In his extraordinary new book Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change, Seven Continents, Twenty Five Years, Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and psychologist Andrew Solomon makes a revelatory case for why he considers travel to be a moral imperative. “I found that often, it was the people who were least free who had the deepest understanding of freedom,” he says in the book’s trailer. “So much of the time now, people seem to feel that they’re caught in the crosswinds coming from places they don’t know or understand … We’re all afraid that someone’s going to come and blow up the place where we live and the place that we love. The basis of our having any feeling of security is interacting with the world.” Solomon adds, “The reality often is that what people would most like is to understand you and to be understood by you; that humanity is full of yearning for ‘mutual seeing.’ I would like this book to open the hearts and minds of readers to a larger world, and make them see that what they perceive to be threatening is actually in many instances joyful.”
In her review of the book, fellow author Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “Andrew Solomon is every bit as magnificent a traveler as he is a writer — in fact, it’s difficult at times to determine which is the greater talent.” Solomon himself could easily return such a compliment to Gilbert, for it was Elizabeth’s own book/phenomenon, Eat Pray Love, which struck a global nerve and demonstrated to millions of readers the powerful ways in which travel can create new potential realities in one’s life. If Solomon believes travel to be a moral imperative on our individual journeys towards becoming better global citizens, then Gilbert’s work is a parallel study demonstrating the ways in which by travelling the world, we are, in essence, diving inwards and exploring ourselves at the same time.
In the late summer of 1998, I took my very first overseas trip. It was the beginning of my fourth year of a five-year Bachelor of Architecture degree, and I joined twenty of my closest friends for a semester abroad in the magnificence of Rome. I couldn’t have possibly understood it at the time, but the next four months would change the course of my entire life on two separate fronts. How remarkable it was to be immersed in the cradle of Western civilization, all while being given the most inspiring lessons in how and why design has the power to teach us not only what to think, but more importantly how to think. Furthermore, I was blissfully unaware that I was also being profoundly transformed on another level. If my Roman design immersion was training me how to think, then the trip itself was teaching me how to be.
Fast forward seventeen years, and I find myself having just turned forty this past December. After a healthy period of self reflection on the state of my writing career, I made a personal commitment to myself and to my future: from this year forward I would condense my blog’s broad range of topics down from a chaotic many into a more focused two — design and travel. It’s this renewed focus that has given me a sense of clarity and realization that my two biggest passions in life did not arrive by accident. I would argue there is a universal nature to design and travel that is fundamentally human in essence. After all, what’s more human than to think and to be?
My education — in the school of life and in the school of academia — blessed me with a fortunate fusion of design and travel, and both have shaped my sense of self and my perception of the world around me in ways that will take an entire lifetime to fully appreciate and understand. I say ‘blessed’ because I am fully aware that not everyone is given the chance to experience this kind of fusion.
But what if there was a way to resolve this? What, I might ask, would our world look like fifty years from now if, starting today, our children were taught how to design and how to travel? What would happen if our two current pillars of education — the sciences and humanities — were updated and expanded to include a third and fourth? The benefits, I believe, would be immediate and monumental.
Jon Freach is a design research director at frog, an Austin-based global design and strategy firm. He is also a a founding professor at the Austin Center for Design (ac4d) and has lectured on the topic of design and innovation at numerous colleges and universities including Harvard Business School. Like me, Freach also feels that design should be added to the curriculum of our schools, right alongside the sciences and humanities. In a 2012 essay written for The Atlantic, he writes of how British design researcher and academic, Nigel Cross, made the formal case in his 2006 book Designerly Ways of Knowing (Springer-Verlag London) for adding design to the general education system, in particular the K-12 program. “In this context, theoretical understanding takes priority over ‘the how.’ But, to be a designer you need both forms of knowledge. With this in mind, Cross called for a ‘fundamental change of perspective’ regarding design, if it were to be a part of general education. He asserts that an education in design must have value in and of itself and not just be influenced by extrinsic motivating factors such as getting a job.”
On his blog Freach poses the question to himself and several of his colleagues, “What is the role of design thinking in education? What role does education play in cultivating design thinking?” His own answer reads as follows: “Design isn’t quite a science because it has an end state that’s very important to realize, and one could argue that it isn’t exactly a Humanity because of its technical nature. But, design is everywhere and I think it’s important that young people develop an early understanding of design beyond the making of patterns, color combinations, or buildings. This understanding can really shape how a kid relates to the world in so far as they realize they can make an impact on it through design and develop some skills and tools to help them create with.”
Legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright held a very similar position as Freach and Cross. During an interview in June 1957, a 90-year-old Wright explained what he felt was the biggest problem with the education system at the time. His words are as true today as they were back then. “Education has been unrealistic,” he said. “Education has not seen the nature of the thing we needed as a people and education has not provided enlightenment, it’s provided conditioning by way of books, by way of what has been, by way of the past, by the habituation of the human species today. And it hasn’t taken the views of the men who are capable of looking beyond and seeing what the nature of the thing was. What is the nature of this thing we’re in? Now that’s a case of seeing ‘in’ not seeing ‘at’. And all education is today is a seeing ‘at.'” You can listen to an excerpt from the 1957 interview below.
Some schools are already heeding the call by incorporating design and travel studies and experiences into their programs. One such example is the Drumduan School in Scotland. Founded by actress Tilda Swinton and other local parents who were searching for a more vibrant and inspiring educational alternative for their kids, Drumduan (K-18) offers a very different kind of educational experience compared to standard schools.
Krzysztof Zajaczkowski is the principal teacher at Drumduan, and on the school’s website he explains the ethos of their school. “We live in an age where much of our establishment is now under question and rightly so. Long held traditions, religions and major institutions are being scrutinised, yet are enough of us asking the fundamental questions? What is the true purpose of our education system? Why do we sit at desks for much of the day at school for over ten years? Are we teaching our pupils the life skills they need? We ourselves are the product of a post-industrial model of education, so it’s not easy to imagine an alternative to this mind-set.” Zajaczkowski continues, “Yet, if we continue to inquire, we begin to find answers. At Drumduan we are living with these questions and implementing many of the answers, with passion and with practicality. The emergent future and the health of society will be defined and shaped by the very same young people who come looking for their answers at our schools.”
In a conversation with artist Chuck Close, Drumduan co-founder Swinton (herself a mother of two fraternal twins in their mid-teens) raves of the benefits she and other parents have already begun observing in their kids. “Without that distraction and pressure [of state testing and grading] it’s really teaching these kids how to learn from head, via heart and hands: They learn everything from ethics to science to arts rigorously through systematic exercises and experiments, so it’s hands-on, craft-based, practical learning. It’s a blast. I find it hard to be away from it. It’s drawing teachers and families like anything. And they’re all chilled and engaged adolescents. Happy, and inspired.” Swinton invited Aaron Hicklin of The Guardian to join her and the students on one of their travels to the small island of Colonsay (population 120), and you can read the full story of their adventure at TheGuardian.com. To learn more about Drumduan’s curriculum you can visit Drumduan.org.
In his video entitled “Why We Explore“, philosopher Jason Silva talks about the uniquely human desire to explore, and he defines what he refers to as the hermonaut (i.e. hermenutics: the search for meaning + astronaut: one who is trained to travel beyond). “We are travelers, hermonauts in search of signification.” He adds, “We dream about that beach, we dream about that sunset, we dream of what — of who — we might become. It’s really about hacking our reality. The journey is really a desire for self-transcendence; a desire for rebirth … it’s a very powerful thing.” Silva refers to fellow philosopher Alain de Botton who writes in his book, The Art of Travel, about the phenomenon of discovering that wherever we go in our travels we often find that we have to bring ourselves along for the ride. We dream about who we will become when we get to that place, that “elsewhere.” De Botton adds, “The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.”
While promoting his new book, Far and Away, Andrew Solomon sat down for a conversation with Charlie Rose (you can watch it below) and he tells the story of how when he and his husband first began travelling with their four young children, people would often be surprised. Folks would comment that it was a waste of time because the kids were much too young and would never remember the places they were being taken to. Solomon tells Rose he would reply to those comments with, “Well, I will remember it so there’s some validity in that.” He adds, “But I also feel like [my kids] will grow up with the knowledge that there are different ways to live and different places to be and different attitudes to take. And recently I asked my [7-year-old] son George, ‘George, if you could go anywhere in the world — anywhere in the world — where would you like to go?'” Solomon says George thought for a second and quickly replied, “Syria.” Solomon, giggling, tells Rose when he asked his son why he wanted to go there his son said, “Somebody has to tell those people about unacceptable behavior.”
In his dedication for the book, Solomon quotes the following excerpt from the poem Questions of Travel by Elizabeth Bishop. It reminded me of my own four months in Rome, back when I was a young, bright-eyed design student and burgeoning hermonaut, filled to the brim with endless dreams and possibilities, and taking full control of the big, bold blueprints of my life, my future, and my own personal journey:
Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there… No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?
Triangular illustration by Tanya Johnson (entitled “APOSTASIA”)
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