As the semester ends, perhaps this is as good a time as any to reflect — looking back and looking forward — to the benefits of both education and travel. Although they are hardly the same, both should do a number of things:
1. Education and travel should broaden us — alerting us to the complexity, wonder, and struggle that marks human life. When we go home they should sensitize us to both the shortcomings and the gifts of the places where we live.
2. Education and travel should challenge us. All truth is God’s truth. Xenophobia identifies the truth exclusively with “me and my tribe.” Mindless relativism lazily assumes that everything is a shade of gray. Travel and education teach us that mature human beings make commitments in the face of unanswered and unanswerable questions that give their lives integrity.
3. Education and travel should teach us to learn what we can, where we can — and they should teach us to do it with gratitude and humility.
4. Education and travel should make us quick to ask questions and slow to judge. To be critical is to ask thoughtful, incisive questions: Where did this idea come from? What was its inspiration? What was the worldview that gave it birth?How does this idea cohere with what I already know to be true or take to be true? If it coheres with what I know, how does it amplify or complement what I already know? If it doesn’t cohere with what I know to be true are there assumptions I should reconsider, or are there good reasons it doesn’t resonate with what I have concluded is reliable and durable? Where will this or that idea take us? Ideas have consequences and bad ideas often have unintended consequences. Follow the logic of the ideas to which you are exposed. Judgmental people don’t do this at all. They operate categorically and on the basis of prejudice, rejecting groups of ideas and people.
5. Education and travel should keep us from guessing the motives of others. Education and travel should give us an appreciation for how differently we human beings see the world. We all betray the best motives of our religion or tribe from time to time, but the failure to appreciate how differently we view the world also drives misunderstanding.
6. Education and travel should keep us from generalizing. Education and travel should teach us something about the patterns and the complexities of human life. When we talk about a race of people, a state, a region, or a nation in global terms we are certain to be wrong. And, as our world becomes connected in so many ways, even the supposedly “safe” generalizations we make are proving more and more fragile. We no longer live in a world separated by walls, but by semipermeable membranes that allow for an increasing number of surprises and we should make room for those surprises.
7. Education and travel should teach us the value of tolerance. Not the cheap tolerance that accepts those most like ourselves, but the tough, durable kind of tolerance that makes room for others to make their own choices and honor their freedom to do so, especially when we would choose differently.
All of this seems obvious and when we are confronted directly with the benefits of education and travel, no one would say “no” to what I’ve outlined above. But in reality, not everyone derives those benefits from their experiences. I’ve met people who are widely traveled and well educated who turn their backs on what they have learned when it suited their prejudices, and I know others who have acquired sensibilities and values with little formal education or opportunity.
One of the most troubling characteristics of modern discourse is the way in which such prejudices are consistently on display among people who ought to know better. Is it any wonder, then, that incivility seems to reign alongside unprecedented opportunity?
Let’s look back over the academic year and forward to the opportunities of the summer with an eye to how both can change us.