Travel as Transformational

In our large national study of higher education, we ask students—and others connected with colleges and universities—whether college can or should be a “transformational experience.” Recently, we have asked informants whether they themselves can name a transformational educational experience of their own, either within or beyond traditional schooling. Often, when asked about transformational experiences, informants mention foreign travel—typically, the proverbial “junior year abroad.”

I am fortunate to have had several transformational experiences in college. I am also fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel a good deal. Alas, as is the case with many of my colleagues, the travel is all too often via air, to a hotel, a speaking venue, possibly a quick walk down the main promenade, well-regarded museum, or some other iconic public building, followed by a quick return to the airport and, if fortunate, an on-time flight back home. (As if to prove the point, this blog has been drafted and edited on plane trips.)

When I reflect on my own education, three travel experiences stand out as transformational.

A Year Abroad Following College

Upon my graduation from Harvard College, I was lucky enough to receive a year’s support to study in London and to travel elsewhere as well. Perhaps wisely, perhaps foolishly, I did only minimal study in a formal sense. Instead, often with friends who were also residing in London or nearby, I took advantage of the year to immerse myself in the artistic culture of England—attending many theatrical productions, especially at the recently launched National Theatre; visiting numerous museums and other cultural sites; travelling throughout the British Isles and Western Europe; and making a memorable train ride through Communist Eastern Europe to Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg again) in the heartland of what was then the Soviet Union. I also read widely, in a few European languages, and spent a great deal of time writing—among the products a diary, various shorter articles, and a long and totally unpublishable novel. I also maintained a long-distance relationship which culminated in a June wedding in London and a summer honeymoon motoring throughout Europe.

Back in the day, Americans of means did their “European tour”—partly to see iconic sites, partly to acquire culture or become cultured. Indeed, my parents, who had fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, had taken my sister Marion and me for our first trip abroad in the summer just before I began college. But it was really during the post-graduate year—the other bookend of college, so to speak—that I acquired some intimacy with European culture, or, as members of my family now put it, received the requisite “culture credits.” I’m now grateful that I can continue to draw on these credits nearly every day—even more so in late than in mid-life.

The two other examples relate much more closely to my own vocation as a teacher and scholar:

A First Visit to Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy

In the late 1970s, I was a young researcher in developmental psychology with a particular interest in the arts (thanks, in part, to the year spent in England). At that time, I heard about extraordinary schools for young Italian children begun in the early 1960s in a small city, hitherto unknown to me, called Reggio Emilia (hereafter RE). I also began to contribute modestly to a publication about early childhood education, emanating from RE, with the neat name Zerosei (“Zero to Six”).

I was delighted when my wife Ellen Winner, an expert in artistic development, and I were invited to visit RE in the early 1980s. At that time, the inspiring founder of the RE educational experiment, Loris Malaguzzi, was very much alive. He and his close colleagues, who had been with him almost from the start, hosted Ellen and me for several memorable days. We spent a lot of time in the local schools, visiting and interacting with students, teachers, and parents—and perhaps surprisingly, the language barrier did not hinder communication. Indeed, it may even have had certain advantages, heightening information taken in via other senses. I became an unabashed admirer of these schools, with their foci on family participation, art and design, explorations of the urban environment, and hands-on activities. Malaguzzi’s evocative “hundred languages of children” dovetailed neatly with my newly developed theory of multiple intelligences.

In 1994, Malaguzzi died suddenly. I was concerned that his magnificent educational experiment might flounder. I approached one of the funders of our own research, the Atlantic Philanthropies (AP), and I asked whether that funding agency might provide support so that the surviving educators in RE would have the opportunity to reflect, regroup, and anticipate next stages and challenges. Due to legal restrictions, AP was not able to provide direct funding to RE. But AP encouraged us to create a joint project in which our research team at Harvard would have the option of directing some funds to RE (in effect, subcontracting).

Thence began a wonderful collaboration—still ongoing—between the educators in northern Italy and the educational researchers at Project Zero in Cambridge. Most of the exciting practices and stances came from the Italian educators. But our research group made substantive contributions in helping RE personnel to understand better what is distinctive about their practices; how best to describe them (in Italian as well as English); and how these insights and processes might be conveyed to and implemented by motivated educators throughout the world. In a well-received book called Making Learning Visible, we described practices like collaborative learning, documentation of student work, and the cultivation of expertise in pedagogy and in the arts.

A Surprise Visit to the Middle Kingdom

China was long characterized as the “Middle Kingdom.” In 1949, it proclaimed itself as the People’s Republic of China, but it was referred to in the West in the 1950s and 1960s as Communist China. Beginning in 1966, the leadership of China launched a large scale, quite violent, and (it is now universally agreed) highly destructive movement called The Cultural Revolution. Only with the death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976, and the ascension to power of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, did a calmer and more constructive China come into being.

In 1980, I knew almost nothing about China—it was far away both geographically and culturally. No one was more surprised than I when I was invited to join what was described as the first post-Cultural Revolution trip to China undertaken by Harvard University. (The circumstances were idiosyncratic, having to do with the lifelong friendship between my then Dean, Paul Ylvisaker, and the long suffering president of a Chinese university, Xia Shuzhang.) Along with about ten colleagues, I spent two weeks in China, visiting several cities, learning about the culture as it had evolved over the millennia, being introduced to the nation’s recent turbulent history, and, most memorably, meeting with dozens of academics who had been horribly mistreated for a decade and were still shell shocked.

The single trip was memorable and certainly raised my consciousness about China (such “consciousness raising” is certainly one of the main dividends of travel). But China would not have become transformative for me had it not been for another unforeseen set of events.

Two years later, I was invited to join a delegation of American arts educators travelling to China—once again described as the first such organized trip to China. As a minor figure in the delegation, I had planned to under-dress and to carry little luggage with me (Rule #1 of Gardner travel: “Travel light!”). But the day before our delegation was scheduled to depart from JFK Airport, the designated leader of the delegation became ill. As the only member of the delegation who had been in China before, I was asked to lead. Dressed in one crumbling suit along with one moth eaten sweater, I led twelve far more distinguished American arts educators on a visit to China which included a major conference of arts educators from the two nations.

Those who know little about China might well assume that in a determinedly Communist country, there is little status hierarchy—whatever their position, the cadres look, dress, and act alike. And you—like me—would be completely wrong. Everywhere we went, it was easy to tell who was the leader, who were the other administrators, and who were relatively lower-status artists and academics. By the same token, wherever I went—and with whomever I dealt—I was THE professor, THE leader. I learned that where one sits, next to whom one sits, and who makes the toast and receives the obligatory gifts mattered in this context; as the designated head of the delegation, I remained the person-of-the-hour. (No doubt my threadbare dress was noted and remarked upon by many people.)

During the course of this tour, I learned a lot about education in the arts in China. I hope that our Chinese counterparts learned a lot as well about the situation in the United States and the West. But I was treated as a “big deal”—even though in no way was that true. (At the time I was not even a tenured professor, let alone a star of any sort or of any sector.)

That said, I am certain of one thing. What most impressed the members of the Chinese delegation was what happened when we Americans had to decide on something. In front of our dumbfounded Chinese colleagues, I would poll my American colleagues orally, weigh pros and cons, often take a vote, and we would eventually decide on a course, by vote or by consensus. Women counted as much as men, academics and artists and administrators had equal voice. Whatever China called itself or however it styled itself, we were giving them a lesson in democratic procedures.

Even with two trips under my belt, I still assumed that my Chinese adventures were a sideshow. But shortly thereafter, I became co-director of a large-scale study of arts education in China and the U.S. Thereafter, my colleagues and I made several trips to China—with my wife and our then infant son Benjamin joining us in 1987. Despite the fact that I never learned to speak or read Chinese, I became de facto an expert on the comparative study of education in the arts in our two countries. Indeed, after my fourth trip to China, I wrote a book about my experiences, with the title To Open Minds: Chinese Clues to the Dilemma of American Education.

The theme of the book—the dilemma alluded to in the subtitle—foregrounded the contrasting approaches to creativity in our two countries. Briefly, in the U.S. and other Western countries, including the Italy of Reggio Emilia, we value the creative explorations undertaken by young children. Only after relatively unstructured time in the first years of life do we introduce and value more systematic, disciplined study. In contrast, in China, the emphasis from the first falls heavily on disciplined learning—as the oft- repeated cliché has it, “One must walk before one can run.” Only much later, after discipline and skills are completely ensconced, are certain individuals encouraged—or at least permitted—to take more of an imaginative or creative leap.

I argued that either approach to the nurturing of creativity is valid. The risk for the Western approach is that one becomes so attracted to exploration that one never acquires the essential skills and discipline. The risk for the Chinese approach is that skills become so entrenched that one never takes a risk—or that by the time that one is prepared to branch out, it may be too late to accomplish anything that is truly innovative.

To Open Minds was written in a burst of energy in 1987 and published in 1989, just about the time of the horrific mass killings, mostly of young students, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. I was so upset by this brutality that I did not visit China for many years. Indeed, by the time of my first post-Tiananmen trip  in 2004, it had become a totally different country. In some ways, China has become more like the United States. In other ways, especially in light of American state and federal educational policies, the United States has moved to a more classically Chinese orientation of drill-and-kill, unfolding in a pervasive omni-testing environment.

With the benefit of the passage of time and the shifting of norms, I see the two approaches to creativity as a continuing oscillation within and also between our two nations. And of course, any account of creativity has been complexified these days by the introduction of powerful digital tools and devices, essentially unknown at the time of my first trips to China and Reggio Emilia alike.

What do we gain from travel, particularly travel that we venture to characterize as transformational? I suggest at least three benefits.

  1. In the case of my first trip to Europe and my post-college year wandering about England and the Continent, I learned far more about the Western cultural heritage—the background of my own family, as well as the intellectual roots and scope of what I had studied in the humanities (and some sciences) in high school and college. Let’s call this depth.
  2. Reggio Emilia exposed me to ways of teaching and learning that I might have read about in the writings of progressive educators like John Dewey or might have seen in certain progressive schools that I visited in the American northeast. But I had never seen these ideas realized with the seriousness, vividness, and longevity that I saw every day, nearly every hour, on every visit, to RE. Let’s call this realization of potential.
  3. With its long history, and its recent turbulence, China constituted the most alien travel experience I have had. The alienation (in the literal sense) was underscored because I do not read or speak Chinese and because I lived alone for a month in Xiamen (and that’s where, on long and lonely evenings, I began to write To Open Minds.) But ever since that trip, whenever I consider any cultural issue, I have China in mind as an alternative, a radically different culture against which I can test my own assumptions and predilections. Let’s call this a comparison case.

And while I have not continued to visit and study China (life is short), I have had many excellent students from China; I continue to follow political and artistic events in China; and, as we plow through a new century, I am open to the possibility that this one may prove to be the “Chinese Century.” As a Westerner and democrat, I hope that China will be less Stalinist, and more Confucian.

Stepping back from travel, I believe that these benefits can come from other experiences—wide reading can certainly deepen one’s knowledge, flesh out hypotheses and intimations, and provide vivid comparisons. But, all the same, travel to faraway places probably achieves these dividends most vividly—and it’s also the most fun.

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