Seoul, South Korea...I write this column as my family sleeps and giant televisions flicker on buildings below me. It is the beginning of the final week of our month-long trip around-the world. Philadelphia, Paris, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Botswana, Zambia, Cairo, Alexandria, Seoul and Tokyo are all part of the learning adventure. I even snuck into Namibia and Zimbabwe undetected, but just momentarily. There are numerous lessons to be learned from such a trip, not just that you need U.S. currency to get in and out of Zambia.
It is impossible not to learn from such disparate cultures, with their own languages, traditions and histories. From Southern Africa through Egypt you can relive the history of mankind. You learn how to live in harmony with nature and to avoid wild animals. You hear the Latin clave beat in the music of South Africa and see ancient hip-hop moves in Nubian dances. Paris and Philadelphia were the incubators for democratic revolutions while Korea and Japan rose from the ashes after the devastation of war. The splendors of nature are truly awesome.
Every American student should be taken on a field trip to another country. I know what you're thinking? Field trip? What's that? An American child is as likely to experience a field trip as they are to see the Great Pyramids or encounter a jenny of giraffes in Botswana.
My daughter who has earned an A for three years of high school French instruction found herself incapable of purchasing a Metro ticket or a croissant while in Paris. Days later, Egyptian children came up to us, hand extended in friendship, and asked our names as an entree to practicing their English. How's your Arabic or Urdu? Can your children buy a bus ticket if they left town? Who knew that former Atlanta Mayor and UN Ambassador Andrew Young adopted the children of imprisoned African freedom fighter Robert Sobukwe? We don't know enough about our own history or how it is tied to the history of others.
Those who wish to complain of outsourcing or international test score comparisons need to visit India and see what a half-billion people living on less than $1 a day looks like. They also need to ask their school boards why computer science has gone the way of the pharaohs in the curriculum?
Mandela and Archbishop Tutu lived on the same impoverished street in the Black Township of Soweto, yet went on to change the world. One of the pivotal moments in South Africa's struggle for racial justice was led by school children in the 1976 Soweto Riots. The students rejected the government's imposed curriculum and demands that they be taught in the language of their oppressors.
Similarities and Disparities
When an aggressive street merchant in Cairo asked me what I would like to purchase, I replied, "Nothing." Without missing a beat he replied, "That I have plenty of." The people of the developing world want the same thing as all Americans. They want to sell a cheesy tchocke to gullible tourists at a hefty profit.
Yes, the entire world is a giant mall. Heck, we visited the Mandela Mall in Joburg. What more fitting tribute to the great man, than to have a food court in his name. I hope someday to visit the Ghandi Galleria!
I witnessed displays of many intelligences. Basha, our Botswana safari driver, was not only an encyclopedia of regional flora and fauna, but had the uncanny ability to spot fresh lion tracks while driving a jeep in the dark of night. Moments later we parked in front of a lion pride. Are our schools creating the next generation of pyramid engineers?
Dusty alleys in ancient Islamic markets are equipped with eight-track tape players and URLs - another similarity with American schools.
I sailed to the forbidding shores of Robben Island where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. While overwhelmed by the island's haunting memories of leper colonies, wasted lives and horrific conditions for political prisoners, cell phones began ringing with news of the July 7th London bombings. The sketchy news "from the mainland" heightened my sense of banishment. My family watched the news that evening broadcast in Xhosa. It's a small world after all.
Egocentric Americans and their leaders like to ask questions like, "Why do they hate us?" The answer is, "They don't. A few do." I realize that this is small comfort for the innocent victims of terrorism, but it is important for Americans to understand how truly small the world is.
Two weeks later, after visiting a historic site in Cairo, our trusted driver, Mahmoud appeared distressed and told us of the second round of London bombings. He had learned of the explosions via the car radio. He did not delight in the triumph of Islam over the Western infidels. He shared our horror.
After Mahmoud delivered us to the airport we heard that the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh had been rocked by three bombs. Now we could grieve for Mahmoud. Recent news reported terrorism in Kenya, Gaza, Sudan and Iraq. Many of the events experienced more fatalities than the London attacks. We are all in this together.
Teachers in other countries accumulate long-service leave. Many use this time to explore the world. All of us could benefit from such adventures. The future of our planet is dependent on education, justice and reconciliation.
Gary Stager, firstname.lastname@example.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.