Travel is a crucial part of education
In the 21st century, it is important that young people leave the U.S. and explore places where the other 97 percent of the world’s people live.
Ron Herzman and I first took students to Europe in 1974, and at that time England was something of an exotic place for many of those Geneseo undergraduates. A year later, Ron and I took students to Italy. Imagine how exotic that seemed to students, some of whom probably had not been beyond Western New York. Why, in Italy they speak another language and eat in courses.
One veteran of that 1975 trip was Jim Leary, a young man whose life story was rather common at the College. He was one of nine kids from an Irish Catholic family in South Buffalo. Except for a spring break trip to Florida, Jim had essentially lived his life in Erie and Livingston counties.
For him, I think, Italian food meant spaghetti and meatballs and pizza. Now Jim is the executive director of one of he world’s largest law firms and flies across oceans quite often to visit the far flung offices of his firm. He claims that his first glimpse of the world beyond his home at college was that three weeks in Italy in 1975. To some extent, the rest of his life flowed from that confidence-building exploration of a different place.
In those days, SUNY Geneseo had no overseas programs of its own because study abroad was, to say the least, not a priority of the College’s administrative leaders. Thanks to more informed leadership in the past 25 years, Geneseo has caught up and passed other SUNY colleges in sending students abroad.
And Geneseo students are not only in England and France but also in Haiti and Nicaragua and Ghana and lots of other places radically different from what they have experienced. I took some students to Kenya last summer. I had taken some of the same students to Italy two years earlier, and both experiences have been life changing for those citizens of the world.
Studying in England is a wonderful thing to do in 2012 as it was in 1974 or in 1968-9, when I spent a year living in England. Similarly, settling down in Siena, Italy to study is powerful and important; I have been taking students to study in Siena every other year since 1993, and will probably do it for the last time in 2013.
But, what young folks need to do is to travel somewhere radically different from where they have lived. To employ an over-used phrase, they need to get out of their comfort zone. As I look back on some of my adult experiences outside the USA and Western Europe, I realize that even an old coot like me has profound learning experiences when a bit disoriented and uncomfortable.
A few years ago in a desert oasis in Morocco, I had a long conversation with a law student while standing in a camel market. We could chat at length since neither of us was interested in buying a camel.
We talked about Islam and democracy. I came to understand at least some elements of Muslims’ unease about becoming a democracy like ours. Understanding folks different than ourselves is central to living in a peaceful world in this connected century on this crowded planet.
Last summer in Kenya, I asked students the following question: If money were no object (and of course it always is), what would you change first in Kenya? There were about as many answers as there were students. Improve the schools and access to them. Get sufficient clean water everywhere. Put up housing that would empty the slums.
Innoculate everyone against diseases, and distribute mosquito netting. Put in sewers. All of these are good answers that address real problems in Kenya. But, how does one prioritize, especially given the fact that there are finite resources? We simply could not have created the same conversation in an air conditioned classroom in the U.S.
A few years ago, I was taken through some of the barrios of Lima, Peru. In the newest ones, I saw people living without electricity, roads, sewers, or roads. “Houses” were mostly combination of tree branches and corrugated metal.
When I said to the priest who was with me that this was depressing, he almost mocked me for my stupidity. “This is a place of hope,” he explained.
People moved here from the countryside so that their children could get some education and thus make a decent living. Their choice to come to this barrio was a commitment to a long term plan for their families. They knew there was short term suffering, but they were seeking long term and permanent benefits.
Just a few weeks ago, I was forced by my location to look at the U.S war in Vietnam through the e.yes of the victors–the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. I was not forced to accept the interpretation offered to me, but I was required to face it and consider it.
I have read a lot about Islam and the Arab world, about the developing world, about urbanization in Latin America, about the Vietnam War.
Book learning is important. But having experiences in a very foreign place not only allows greater understanding of a specific problem but also makes subsequent book learning about the world much more efficient.
So, when your son or daughter suggests that for an extra $6000, he/she could study for a semester in Botswana or Paraguay or Laos, think hard before saying no.
Allow your children to take a reasonable risk. And when Jeff or Jennifer heads off to Thailand, think about packing your bags and going to visit your child there. Jennifer will be a good guide, and Jeff might warn you that the first thing on the menu would at home be named Fido!