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Travel and geography as a political act

Every once in a while, while traveling around the country, I’ll get the chance to meet and chat with one of them. My daughter calls them fanboys. You might call them uberfans. A polite term might be avid followers. But we’ve all met someone like this. People who just can’t get enough of The Avengers or the Kansas Jayhawks or House of Cards or whatever they’ve decided is the thing around which their world rotates.

And whenever I run into this particular type of fanboy, I have to smile. Because they are so passionate and fun to be around.

I’m talking, of course, about the people who just can’t get enough of Rick Steves. And if you’ve never heard of Rick Steves, well . . . you just haven’t had the chance to spend time with one of his uberfans. Because if you had, you would have definitely heard all about him. They take their love of Rick to a whole new level.

I get it. Rick Steves is the ultimate in travel advice. He has books, TV shows, radio, podcasts, websites, articles, and blog posts – all talking about and sharing information about travel. Where to go. What to take with you. The best places to eat. To stay. The best museums. Suggestions for planes, trains, and automobiles. He does it all and he’s been doing it for a long time.

All of this to say that Rick Steves knows travel. And he has a ton of followers who know he knows travel. So when he shares his ideas about the whys and hows of travel, it’s probably a good idea to listen to what he has to say.

And while I’m not a Steves uberfan, there is one message he shares that I really like.

Much of what he now talks about is summed up in his 2009 book titled Travel as a Political Act.

Travel connects people with people. It helps us fit more comfortably and compatibly into a shrinking world. And it inspires creative new solutions to persistent problems facing our nation. We can’t understand our world without experiencing it. Traveling as a Political Act helps us take that first step.

There’s more to travel than good-value hotels, great art, and tasty cuisine. Americans who “travel as a political act” can have the time of their lives and come home smarter – with a better understanding of the interconnectedness of today’s world and just how our nation fits in.

This is not about politics in the sense of conservative vs. liberal, Democrat vs. Republican. It’s about the idea that the more we know about other people and cultures, the better we as a country and people can impact the world in a positive way.

I like the idea. Seriously like the idea.

A recent article in the Wichita paper caught my eye and reminded me of why I like the idea so much. You need to go and read through his longer online essay but I’ve pasted parts of the newspaper article below.

Not just because it makes sense and should be something we should be doing whenever we travel but because it’s a great reminder of why and how we should be teaching geography.

More on that in a minute.

The great value of travel is the opportunity it offers you to “pry open your hometown blinders and broaden your perspective.” And Rick suggests that when we implement that world view as citizens of our great nation, we make travel a political act. Five tips for doing just that:

Connect with people, and try to understand them
Make itinerary decisions that put you in touch with locals. Stay in people’s homes and spend time with your hosts. Visit a university, eat in the cafeteria, and make a new friend. Seek answers for cultural riddles: Why do some Hindus feed their cows better than their children? Why do many Muslim women wear scarves? Why do Norwegians so willingly pay high taxes?

Be a cultural chameleon
Embrace cultural differences with joy rather than with judgment. Eat with your fingers in a Sri Lankan restaurant that has no silverware, dip your fries in mayonnaise in Belgium, smoke a hookah in Greece, kiss a stranger on both cheeks in France, or attend a hurling match in Ireland. Rather than gawking at pilgrims, become one. Climb Rome’s Holy Stairs on your knees, feeling the pain while finding comfort in the frescoes of saints all around you.

Understand contemporary context
While traveling, read the local news. Scan “The Times of India” in Mumbai. Go to a political rally in Scotland. Listen to expat radio on Spain’s Costa del Sol. Think about how all societies are on parallel evolutionary tracks. Imagine how the American approach to vexing societal problems might work in other places – and (more importantly) vice versa.

Identify – and undermine – your own ethnocentricity
The United States has been preoccupied with terrorism for the last generation. But other nations have their own, sometimes heavier baggage. Ponder societal needs even more fundamental than freedom and democracy. Why is Putin so popular in Russia? Why would a modern, well-educated Egyptian be willing to take a bullet for the newest military dictator (as my friend in Cairo just told me)? Why, in some struggling countries, does stability trump democracy?

Accept the legitimacy of other moralities
Be open to the possibility that controversial activities are not objectively “right” or “wrong.” Consider Germany’s approach to prostitution or the Netherlands’ marijuana policy, both of which are based on pragmatic harm reduction rather than moralism. Get a French farmer’s take on force-feeding his geese to produce foie gras. Ask a Spaniard why bullfighting still thrives – and why it’s covered not in the sports pages, but in the arts section of the local newspaper. You don’t have to like their answer, but at least try to understand it.

The problem with all of this is that many of your students do not or cannot travel. I meet lots of teachers whose students haven’t ever left their county, let alone their state or the US. So can we take some of Rick’s ideas and apply them our geography classrooms?

I think we can.

You may already be doing this but geography is more that just having kids memorize the seven continents and numbing our students with lectures on the five themes of geography. It should be more than asking kids to write reports about the different regions of the United States. And it’s definitely more than being able to recite the 50 state capitals.

Yesterday’s Pearls Before Swine cartoon describes what geography instruction should not look like.

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 10.00.46 AM

I often quote Miles Harvey, author of The Island of Lost Maps.

Sometimes a map speaks in terms of physical geography, but just as often it muses on the jagged terrain of the heart, the distant vistas of memory, or the fantastic landscape of dreams.

Geography instruction can and should be a way for us to connect with place and people in ways that go beyond simple recitation of facts. If you’re looking for a way to do that, Rick Steves is a great place to start:

Then ask yourself this question – How might you adapt your current instruction to include the five suggestions listed above?

Need a few more jump starters?

What works for you? How do you teach geography so that your students “pry open their hometown blinders and broaden their perspective?”


6 Comments Post a comment
  1. historyreadingchallenge #

    Thanks for the suggested links! It kills me that history and geography get no respect from the curricula of most schools. Sure, you can Google the capital of, say, Pakistan. You can even tool around in Google Earth, but it doesn’t give you a cultural frame of reference for the Pakistani people you will meet in a global society.

    March 2, 2015
    • glennw #

      I really think that it’s hard to do geography well and I think that’s why many teachers push it to the back burner. And I agree, in geography, context is everything.

      Thanks for the comment!


      March 3, 2015
  2. Sharon Gillette #

    I have the good fortune of living and teaching in Asia (South Korea to be specific). One of the best benefits of working here is being able to travel to different countries during school breaks. Experiencing places like Angkor Wat and the Great Wall blows my mind. But seeing the “mundane,” such as rice terraces or the Buddhist temples and burial mounds in my “backyard” has made me more appreciative of culture and history and, in turn, a better teacher. Be open to new experiences…you never know what you may learn.

    March 3, 2015
    • glennw #


      You’re right – the “mundane” is often as enlightening as the “tourist worthy” stuff. It is the interacting with locals and “real life” that is powerful.

      Thanks for sharing! (and your time in South Korea sounds awesome!)


      March 3, 2015
  3. Rick Steves #

    Dear Glennw,
    Thanks for the support and encouragement and best wishes with your teaching and travels!

    March 6, 2015
  4. That’s a great talk. I like Rick and agree with him on most things (though I’m not an uberfan either); actually I recently posted on one of my disagreements with Travel as a Political Act, specifically the idea that we can help to improve our country by traveling. I’m always looking to enagge with other bloggers who share similar interests. Drop by bosmosis.wordpress if you have the time or the inclination. Cheers!

    April 29, 2015

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