Joe Hennessey is an English teacher at Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford, Maine, and the 2019 Maine Teacher of the Year.
All travel is valuable. Being able to see new sights, to visit important landmarks and to immerse yourself in culturally and (often) linguistically different places is a wonderful experience, be it one town, state or province away, or an ocean away.
Whichever length of trip one takes, the most important element at the outset, in my opinion, is the choice between being a tourist who more or less passively absorbs, and choosing to be a critical observer — one who willingly and deliberately complicates the picture of the place which he/she visits. Descartes, in his "Discourse on Method," wrote effectively that through intellectual travel “...one is practically able to converse with those of other centuries.” It would appear that these occasions are when profound learning can occur and where profound memories are forged.
This past summer, I was fortunate to participate in such a trip in very good company. The 2019 EF Education First professional learning tour in Berlin and Davos [Switzerland] encouraged me and my cohort of fellow educators to be critical observers. We were allowed our initial observations and given time to take in the sights but were then also asked to challenge and complicate our perspectives with additional facts, realities and anecdotes. The same experience of observation and complication would be invaluable for all of my students, who come from rural Maine.
As all good tourists do in Berlin, we studied the remnants of the Berlin Wall, we read the informational placards, and we visited the other monuments of conflict and aggression between two ideologically opposed worlds. We then participated in an “East meets West” discussion with East German and West German authors to better appreciate what living with the Wall meant and where its current repercussions manifest.
While I admired the vibrant street art, and touched the crumbling concrete, the interplay of ideas and real conversation between those speakers humanized an era which might otherwise have still felt distant. Discussion of walls and societal division resonates in America at the moment; getting to ask serious questions of people with vivid memories cannot be overvalued.
Later on, we walked grand boulevard Unter die Linden, saw the Brandenburg Gate, visited Tempelhof Airport and witnessed the massive field of previously occupied refugee resettlement housing. We then listened to poetry and studied the artwork of refugee students in order to better understand the current context of their experiences in relation to the city’s complex history. That afternoon helped me to reconcile the imperial past of a powerful nation with its present humanitarian efforts for those fleeing conflict and hardship. The paradox actually led to greater clarity.
We saw in Berlin an objectively vibrant and beautiful city in the heart of Western Europe, yet we also saw the layers of its destruction at the book burning memorial, which hearkened back to the peak of anti-intellectualism. We stood in front of the façades of cultural hegemony at the Reichstag and on Museum Island, yet we also felt the ambiguity of the Holocaust memorial reflecting upon the fracture of European societies.
We benefited from the forward-thinking public infrastructure of tram lines and electric scooters which line the city, and we confronted the ghost Metro stations of the previously divided urban area. The aura of each of these moments in contrast, as Walter Benjamin would suggest, cannot be replicated.
Following our time in Germany, we attended the EF Global Leadership Summit with 1,500 students and 300 of their teachers in Davos, Switzerland. We discussed the power of communication with notable figures, journalists and celebrities. We stayed in a beautiful part of the Swiss Alps in a pocket of affluence, seemingly far removed from other troubles of the world — at least for a long weekend.
The optimism there was palpable, the speakers were inspiring, and the students were empowered and given voice. The accompanying complication was and is that most of the world does not live in pockets of affluence with equitable distribution of resources. We must prepare the critical observers to operate in reality and with confidence in the face of adversity through empathy, collaboration and advocacy.
Global awareness through travel
The knowledge gained from being a critical observer is not a burden, but it ought to compel action. Through travel, students can be emboldened and made more globally aware. Their teachers can likewise be introduced to new ideas, resources and people within their professional network. Our communities can reap the benefit of critical observers returning home and understanding that much more about places further removed. Indeed, I have already taken this paradigm of “observation-complication-interpretation” back to my classes this year, and I have no doubt that my students’ reading, writing, thinking, discussion and speaking will benefit from it.
At root, we are all thinking people, and our individual and collective intellect underpins all societal, economic and environmental progress. Educational travel that encourages critical observation can coax this innate quality out of us all even further. American teachers, schools and communities already work hard to bring the world into our students’ classrooms with culturally diverse curricula, but there is no substitute for seeing it for oneself.
Each educational setting presents its own challenges and barriers, but with increased district and state funding, strong local fundraising, and ample grants and scholarship opportunities, I hope that we are able to make educational travel a reality for more of our students than at present.
Freedom of movement might be in shorter supply than is ideal due to economics, geography and infrastructure, but the innate capacity we all have to observe, reflect, think, communicate and learn via travel is not. Our nation ought to empower all of our young people to visit perspectives and places other than their own, both emotionally and financially. It is one of the most valuable investments in our public infrastructure that we could make.