A Response to Julia Galef and Herbert Simon on Travel

Nobel Prize winning economist Herbert Simon writes: “Anything that can be learned by a normal American adult on a trip to a foreign country (of less than one year’s duration) can be learned more quickly, cheaply, and easily by visiting the San Diego Public Library.”

Public intellectual and podcast extraordinaire Julia Galef writes: “Unpopular Opinion of the Day: Traveling in foreign countries is an overrated, super-inefficient way to “broaden your horizons…(cont) I’m also talking about ppl who really do try to experience local culture & chat w/ locals (but for, y’know, a week)”

There are many ways you can learn about the Beatles’ album Abbey Road. You can analyze the lyrics, study the sheet music, or read an ethnographic study on people from Liverpool. Or you can simply listen to the album. In some sense, if you read about Abbey Road, you will know more about it, but in a more meaningful sense, if you listen to Abbey Road, you will understand it better.

You will learn a lot about the world from reading Tolstoy, eating Szechuan food and watching Ingmar Bergman movies, but travel, like listening to Abbey Road, is about an entirely different kind of learning. Travel reveals insights about the diversity and commonalities of the human and community experience that are otherwise illegible.

As a teenager, I was interested in all things related to the State of Israel. I read so much, I could recite nearly any fact relating to the country’s history or politics. Then I moved to Israel and discovered that despite knowing so much about the country, I knew nothing. 

In the same way listening to Abbey Road transcends knowing an infinite number of facts about Abbey Road, spending time immersed within a society will reveal a million details that nobody thought relevant to write in a book: how will three strangers interact while at a pitstop on a long bus ride; what are the common conversation topics for 22 year olds congregating at a restaurant on Friday night; how many relatives are attending a young child’s birthday.

Our beliefs rely on a number of assumptions we hold that we are largely oblivious to. To live a good life, I don’t think you need to have a view on Bosniaks and Serbs, the differences between Rwanda and Burundi, or Pinochet’s role in Chile; however, I do think spending time in Bosnia, Rwanda or Chile will force you to seriously grapple with complicated questions in a way that will enable you to observe the hidden assumptions that underlie so many of your beliefs.

As a Canadian, if I want to understand my country, I could listen to Neil Young, watch a CBC documentary and read Anne of Green Gables. Or I could visit Brazil.

Brazil, like Canada, is a large multi-ethnic society built through immigration. Canada, which treats multiculturalism as a sacred value, is agnostic to one’s culture. Brazil asks everyone, irrespective of background, to be culturally Brazilian. Canadians greet acquaintances with cold stares while Brazilians display warmth. To understand Canadian culture and identity, observing Brazil as a basis of comparison is more valuable than learning any new fact about Canada.

To understand anything requires context. It is only by spending time in new places do we gain the ability to contextualize our homes.  Travel enables your inner fish to finally recognize the water engulfing your life.  

In terms of social science – you can abstractly think about what it would be like for a city to have more bike lanes, but no matter how good you are at abstraction, you will have a far better grasp of this question by actually observing places where the counterfactual is real. How can you know if you prefer living in a society with better public transit, less equality, larger breakfasts, long lunches, state religion, roundabouts, or a million other questions without spending time in places that have those features!

I think there are several reasons people intuitively discount the learning benefits of travel.

The benefits of travel compound, making your earlier trips abroad less interesting than future ones. If you know little about the Balkans and decide to visit Macedonia, it will be hard to grasp a lot of what you observe. However, you will leave the trip knowing not only about Macedonia, but having a window into many adjacent topics like the former Yugoslavia, Ottoman Empire, EU, Ancient Greece etc. The more you travel and the more windows into the world you connect with, the better your framework is for understanding how your observations fit into the broader picture. 

I think it would be valuable for anyone to spend 14 hours on an overcrowded bus, watch a soccer game, or attend Shabbat dinner in a foreign country. However, if someone has only had these experiences in one or two countries, their basis of comparison is minimal. If someone has these experiences in 10 or 20 countries, they will be able to understand and contextualize each of these experiences much better. 

I think many people are dismissive of what the rest of the world can offer because they assume everything worth knowing or consuming has already been translated into English and incorporated into their life.

While it is true we read Elena Ferrante and listen to Shakira in the West, I believe we have only appropriated a fraction of all the valuable observations, insights or culture available in the world. You listen to David Bowie because he speaks English and comes from an accessible culture. You don’t listen to Gilberto Gil; not because he is inferior, but because Brazil is distant and inaccessible. 

Listen to Jorge Ben, Gilberto Gil or Novos Baianos; if you agree they are as talented as people like David Bowie, it should light a spark in your mind that maybe, there are a large number of things you would love in other cultures you are currently oblivious to.

How can you know if you enjoy saunas unless, you know, you actually experience sauna culture. Apply this to the endless number of things that are beloved in some part of the world but are unknown in your country (and if you don’t know the rest of the world is filled with things people love that are unknown in your country, then this is even more important!).

I do not recommend people travel so they can overlook beautiful vistas, eat ceviche, or spend time at the Louvre – nor do I think everyone must travel.  But for those who have insatiable curiosity, who spend their days thinking about the world, and most importantly, whose opinions help shape society, travel is an essential tool for learning. 

Go to a country and just be.  Experience your life in a slightly different environment. Walk the streets. Take the bus. Buy groceries. Watch a sports match. Work in a cafe. Observe, observe, observe.