Why travel is not education

voluntourism02

Photo credit: The Argentina Independent

This guest post by Allison Smith was originally published in WhyDev, a blog for individuals passionate about development, aid, and other global issues. 

Recently, I came across the following quote on a personal blog: “Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have travelled.”

The quote was unattributed on this blog, but Google attributes it to the Prophet Muhammad. Google also indicates that it appears on many lists and blogs with titles like “25 Inspiring Travel Quotes,” “Top 50 Inspirational Travel Quotes,” “Travel And Open Your Mind,” and “The 80 Greatest Travel Quotes of All Time.”

As much as it pains me to argue against words offering so much inspiration to so many, reading them made me roll my eyes so hard I think I popped a few blood vessels.

Though it is patent nonsense, I understand why the sentiment exists.

We’ve all felt that way, haven’t we? Particularly for those of us who have not only traveled, but who have also lived and worked overseas. Amongst aid workers, it can be a source of pride to boast about the countries we’ve been to or worked in, and how “rough” they were.

Our experiences in these countries shape us, change us, and teach us things we would never have learned at home. They help us understand the gap that often exists between theory and practice, as well as the complexity of issues and places for which we were fed simple narratives. Traveling and living elsewhere also helps us understand ourselves and our home countries better.

And that is nice for us. But our appreciation for these lessons sometimes leads to a smug worldliness that views those who don’t travel as lesser beings. (Even worse are those who not only stay in their country, but also stay in their hometowns, and incredibly seem to enjoy themselves there.)

This attitude is not only arrogant but also misguided.

Here’s why travel does not equal education: it is not necessarily an antidote for ignorance and it is no replacement for curiosity.

One of my family members doesn’t like to travel, and has never been to Portugal, yet knows more about their harm reduction approach to drugs than I do. Does my firsthand knowledge of Lisbon’s bars trump his knowledge of Portuguese public policy?

I’ve met people who have lived on multiple continents that scoff at the idea they would know anything as obscure as the heads of state of any African countries (it is good to suss these people out to avoid having them on your team at a trivia night). I’ve also met Cambodians who haven’t left southeast Asia, yet know about the French nuclear power industry, and the Canadian banking system’s resilience during the 2008 recession.

Which leads to another reason that conflating travel and education is really stupid – the ability to travel is largely dependent on your wealth and your nationality.

As a Canadian, I get really irritated when countries require me to have a visa to visit. It is just such a drag to have to get the passport photo, go to an embassy, and fill out the paperwork, you know? The worst.

I stopped complaining about that when I fully comprehended that for many, their nationality means they can’t just pay the visa processing fee and go. It means that they can’t go at all.

For a Cambodian to visit the United States, they require a host in the US, a ton of money in their bank account, proof of their English proficiency, and they are also screened via an interview process.

For a Canadian to visit the United States (or Europe or Morocco or Malaysia or, or, or…), they have to show up at the border with a passport.

So if we’re valuing travel above education, we’re valuing a very Western experience that is unavailable to many. We’re also undervaluing our own formal education, something I’ve come to appreciate more and more as I live in a country where the public education system is terrible.

Let me be clear: I like traveling. I’ve spent considerable time and money on travel because I think it is enriching and worthwhile. Given the often negative aspects of voluntourism, I often wish people would just visit the countries they’re interested in, and go see the Taj Mahal without bothering to build the school or visit the Amazon without running the day camps for kids.

But I’m not deluded enough to think that travel replaces education.

Robert Delong is right: sometimes we think travel and being somewhere different are progress. Or even education.

But it’s just movement.

Allison Smith is the editor in chief of WhyDev and a freelance writer and communications professional. She is a contributor to Beacon, and her work has been published in Matador, Killing the Buddha, and In/Words Magazine & Press. She currently lives in Cambodia. For more Allison, visit her website at allisonjanesmith.com and follow her on Twitter at @asmithb. 

What do you think? Is travel an important part of being “worldly”? Tell us in a comment below.