To Go Boldly Or Not At All

Captain KirkSimon’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.

4 Replies to “To Go Boldly Or Not At All”

  1. Hey Chad, thanks so much for sharing our Everyday Ambassador post on your blog! Your students are so lucky to have such an aware professor who disseminates thoughts like, “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 think you’re right when you say that it’s good to “protect” when we can, as mentors, but that it’s also OK to let people learn from their own mistakes (given that they’re not going to hurt other people in that process; those are the mistakes we like to avoid!). Considering how much we share in common, I wanted to invite you and your students to a Webinar I’m co-hosting on Wed May 27th, could I email you an invite or post it here? My email is kate[at]everydayambassador[dot]org. Also … I’m a (wicked proud) native Rhode Islander, so go Salve! 🙂 All my best, Kate Otto

  2. Hi Dr. Raymond. Thanks for including my ‘article’ in your conversation. I’d like to make something clearer, though.

    It’s not the sense of responsibility that I am lax about. I think we must be ultimately conscientious when intervening in a foreign culture. Rather, it was that Biddle’s (and others’) points failed to address how to do this and how to create students/teachers who can problematize what it means to “help” and, for that matter, what an “obligation” is. I played that game about the Drowning Child for a few minutes but found it completely nonsensical for much the same reason. It only gives two options. It is precisely this (western-ish) idea of the excluded middle, of right and wrong, obligation and non-obligation that I think lies at the very heart of our broken designs for international development and aid. If I don’t buy the rhetoric of “obligated or not” then it’s impossible for me to play the game. “Obligated to help” sounds an awful lot like post-colonial development speak to me. If it is our own notions of obligation that govern our intentions and involvement, then we are still perpetuating the Oppressor-Oppressed dynamic that Freire talked about so much. It’s not about obligation; it’s about humanization. “If you want to solve a problem, you gotta think differently than you were when you created it.” I think Einstein said that.

    Moreover, it’s impossible for me to buy the “give the money to someone who can really help” argument because it just delays the question by another degree: Where the hell do we first find the “people who can really help?” The reality is we get them from every corner of the world, from hut to Harvard. But all of them have one thing in common: they were students who were taken seriously and held themselves to infinitely high standards.

    Hope all is well in Newport. Thanks again for posting this!

    1. As my wife would say, I am the embodiment of the post-colonial mentality. You’re right about the need for people to examine how they construct their ideas about “helping.” Usually “helping” sets up by default the dichotomy you mention between “helper” and “helped.”

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