While we could not do justice to the concept of change unless we engaged in an evidence-based scientific or philosophical discussion, it cannot be denied that our minds are in constant evolution, as we have an innate desire to further our knowledge and skills. We are programmed to learn and learn and learn. Personally, I find it useful to imagine this perennial intellectual regeneration, this incessant and conscious pursuit of new horizons, as a journey in search of ourselves, of who we are as individuals, citizens and humans. In other words, a lifelong voyage that allows us to explore our personal identity, our place in society and our role in the wider human endeavour. Not unlike Odysseus.
Education is a major element contributing to this voyage of self-discovery and, as I stated in a recent blog, it is precisely by having access to the body of knowledge produced by prior generations in the fields of mathematics, science, technology, literature, history, geography, philosophy, economics and the arts, that our children can “sit on the shoulder of giants” and participate actively and creatively in the construction of the future. School subjects, however, are not the only source of theoretical or practical wisdom.
International trips are another important component of the education of young minds, and this firm belief is part of our DNA as a school. Indeed, our student exchanges with a variety of schools in France are now more than two decades old and, in addition, we have visited a wide range of countries over the years. Consider, for example, the boldness of organizing trips to the USSR during the Cold War. All of these experiences have allowed our students not only to gain a better understanding of international relations and key transnational issues but also, more importantly perhaps, to develop their cultural intelligence (or CQ, as it is sometimes called), which could be defined as the ability to relate to people from other cultures and to collaborate effectively with them.
The seminal works of Christopher Early, Soon Ang, Linn Van Dyne and David Livermore have drawn our attention to the importance of CQ in today’s global economy, which often relies on the success and productiveness of multicultural teams. This is essential, without a doubt, as all of us are in daily contact with people from a variety of cultures, living here in Toronto or abroad, through our personal and professional lives. The question we should ask ourselves as parents and educators is whether all international trips can provide the right kind of impact on the development of cultural intelligence, just by virtue of visiting other countries.
Vanessa Andreotti, who holds a research chair in race, inequalities and global change at the University of British Columbia, does not seem to think so. She actually warns against certain kinds of service trips, even if there is obviously nothing inherently wrong about volunteering abroad to help build a school or dig a clean-water well (quite the opposite!). What she objects to is the vocabulary that is at times used to frame such experiences, as some organizations can convey a rather condescending message: students are “heroes” who are going to “save those poor people out there.” This idea, whether communicated implicitly or explicitly, has clear neo-colonial overtones that are simply unacceptable and do not promote the sense of universal equality and fraternity needed to develop CQ. Trips should never become “civilizing missions.”
A second point of contention is the development of “voluntourism” as an industry, as in some cases this could potentially lead to projects that are not necessarily sustainable, or even the most urgently needed by local communities, but are rather dictated by changing trends in rich nations. If, for example, a group of youngsters is sent to help build a new school in a remote part of the planet without ensuring that there will be enough funds to pay teachers’ salaries, the resulting building could remain empty after all their efforts.
Likewise, we need to be aware that trips can shape the way young people from economically developed countries perceive regions with drastically different socio-political realities. In this context, we may wish to consider why students often visit the beautiful landmarks of wealthy nations while, at the same time, they are encouraged to go to the impoverished areas of developing countries. Many of you will likely agree with me that someone who has been awed by the Palace of Versailles and then travels to an isolated rural area in Peru will have a different perception of France and Latin America from another person who has strolled around a low-income district in the metropolitan area of Paris and attended a concert of Cuban Baroque music in Havana Cathedral.
At TFS we have important conversations on all of the above when planning our international trips, which tend to take place just before or during the March break. In addition to India and Ecuador, this year there is a new project that involves a group of Level III social sciences students travelling to Paris and Barcelona, to find out about how urban environments can actually shape a sense of collective identity. The purpose is to explore the two cities not like tourists, but rather like anthropologists, uncovering their historical and social narratives layer by layer. In Barcelona, our group will be studying the architecture and open spaces to learn about the naval power of the Kings of Aragon, the crushing defeat suffered by the city in 1714 that drove many of its inhabitants into exile, the new bourgeois wealth resulting in the creation of elegant boulevards in the 19th century, the ravages of the Civil War in 1936–39 and the ensuing dictatorship. Since this part of the trip has been organized in partnership with an international French school in the area, our students will be staying with local host families, which will promote a very fruitful intercultural dialogue.
If education represents a metaphorical voyage in search of the universal human conscience, trips to other provinces and countries can facilitate this task, most particularly when they are planned with intellectual depth and rigour. Surely, reading the literary works of Louis Hémon and Michel Tremblay can enrich a visit to Quebec. Likewise, if I were to go to Munich or Berlin, I would be tempted to take with me some of the political or biographical writings of Thomas and Klaus Mann (father and son), as these two intellectuals actively opposed the Third Reich. Important sites in Paris such as the Arab World Institute and the Grand Mosque offer us the possibility to learn about the history of the relationship between East and West.
Undoubtedly, international trips must be planned carefully in order to avoid certain pitfalls, overcome stereotypes and promote an attitude of true intercultural openness. That is what global citizenship is ultimately about. Our students need to be able to build bridges of understanding with other cultures so that they can contribute to the progress of humanity in collaboration with people from around the world, as future scientists, engineers, sociologists, doctors, entrepreneurs, artists or diplomats. In order to do so, it is important that they meet other citizens where they live, where they eat, where they love, so that they can recognize, beyond our cultural differences, the underlying forces that bond us all together as humans.
The Other is indeed an inextricable part of ourselves.