Simon’s recent posts on his quest in Maastricht (here and here) have provided me with a reminder that the global connections that are now white noise for many of us are life-changing events for college students.
New posts on this blog get pushed out to my Facebook account. A Belgian friend of mine now working in Yangon after stints in Chad and Bhutan (long story) contacted me to say that seeing Simon’s last post on my Facebook wall reminded him of his time as an Erasmus student in Maastricht nearly a quarter-century ago. The Briton is in the Netherlands after a trip to Canada, the Belgian is working in Burma, the American is thinking of when he might next go to Egypt, and the Egyptian is looking forward to a visit to the Dominican Republic.
We want our students to become just as aware of and engaged with the world as we think we are. If we can convince them to boldly go where they have not yet gone, we prefer that they don’t embarrass themselves too much in the process. I remember how much of an idiot I was in my early forays abroad; while I didn’t step on any landmines, I probably did a good job conforming to neocolonialist ugly American stereotypes. My inclination is to try to prevent my own students from making similar mistakes. Yet perhaps making such mistakes is the most important part of the whole experience.
I’ve come across two pieces of writing that nicely illustrate this conundrum, and I’ve added them to the reading list for the project on tourism that will be one option for students in my development economics course in the fall semester. Both discuss voluntourism, but from opposite perspectives.
The first item is “The Problem With Little White Girls . . . Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist” by Pippa Biddle. Ms. Biddle presents a real-world application of Peter Singer’s thought experiment on the drowning child (click on the link and play the game, I dare you): if we are morally obligated to help others, then we shouldn’t be wasting precious economic resources primarily to satisfy an urge to feel good about ourselves. The money that a starry-eyed but unskilled teenager will spend on an airplane ticket to go on an international service trip will be put to much better use if it is donated to an organization like Community Partners International.
The second item is “The Voluntourism Assault: Stop Making This About Your Righteousness,” by Andrew Frankel. Mr. Frankel argues that immersion in another culture is in itself a very valuable experience, regardless of whether one begins with impractical notions of doing good, because experiencing the unfamiliar makes us less sure of our own convictions and beliefs. We are then more open to other perspectives and the possibility of other solutions.
Ms. Biddle and Mr. Frankel have opposing views on this subject, but I think they are both correct, something that I would not have thought possible before I began getting globally connected.