Michael Brannigan: Learning requires the same deep commitment as travel
Does traveling make a difference in how we think, understand others, and see through their eyes? Do we know ourselves better? No trite matter given our escalating bouts of xenophobia.
It all depends on whether we choose to be travelers, or tourists. In “The Image,” the late Daniel Boorstin, former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of History and Technology, unpacks this etymologically, noting the Old English genesis of “travel” in “travail,” meaning “work” and “struggle,” as in the French travail. As struggle, traveling also entails facing risks, unmeasurable and non-negotiable.
Things change, however, when, metaphorically, we become tourists rather than travelers.
A tourist undergoes the adventure, yet without the risks. In a “made to order” journey with the comforts of home, the tourist expects pleasure to come his way, passively site-seeing within a packaged experience, a negotiated haven. Moreover, these tourist and souvenir meccas may be their only contact with the natives.
Through travel, the world comes to life, through the quality of our vision’s depth. Through sightseeing, we witness, but in the absence of recognition.
I cannot help but see parallels in higher education. Again, not trite, for what’s at stake is the future of higher learning. Like traveling, learning is not a spectator sport. It demands discipline, patience, persistence, time, focus, and risk. Learning is not sightseeing, chewing morsels of topics without depth. Genuine learning forbids shortcuts and convenience. It is not a package deal, a commodity. Higher learning, like traveling, is active engagement with ideas, an unfolding discovery of our natural world, others, and, ultimately and intimately, ourselves.
So, when higher education becomes a package tour sightseeing through main course menus and offerings, when reaching the destination — getting that degree — remains the sole rationale, when the journey is peripheral, then, through intellectual dereliction, we betray our students.
Consider the exciting and complex mental voyage in reading. Higher learning demands deep reading, a procreative attention to the page in ways that we see, not merely look, through our eyes, not with them. When we read deeply, we think deeply. As Nicholas Carr refines it in “The Shallows,” engaging “more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. That was — and is — the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading.” All this requires a reflective awareness, weighing perspectives and connecting the dots of ideas and insights.
Deep reading means losing oneself in the text, becoming one with the book — not the screen. Sorry students, but googling, twittering, blogging, etc. doesn’t quite cut it with their gestalts of immediacy, entertainment, and truncated information, oftentimes perilously severed from context. This hinders the reflectiveness for analysis, synthesis, inductive and deductive reasoning, all essential ingredients of logical, critical thinking.
Like traveling and higher learning, deep reading is not for the faint of heart. It comes with practice, one book, one article, one after another, a mental gauntlet that, while appearing Sisyphean, develops understanding, broadens horizons, sharpens vision, and enhances self-knowledge. But, as with traveling, it takes motivation, effort, effort, and more effort. And, like traveling, how we read sculpts how we think.
Hence the intrinsic value of higher learning, where we challenge students to read deeply, think critically, engage in debate and dialogue (conversation is not enough), and embrace the struggle and unease in leaving their comfort zones. It is labor-intensive, hard work — an intellectual pilgrimage whose future rests ultimately upon whether it meets the challenge of teaching us the lost art of travel.
Michael Brannigan is the Pfaff Endowed Chair in Ethics and Moral Values and Dean of Spiritual Life at The College of Saint Rose. His email address and website: firstname.lastname@example.org and www.michaelcbrannigan.com.