Why I Travel (A historian’s perspective)

On the way down to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo holiday Zoolights festival, I had a conversation with my sister-in-law about why she disliked zoos and aquariums (and for similar reasons the study of anthropology, but I disagree with her premises, so we’ll just skip it this time).  The gist of it was that she would rather experience a giraffe sighting in its natural environment than on display in a zoo.  In fact, she would simply rather experience the world than see it on display.

Roman road built in Ephesus

I understand her point.  I learned about the Roman Empire, watched documentaries about the Roman Empire, and visited Roman sculptures and pieces of edifices in museums, but touching a Roman wall built in Regensburg Germany, walking through the ruined Roman streets and porticos of Ephesus, and descending down to the Roman foundations of Barcelona was an experience above and beyond anything I’d done previously.  (Ironically, I still have yet to visit Rome.)  My interest and previous study in history, though, helped me to better appreciate and understand the incredible sights I witnessed on my travels.  It was enriching on so many levels and inspiring.

As a historian, I want to travel to the places where “things happened” to see the lay of the land for myself–to observe the growth and the evolutions as much as the foundations.  Travel gives me new insights, inspires new understandings, and stimulates new questions.  Visiting Barcelona gave me a whole new insight into Emperor Augustus’s plan for Spain, into the presence of the Carolingian Franks in Spain, the pilgrimage trails in northern Spain tied to Santiago de Compostella, and the post-exploration Spanish world.  No way could I have gotten two thousand years of history in a week without having visited the city.

Lonely Planet used to have a bumper sticker that read, “DO SOMETHING GREAT FOR YOUR COUNTRY.  LEAVE.”  There are many good arguments for traveling–especially in our ever-shrinking world–but, I recognize that not everyone has the opportunity or the inclination.  As for opportunity, I am grateful for the libraries and museums, zoos and aquariums that expose folks to the world beyond–many free of charge or for a small fee.  But, a lack of inclination is our fault, collectively, as parents or educators, society at large.  Even when we cannot afford to travel with our classes or families, we can challenge our kids to think about what is beyond their small world, ferment curiosity, and dare them to dream and plan to explore grand things and distant places.

Our world is enriched when our citizens are global, or at least can think globally, a mindset that is also necessary for a country of disparate immigrant populations living together.  Networks exist all over the world to bind us together and facilitate travel and experience.  We should be explorers, conquerors of challenging terrain, and eager life learners.  Good education, and history in particular, I believe, should facilitate the growth of such citizens.  My daughter should be excited to see a Roman ruin in person because she understands something of the vastness and greatness of the Roman Empire.  Her prior learning should enrich her personal experience and her travel experiences should inspire more learning and curiosity.  That is the beauty of travel for me: it is touching history.  In addition to those old standby perks: cuisine, culture, music, architecture, art, new people, geography, exotic animals, etc.  I love travel because I love wonder and curiosity.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Why I Travel (A historian’s perspective)

  1. Thanks for the post, and I completely agree. I’d even extend it to historical documents. I love (and make extensive use of) online database, microfilm, and other resources that make documents more accessible today.

    But there’s just something about holding a two-hundred-year-old newspaper that came off of Benjamin Franklin’s press that you can’t recreate in a PDF. Or a letter signed by Washington. Anything really, a newspaper, almanac, pamphlet, book, letter, on which the original owner has left some mark (and even when he or she hasn’t), whether or not that person was famous.

    • That’s an excellent point! I can’t think of too many more spine-tingling experiences than when I was assigned a Nachleben (historical afterlife) in a grad course about how the Early Modern period remembered the Medieval era; I spent time in the Library of Congress’s rare books library looking at some of the earliest printed books in history. It was pretty exhilarating!

      Thanks for the comment and share on Twitter!

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