Is there hope in educational exchange?

Travel Perspectives — By on August 10, 2006 at 1:55 pm

Sometimes, it does seem as if the world has gone mad.  Terrorists plot to blow up airliners, no one seems to have a solution for the ongoing conflict and killing in the Middle East, nor to the genocide in Sudan. One does wonder at times if there really is any hope of people finally understanding one another and putting an end to such useless sectarian and ethnic violence.

Well, there is no magical or instant solution, that’s for certain. But surely there is hope.  After all, it was only decades ago that all of Europe seemed engulfed in a never-ending conflict.  There isn’t room here to go into the many factors that helped bring some of these cultures together in the late 20th century.  But one reason was that enough people got sick and tired of the violence that there was a critical mass of individuals willing to work toward common solutions.  And another smaller but vital factor was the increasing role of travel and cultural exchange in helping people to learn about each other.

That’s why I’m encouraged by stories, such as this one in the Washington Post, that indicate the record numbers of students who are traveling and studying abroad.

Once, a junior year abroad was something a few adventurous foreign-language majors did. Now, the number of students receiving college credit abroad keeps rising. During the past 20 years, it has nearly tripled, to about 175,000 in the 2003-04 academic year, the last year for which statistics are available.

Business and education have become so global that “now it’s like, ‘Where is your study abroad experience?’ ” said Rebecca Brown, director of the International Studies Office at U-Va.

Equally important, in my opinion, is this nugget of information:

…students are more willing to venture beyond drinking Foster’s on the beaches of Australia to study in Africa, China, Latin America.

I’ve touched on this topic in other posts (such as here and here) , but I can’t emphasize it enough – it seems well past time for us to go beyond understanding Europe or Australia or Japan and to begin learning about other areas of the world. After all, we’re less likely to demonize other cultures when we understand them, and less likely to fight when we feel that we know each other.

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