[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer. This is the final installment.]
VI. Study Near
Last summer, America celebrated the 200th birthday of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau did not study abroad. Somewhat like Kant, he spent most of his life confined to a small territory. He went to Harvard, just a few miles down the road from his home in Concord, Mass. But in a way, Thoreau did study abroad; he just didn’t go very far. Thoreau’s study abroad was a mere two miles from his hometown: a modest wooden cabin he built in the woods by Walden Pond. Though he didn’t go far, he stayed a long time: two years. While commonly regarded as a founding father of American environmentalism, Thoreau was also a passionate advocate for what we today would call social justice. His time at Walden changed his perspective on Concord. Living on the fringes of town, he saw first-hand evidence of the marginalization of Concord’s vulnerable residents, including Irish immigrants and Native Americans. And, of course, he made a sustained case for civil disobedience a few years later. It may be a stretch, but perhaps Thoreau intuited what Pope Francis would confidently declare a century and a half later: that environmental and social justice go hand in hand. His time in the near abroad revealed the imperfections of the near.
We have little trouble finding the familiar in the foreign. We are terrible at finding the foreign in the familiar. If travel is not at least a little bit scary and hard and humbling, it’s not travel. It’s tourism. The challenge is not making sense of the new place. It’s not being a tourist at home. This was Thoreau’s signature talent—to daily encounter his tiny territory as an exotic land rich with mystery, never fully known. Travel, rightly done, can teach us how to inhabit our homeland with reverence and awe.
If I were speaking with a student coming back from study abroad, I would ask them some of the following questions: Not where did they go, but why? Not what did you get out of it, but how did it get to you? Who got to you? What stories struck you? What demands do they make on your own? On your country’s?
Ultimately, I suspect that human rights draw their power not from logical arguments, abstract moral principles, or international agreements—important though these are–but from the experiences of recognition, the memories that ravel about them, and the stories we spin from their ragged thread.