While the two countries have experienced rifts and rivalries at various stages throughout their histories, the cultural link between the United States and France dates back to America’s founding and remains one of the most important cultural bonds in the world. In his great work “Democracy in America,” for example, the 19th Century French writer and diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville praised the independent spirit of the republic that had formed under the leadership of the Founding Fathers.
That special relationship between France and America even led to the building of a veritable symbol of US foreign relations: The Statue of Liberty was a gift to the United States from France, and our allies intended the gesture to symbolize the strong connection that our two countries have shared throughout our history.
It is with that spirit of understanding that students from Courtland’s Southampton Academy recently received guests from France’s Lycee Jean Talon. Under the guidance and tutelage of French teacher Sherry Ferguson, students at Southampton entertained their foreign visitors with trips to some of Virginia’s greatest cultural sites and museums.
According to both schools, the reception was a resounding success for everyone involved. Students from Southampton learned much about the unique and lasting culture of France and much about themselves in the process. Hosting their guests for a week-long trip and cultural summit, the students from Southampton bonded with their guests over their common views on everything from family life to the importance of education.
At a time when people tend to focus on the differences between cultures rather than on the common values that people across the globe share, the students at Southampton have shown us that there is much to be gained from reaching out to other countries and learning about their way of life. Indeed, at many schools, student exchange programs have been a popular and vital part of curriculums for generations.
And while many of us get to experience different cultures in adulthood when traveling, the positive effects of experiencing unique ways of life during childhood cannot be overstated. In a world of endless distractions, 24-hour news cycles, and limitless access to video games and other forms of entertainment, children today often grow up in a cultural bubble.
This tendency to isolate children from cultural learning opportunities can have a deleterious effect on their lives at a later date. Lessons in good diplomacy aren’t just effective learning tools in school settings, in other words; they also determine how future leaders will handle diplomatic tensions on a world stage. If children can learn how to negotiate common ground with different cultures now, the thinking goes, they will be more likely to ease various tensions when differences arise with cultural ambassadors in the future.
To that end, the teachers and administrators at Southampton should be applauded for their work in introducing their students to new ways of thinking about the world. For the rest of their lives, the students in the cultural exchange program at Southampton will likely remember the importance of taking the time to understand different ways of thinking about the world.
These students are also likely to remember the common bonds of humanity that link all cultures. If they pursue government work or politics at some point in their careers, they may even act as a shining example of how good ambassadorship can bring out the best in nations with differing viewpoints on cultural issues.
For these reasons, it is little wonder that the foreign exchange program at Southampton Academy has received so much praise. By showing students that there is value to be found in seeking to understand different ways of life and different cultures, teachers like Sherry Ferguson are helping to teach a new generation of students about the importance of acting as good ambassadors to cultural allies. Truly, that is education at its best!
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