “a waste of money and time,” that is better known for alcohol and sex-fueled parties and students that never grasp the local language or culture. They argue that the programme should be more academically rigorous, and less focused on getting kids from far-flung parts of the continent to learn about each other socially.

Assuming that the reality lies somewhere in between, the U.S. can learn something important from ERASMUS. Indeed, we should think about implementing something similar, perhaps as part of the Obama education package that fits within the stimulus.

In a country with rapidly changing demographics, a highly polarized electorate, an emerging clash of language and still many people that still never venture beyond state lines, this type of student exchange — perhaps at the end of high school or early college — is just what the 21st century U.S. needs.

Currently, most exchanges that U.S. students undergo are one of two major types. First is the traditional “study-abroad” where college (or in some cases high-school) students go off to another continent for a semester, usually with a group of other American students. Second, there are “service” type trips and programmes, where students go to so-called disadvantaged areas to help out, often through teaching or building stuff.

Unfortunately, these continue to miss the more fundamental success that we have learned from ERASMUS in the EU — cultural integration within a politically diverse body.

Why don’t we in the U.S. enact an adapted, scalable programme that sends people to learn in parts of the country that are really different from their own? Kids from the city, it’s off to rural areas; students from the mixed-language South-West, it’s off to the Rust Belt. And throughout, students from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds will arrive together in a brand new environment.

The idea of service should still play a prominant role, with the idea of the transplanted students giving back to their host communities in some way, such as doing projects that the local group of students and their hosts work together to decide on during the course of their stay.

As a leading early theorist, inventor, advocate for cultural learning and driving force behind two important early American univerisities, perhaps Benjamin Franklin is the right person for an American ERASMUS. And following his love of European language and culture, a FRANKLIN student exchange programme might be a nice tip of the hat to the European Commission’s good thinking on the original.

Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at