Book Learning vs. Real World Learning...
From Across the Seas

For the past couple of decades, I have taught at the college level and have loved every moment of it. Never does a semester go by without my mentioning several times to every group of students that there is a duality issue when it comes to education. If they wish to be well educated, they will need to address that dichotomy. Additionally, we all need to understand how to acquire learning as we journey through life.

Our formal education begins when we go off to elementary school and begin to learn via books. This process will continue through high school and beyond. Book learning today includes learning derived from the Internet. If we succeed in life, our book learning is essential.

While students can learn a great deal in the classroom, traveling is essential if true learning is to occur. Students will add a dimension to their learning that cannot be acquired my sitting in either the classroom or where they study outside the classroom. I tell all my students that overseas travel is critical. Travel in the States and in North America is valuable. I have traveled a great deal in both. However, traveling in North America has its limitations. Canada is very much an extension of the US. Overseas travel is essential if anyone really wants to be well educated. Interestingly, the English aristocrats in the 18th century went on the Grand Tour of Europe after completing their university studies.

The following example is a learning from overseas without actually going overseas. Listen to a broadcast of the BBC on the racial conflict in America. Next, listen to the BBC international news on the hour. In both broadcasts, you will know much of the information already. Nevertheless, the tenor and tone of a foreign reporter talking about something about which you think you know has a different spin upon it. It does not sound quite the same as your spin on it. I am not talking about accent differences; it has to do with foreigners seeing and experiencing things differently than we often do.

This is an interesting case in point. Nearly 50-years ago, I had gone overseas to do graduate studies at the University of Edinburgh. However, I spent a couple months traveling in Western Europe prior to going to Scotland. I had a VW Bug and listened to the BBC news programs while in Europe. As I was waiting in line at Calais to drive my car onto the ferry to Dover, I heard the BBC news on the hour talking about the civil rights demonstration in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It took me several minutes to realize that their term, civil rights, related to Catholics and Protestants not what I understood as a racial issue in America. Overseas travel teaches all travelers critically important lessons about our Weltanschauung (worldview).

More recently, I have taught many different humanities courses over the years. In one particular class, we were discussing sexism. In the textbook for this class, the author made a statement about an extreme type of sexism, female genital mutilation (FGM), does not occur in Africa any longer.

Map of Mali

Map of Mali

I spent a couple of weeks in Mali, which is located in northwest Africa. I wanted to visit Timbuktu, which was once one of the great educational centers of Islam a millennium ago. I hired a driver and guide to drive me from Bamako, the capital, northeast to Timbuktu. The trip went through Dogon Country. We stopped there and met the local imam who showed us around the small village.


The imam showed us the small village and asked whether I wanted to go up to the older village located in the mountain range above the present village. It took an hour to climb to the top, but it was worth the time because of the learning experience. This is where the villagers still circumcise the preteen boys. Obviously, there were no hospitals or even doctors within 50-miles of the village. There was not even electricity in Dogon Country. During the circumcising, the boys were not to cry while enduring this primitive procedure.

Village in Dogon Country

If that sounds barbaric, the building at the top right of the photo was where they circumcised preteen girls. In the West, we call this procedure female genital mutilation (FGM). The imam explained that, as with the boys, the girls were not to cry out during the circumcision. I asked why the preteen girls were circumcised. He told me that it was necessary so that young girls were virgins when they got married. He said that premarital sex was painful due to the circumcision. Therefore, it acted as a deterrent for premarital sex.

It did not take me long to figure out that if FGM caused pain during sex prior to marriage that after marriage, sex would still be painful. Therefore, I asked the imam about the painful sex during the marriage. My question did not make any sense to him. Obviously, we were experiencing some sort of cultural disconnect. As my guide translated for me, I could not understand why sex after marriage would not be equally painful as sex prior to the marriage.

It was not long before my guild suggested that we were running late and had to leave. Back in the car, he said that it did not matter to the husband whether or not his wife was in pain during their intercourse. The husband merely wanted a virgin to marry.

In addition, if a husband did not care about the pain of the female, why would the pain of the unmarried woman be a concern for another man prior to marriage? Talk about sexism. However, the author of the textbook had not traveled in Dogon Country, which meant that the author missed a learning experience.

Another example of learning through travel overseas is from the art world. The difference between the learning that we get through books and the learning that we get through traveling overseas is vast. I have taught art history for decades. One of the great painters of French Post-Impressionism was Paul Gauguin. Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh were friends and both suffered from depression and suicidal ideations. However, by the end of 1888, the relationship between Gauguin and van Gogh ended with Gauguin going off to Tahiti in French Polynesia.

Hut in Polynesia

Having spent several weeks in French Polynesia, I truly understood the transformative effect that French Polynesia had on Gauguin's painting toward the end of his life.

I also love teaching history and went to see the place where the Battle of Thermopylae took place in 480 BC. That single battle is arguably the most important battle in the history of Western civilization. The Battle of Thermopylae allowed for the continuance of our society based by the Greek culture, philosophy, art, government, and understanding. Interestingly, after the Dark Ages, the West rediscovered that Greek culture. We call that process, the Renaissance, which means the rebirth of the Greek mindset in art, philosophy, science, and learning in general.

King Leonidas

King Leonidas of Sparta held off the Persians under Xerxes I at Thermopylae for three days. Leonidas and an army of around 2,000 fighters stopped the Persian army numbering between 100,000 to 150,000. I cannot express how I felt standing at the battlefield of Thermopylae. Those few acres safeguarded the Greek influence upon the West.

Battlefield of Thermopylae

Still another example of learning is visiting Easter Island several years ago. When I was in high school, I read Thor Heyerdahl's Aku-Aku. While Heyerdahl's conjecture regarding where the first Easter Island inhabitants came from is incorrect, traveling to Easter Island will be an experience of a lifetime for anyone.

Easter Island

If you travel to Indochina, go to Kanchanaburi, Thailand. I thought that I knew a great deal about the bridges over the River Kwai from books and the Internet. However, before traveling to see the remaining bridge, I was in Chiang Mai, which is in northern Thailand. The day before I left Chiang Mai, I spent several hours in the bathroom of my hotel and several more hours in an emergency room of a local hospital where I was treated for food poisoning. The next day, I stood on the bridge over the River Kwai and understood some of what the POWs, who built the bridge, felt every day. Talk about a learning experience.

Al on the bridge

The Bridge over the River Kwai

In the late 60s, I went to West Berlin and saw the Wall, the minefields, and the barbed wire firsthand. If you had been to West Berlin, you would also understand more about the Berlin Wall than you could learn from books.

It is obvious which side was East and West Berlin looking at the Wall.

It is obvious which side was East and West Berlin looking at the Wall.

Or if you had gone to Bratislava, Czechoslovakia in 1969 a couple of weeks before the Russians invaded and stopped Alexander Dubcek's Prague Spring, you would have a far greater understanding of the Prague Spring. My experiences in Bratislava added a great deal to my education.

Travel overseas and learn. Travel overseas for a transformative educational experience.

Forrest Gump Film Poster

Forrest Gump, "Stupid is as stupid does."

Visit the Stupid is As Stupid Does page to read more about this topic.