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Travel is not education

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.

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Allison Smith

Allison is 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.

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21 thoughts on “Travel is not education”

  1. All great men are and were travelers. Traveling leads to education. Traveling leads to opening of new dimensions, traveling leads to learning. Traveling leads to building relationships. Traveling inspires innovations and discoveries and inventions.

    Being a frog in the well is no education.

  2. I think there is a difference between schooling and education. Going to university is schooling. Getting a degree is schooling. But an education encompass much more. And traveling is just one part of this huge thing call education. I don’t think it is bigger but I do think it is necessary for one to have a world view. The quote should be taken in the context of “have you traveled as part of your education”.

  3. An interesting perspective, although I don’t agree with how you’ve interpreted the quote. It doesn’t imply that travel should replace education, it merely considers one as more important than the other. I myself would agree – if I ask myself whether my university education or my travels have better prepared me for the world, it’s very clear to me that my degree is the weaker weapon. Of course, it is ideal to have both, but if I were to have only one I know which I would choose.

  4. Also, check out the book “Vagabonding”, by Rolf Potts. His attitude regarding travel is quite healthy :)

  5. I was inspired by the quote, looked it up, and found your article in the top results. I understand very well why one would feel a smugness from such a quote, but I find it curious that you feel it from this particular quote.
    This quote has a feeling of setting me free. Why? Because I feel oppressed by people who hold their 4.0 grade average and academic accomplishments over my head. I am inclined to escape academia because it judges me by a standard with which I disagree.
    The reason I find your disinclination with this quote curious, is because I have never experienced the pride of a well-traveled person. I have only ever made contact with the exhilaration of travel.
    Whether education or travel, if you do it for pride and status it will be worth less. If you do them for curiosity and betterment of your self because YOU wanted to, then you’ll get more from them.
    Also: travel and education are merely two separate avenues of what is called LEARNING. If anything, growing up in Utah, I feel utterly oppressed by those pressuring me to go to college, and almost humiliated when I tell questioning adults that I want to “travel the world”.
    So I see no dilemma. You and I sit on opposite side of a false dichotomy, created by social pressures.

    Peace, Smith!

    1. Love this comment, Landon. You’re absolutely right, it’s a false dichotomy, created by social pressures. (That, actually, is one of the greatest pleasures of travel – you escape the social pressures that can be so strong back at home.)

      And you’ve hit the nail on the head – learning is (hopefully) the goal, and both education and travel have a role to play in helping us learn.

      I will definitely look up Rolf Potts, thank you for the recommendation.

  6. I think you completely missed the point of the quote, because like everyone else who thinks it is whimsical and wise, you place the quote in a modern context and judge it based on modern politics, modern education and a modern ‘western’ ideology. I would not hesitate to agree with your sentiment, had this quote in fact been from a modern western source, but it isn’t. while I have not read the Quran, and thus can’t be sure this is or isn’t from the holy text, or from the prophet himself as it is claimed. if it is, I think you have to look at what the words are saying in the context of the world in which they are said. in this case being Arabia circa 570-632 AD. to say that travel isn’t a form of or even more important than formal education as it existed and was made available then, would be very foolish i think, because travel was highly educational in many ways and much more accessible than formal education to most people. along with that, travel was far more important to mankind in terms of learning of other cultures than it is today, with modern air travel, the internet, encyclopaedias and widespread higher education facilities in both the east and west. you roll your eyes because you assume (and maybe rightly so) that most people attach this idea to a modern western experience and that annoys you, but then you judge the quote yourself from a modern western experience. your failure to spend anytime thinking about this quote in context is just as lazy and foolish as those who automatically place it in a modern context. now maybe I’m mistaken, and maybe you do understand that the world in which these words were likely spoken isn’t the same world that exists today, and in that world, travel could be and likely was a more viable, realistic and more useful form of education, certainly a more accessible one. but if you do understand that, you clearly didn’t elude to that in your opinion piece.

    in summary, I think next time, you should spend a little more time thinking before immediately rolling your eyes and sharing your disgust.

  7. If I had a Canadian passeport I would travel the world no doubt, are you kidding me, you have no idea what advantage you have compared to other people.

  8. Missed the point. It’s not as literal as you have taken it. Of course I’m not going to learn more about the holicist by visiting Oktoberfest which is what it seems your taking the quote as, what it’s saying is that you get a more real perspective after walking through the gas chambers in dachau rather than anything you could possibly read.

  9. Since we can be only anecdotal here, why is it that the dozens of nieces, nephews, god-children and students I know well who have travelled, come back from those journies more tolerant, more accepting, more flexible, more curious and more motivated than the youth I know who haven’t travelled?

    1. I think it’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. I think generally, people who are motivated to travel are more curious, flexible etc than those who aren’t as interested in travel, but you’re right, travel can (can – it doesn’t always) also instil those characteristics in people who have traveled.

  10. To suggest that travel or being educated an either / or is to oversimplify. People seek out different experiences – both in what they choose to read, where and how they choose to live, and in their approach (or non-approach) to travel.
    To me this quote is not suggesting that one knows more because they have travelled, but rather it is seeking to find the experience, the reflections, perhaps the self-discovery that a traveller has had.
    While it is irritating to listen to someone who has become an ‘expert’ on a country after a short trip, I wonder who reading this blog has not got caught in this trap themselves. Just as people will begin to form ideas and opinions from reading only one book on a subject that has been discussed and argued about for decades, so too will people make an assessment of a country they have visited even if they only spend a short time there. Both are an indication of people on the beginning of a journey of learning and experience; and both are valuable.
    Travel for me has been life-changing and I feel sorry that there are people who will not share the experiences that I have had because they are not inclined to travel. But a friend recently said to me that he feels sorry for people who do not spend time appreciating food; because it is something one can enjoy three times a day and therefore provides three opportunities a day for joy.
    Yes you are right there can often be an unjustified snobbery amongst travellers – is it any more irritating than the arrogance of a person who knows a lot but has experienced little?

    1. You’re absolutely right – I have admittedly simplified the topic in this post just because of how pervasive I find the travel = education view. And I have absolutely been, as you say, caught in the trap myself.

      Good point about the arrogance of someone who knows a lot but has experienced little – and putting that in the development context, it can be frustrating when such people are making funding or program decisions without much knowledge of how things play out on the ground.

  11. You can travel to 40 countries and be ignorant of the world just as much as you can learn much about the world and all of its complexities without ever leaving your home country. It’s about how you think about the world and put your experiences into context. But, I agree, travel in and of itself is not education. I’ve lived in this country as a foreigner for a total of 16 months and I can’t tell you how many travelers I’ve seen who think they understand the place after a week. Their observations, however superficial, become their interpretation for even the most complex issue.

  12. I was shocked at the condescension of other travelers in Malawi who only classified travel as visiting other countries. In that vein, Americans “never travel” if they don’t leave the US. However, I found that traveling throughout my own country was at times more valuable (and MUCH cheaper) than international travel. There are so many different parts of the US and so much to learn. Sometimes I wish we’d ask people how much they know about their own community, not just about which countries they’ve visited.

    1. Yes, that’s an interesting dynamic too Tanya, how much more time and energy we spend traveling throughout other countries rather than getting to know our own. We seem to value travel outside of our own borders much more than within them. I know I’m guilty of this – there are still parts of Canada I’ve never been to.

  13. Very poetic end to your blog!

    We just had a group of HONOR students from a US University come to South America a few weeks ago to work/participate in testing some new e-solutions in data gathering, community engagement, and mapping in the context of less ODA and more Private Aid (new reality). For us it was taking place in a semi-controlled environment at both end of the equation – new actors (well educated) and a community with some political context and not as exposed to regular flows of strangers.

    At the end what these student learned was that education goes beyond “what you learn in school” – education is not only what you do from 9 to 5 (job) but all the decisions you make in a day that also affects the rest of the world. I think that travel gives you a chance to put in perspective what you think you have leaned and that while we live in a very structured economy our economic decisions can change people’s life. Education is an asset that have nothing to do with intelligence or making intelligent decisions. Travel helps you understand that it’s a small world and that we are more interconnected that we think!

    When it comes to be a Canadian being asked for a visa..I think it’s about time they do it (even though I hate paying for it) — reciprocity! We have had a free ride for such a long time while we charge high visa fees to come to Canada. It’s not hurting businesses…it’s hurting the poor …gouging them with no process to appeal a decisions. Canada (or other countries) use these fees to pay for their limousine services abroad …at the expense of the poorest they say they are there to help….ok ok …sorry got carried away here (I am a proud Quebecois abroad).

    Back to education and travel….having the opportunity to travel (not just to all-inclusive or gated-communities) gives you a chance to understand what you have learned.

    Ohhhh about voluntourism – I am not sure why my Canadian colleague speaks of this as “one off” programs. Did you know that there are more than 130 (something) eco-tourism brand…some is greenwash ..some is somewhat good ecotourism. Next time you are in South America or Jamaica..let me know so that I can give you a tour of Cartagena (for example) ..the one you like where tourist come…drink beer, have access to the best services, best food, take some goofy pictures and go home (this is their new reality of Colombia). The province where Cartagena is….is one of the provinces that generates the most wealth in Colombia but is also home of the higher rates of poverty. You can keep that type of tourism …we think they can do more — http://www.travelplussocialgood.org/ <<this is what people want..less gated communities!

    Sorry I got carried away again….go after the UNWTO for publishing 1 billion tourist <<<it's 1 billion tourism arrivals..get it right. Some 50,000 people cross the US and Mexico border every days for work (they are counted twice …and 220 times a year).

    Traveling is more than movement…it's part of social transformation — education is what gets you through 9 to 5!

    Ok ok one more — well educated American that have not traveled think that Mexico is a violent destinations — people that have traveled outside of a gated Playa Del Carmen community understand the following numbers http://howsafeismexico.com/compare_mexico_us_cities.html

    See…once again travel itself can give you a different perspective of the same place you have visited — The one you see through a camera lenses in a very organized tourist tour…or tourism that takes you to different places and gets you involved in the community (voluntourism, social tourism, etc) …there is no more aid…so if a community wants to work with travelers to build a well…let that be their decisions…not yours or that of the none-local advocate.

    Sorry I did get carried away again!

    Let's have educated travelers…..or make travel part of learning/education as they do now in the USA

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