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Jackie Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis: their Paris years

Jackie Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis may not have much else in common. But they'll always have Paris.

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It is very different today. There have been so many debates about various [American] schools exporting themselves to other places – to Dubai, to  Singapore, exporting brand as it were. The theory behind these new exported American schools is that we have something wonderful to offer to the rest of the world. The American university system is really one of the things the United States does best.

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The other thing I’d say is that most people agree that there’s less difference now between Europe and the US. France has been Americanized in many ways. Not in all ways. The other thing that’s happened is a remarkable form of connection among countries because of the Internet and various technologies. And I wouldn’t completely bash those new technologies. I’ve had students who’ve entered into relationships, very interesting correspondences in French with students, you know, having fun on Facebook in French. It’s really nice to be able to stay in touch that way with friends in a different language.

On the other hand, when you look back at the 1949-1950 group [of Smith College students who studied in Paris with Jacqueline Bouvier, some of whom Kaplan interviewed for her book], for example, they would go for months without talking to their parents. And this is almost inconceivable to us. They would go for months and as for being out of touch, there’s something good about it. Going to a new country, just being away, not being in the expectations of the American social life or whatever their parents may have expected, they could try out new ways of being and that was very freeing for them.

Q. Another difference is that not all of today’s students strive for total foreign language mastery the way these students did. Does that make a difference?

You’re asking the wrong person. You are so totally asking the wrong person! My life’s work has been to insist that language is key and to value France because it is the place that takes language seriously as the essence of the human experience and so what I want to do most in my work is to help escort young people into another language, into the French language particularly. So I do think it’s key.

One of the reasons I wanted to write my book was to remind people that there was a time when Americans were so eager to learn something from the rest of the world. And learning another language is part of that. It’s giving yourself up to another system of thought and another way of doing things. And that is what I would call an endangered experience. And I wanted to remind people how valuable that could be, even if the experience is tough or horrible.

Q: Two of these women (Jackie Kennedy and Angela Davis) were in Paris on academic programs. Susan Sontag was not. Did it matter?

People go to Paris for all different reasons but I would say that the story of Susan Sontag is very poignant because she didn’t have enough money to go on a study-abroad program. The huge advantages Jacqueline Bouvier and Angela Davis had in the abroad programs was having directors that organized activities and put them in touch with all sorts of people living and working in France who arranged for them to take courses. Susan Sontag would sit in cafes, she was surrounded by other Americans. She didn’t have French friends. She would sit in cafes and open her notebooks and listen and make list after list of French words. And that’s really beautiful but it’s just much harder for her. That’s the beauty of these study abroad programs. They give students such opportunities.

Q: Did you have a junior year abroad experience of your own?

I went to the University of Bordeaux in the 1973-74 school year. The book is dedicated to my group of women friends from that year. We call one another l’équipe. It’s also dedicated to [my French host family]. I’m still in touch with all of them. There are things that happen to students on their junior year abroad that might not seem important at the time, but they grow through memory and take on new meaning through subsequent study and living.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's books editor.

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