Travelling insufficient for cultural understanding

Travelling is a basic feature of life at NYUAD. Whether it be for a Student Interest Group, a class or Eid Break, opportunities to travel are always at ...

Aug 17, 2013

Travelling is a basic feature of life at NYUAD. Whether it be for a Student Interest Group, a class or Eid Break, opportunities to travel are always at your disposal This is part of what makes NYUAD students so-called global citizens, or at least it provides an opportunity to be so. However, we must think carefully about travel — while it can be great and educational, we often attribute too much importance to it.
It is in our shared psyche and emphasized by popular media that travelling makes us smarter, or at least more cultured. Pop culture tells us that the man who travels, whether a tough scholar like Indiana Jones or a bandit like Han Solo, is inherently smarter, wittier and holds a better perception of the world. This, however, is probably not true. To travel isn’t to be educated; to learn is to be educated. Although this might be an obvious concept it is one we must keep in mind when thinking of travelling; to go somewhere doesn’t automatically mean you are learning, you must seek out opportunities and actively take advantage of them.
Being in a place does little to increase one’s understanding of its culture, its people or much about it beyond initially seeing it. An argument often used to win discussions about a place or culture is ‘I’ve been there’ or ‘I lived there.’ This is a terrible argument. As a Mexican, I don’t know more about Mexico than someone who has never been but has been studying it their entire life. Having been in Nepal doesn’t make me much more attuned to the Nepalese than reading a book about it might have. Yes, I might have taken the opportunity to talk to people and learn, but just being there doesn’t do much. This is particularly important regarding short trips. Being somewhere for a weekend might be very fun, entertaining or even enlightening, but one must always be careful as to not be deluded by how much one learns. Countries, culture and communities are more than any individual experience. They are inherently complex as they are shared experiences that  have been formed organically for generations which makes knowing about a place really hard. Active engagement with a place helps, factual knowledge helps but mostly time and effort need to be invested to really know a place.
The over-appreciation of travelling has, of course, negative consequences, particularly because it shapes how we see education, learning and places alien to us. It’s easy to assume that a student who travels a lot will be more cultured, more cosmopolitan or even smarter than one who doesn’t, but this is simply not true. It’s easy to assume that travelling to a place replaces alternative methods of learning, but this is also not true. Most importantly, to assume we can learn about a place in a week is to flatten it to nothing more than a collection of fun facts. We have unique opportunities here at NYUAD, but the opportunities themselves don’t simply create learning. Learning is something that we need to actively pursue and individually achieve.
This is not to say that travelling is bad or that it can’t help improve one’s education. Travelling is a great way to strengthen and make new friendships, and a method to broadens one’s mental framework. It is just not the end-all of education. It is not an excuse to not read about a country and it is certainly does not give one authority about a subject. That said, everyone should travel as much as they can, they just need to do so properly.
Andres Rodriguez is opinion editor. Email him at 
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