Francis Bacon, the eminent Renaissance intellectual, once wrote that “He that travelleth into a country… goeth to school”; in other words, that travel ‘broadens the mind’, as it is often put. This is almost a universally-accepted truism today; visiting other countries and faraway places on holiday is seen as a positive enriching experience, deepening our understanding of other cultures and the world as a whole.
However, this view was certainly not always so universal. A few decades before Bacon published his little essay On Travel (1625), Roger Ascham wrote in The Schoolmaster (1570) about young men travelling, specifically to Italy. His view was that “but one year at home in England would do a young gentleman more good, I wiss, than three years travel abroad spent in Italy”. Why? Because these young, impressionable gentlemen might come home infected with the manners of Italy, in particular “papistry or worse; for learning, less, commonly, than they carried out with them; for policy a factious heart, a discoursing head, a mind to meddle in all men’s matters; for experience, plenty of new mischiefs never known in England before; for manners, variety of vanities and change of filthy living.” Far safer to stay at home, then, and read of such matters, than experience them and risk becoming a damned popish sodomite!
Today, Ascham’s views seem hysterical, even comical – xenophobic and closed-minded, very much the words of a man of his age. I think you would be hard-pressed to find anyone sensible who would agree with him today. Yet it is also true that it would be almost as hard to find anyone who disagrees that travel ‘broadens the mind’, and as such it is rare that the concept is critically examined.
Let us start with a scenario, if you will. You are a fairly prosperous individual, who has decided to book an up-market cruise holiday, perhaps around the Mediterranean. The ship is luxurious, catering to your every need, and stops off regularly at the various ports in Spain, Italy, Greece, wherever. Each time the ship enters port, you leave the cosy confines of your cruise ship for a few hours to go and buy some souvenirs and eat in a restaurant (recommended by the crew, of course). You might even be able to snap a few pictures of the ‘sights’. After your allotted few hours is up, it is back to the ship. The cruise was wonderful, and when you get back home you can show all your friends and family the souvenirs from all the different countries you visited. You can now proudly say that you have visited five or six more countries than you had last year. A seasoned traveller indeed!
However – has this experience of travel really ‘broadened’ your mind? You spent a few hours in each port and bought a few souvenirs from tourist-trap shops, and maybe took a few photos in front of some famous landmarks. How much do you really know about that country’s culture, history, way of life? Does the fact that you have now visited 15 nations rather than 10 actually mean anything, other than adding to your checklist?
Indeed, checklists appear to be a feature of a lot of modern holidays. So many guidebooks are structured around lists – “Top Ten Sights in Rome”, “101 Places You Must See Before You Die”, etc. The focus often slides into simply seeing something, rather than learning about it. How many times do you go to a museum and see herds of tourists slide past, clicking away madly on their cameras at everything, yet never stopping to actually look at or think about what they are photographing? What have they learnt from taking that photo? Not much, most likely.
This is especially true for package holidays and guided tours. The travellers are whisked from place to place, their experience entirely managed by the guides. The places they visit, the people they meet, the food they eat – all is made to cater specifically to tourists. They may never speak a word to a single native of the country they visit. When they come back home, they have hopefully enjoyed a relaxing break, bought a load of tasteless-but-harmless souvenirs, and perhaps even acquired a sun tan – but not much else.
I am not trying to be derogatory here. There is nothing wrong with going abroad for this purpose – a change of scenery, a relaxing break, a few nice photos. I’ve been on quite a few of these holidays (as I’m sure many readers have), and they’ve been great fun, especially when I was a lot younger. But let’s not kid ourselves and say that this sort of travelling experience broadens the mind – it doesn’t. I doubt that it is much more culturally enriching than going to a seaside resort a few hours’ drive away from your house, unless the foreign holiday location is particularly spectacular.
Does that mean travel can never broaden the mind? Of course not. But for this to happen, a deeper immersion into foreign cultures is required.
The only true way of understanding a culture it to ultimately be born into it or live within it for a long period of time – or at least it seems so to me. Does that mean holidays are entirely useless? Certainly not. But what is required, I think, is a sense of deep curiosity and willingness to walk off the beaten track. To visit areas that are not tourist traps, to be willing to get lost a little, to spend time talking to the locals, to not allow yourself to be completely managed by a corporate travel guide.
These days, whenever I am in a new city I like to just wander around and explore, with no set destination, no guides and no directions from google maps. Does this mean I get lost? Yes, sometimes. But with a handy paper map, friendly locals and the road signs (the reading of which often requires a little understanding of the local language, which is always helpful), I’ve never had a serious problem. If I go to a historic landmark, I like to know about its history and background before hand, and to spend some time just observing it in detail rather than instantly reaching for the camera. If I go to a restaurant, I try to find those frequented by locals rather than tourists, working on the principle that the former know best. It might not work for everyone, but I far prefer this sort of travelling experience to the ones detailed above.
I don’t want to portray myself as some model traveller, because I’m not. But I like to think that I get at least a flavour of the local culture when I go on these trips and that my mind does broaden just a little each time I visit a new place in this way. Even if I learn only a smidgen, I like to think it has enriched me in some way.
Travel can be relaxing, it can be exciting, and it can be enriching – the greatest strength of travel is the diversity of experience it can offer. By all means, holiday in whatever way seems best – but let’s not pretend that everyone who comes back from week’s trip is suddenly a wise, worldly globetrotter.