The International Writers Magazine: On Travel and Education
Beyond the lecturn: Twenty Countries in 2012
Dr. Ed Lynch, Hollins University
A unique set of circumstances permitted me, a college professor, normally as stationary a profession as it is possible to have, to visit 20 different countries in a single year. I have been Down Under, in the Caribbean, across northern Europe and in East Asia. I have strolled on a massive bridge across Sydney harbor and on a moving bridge in Curacao. I have visited the Tsar’s Summer Palace and walked on the Great Wall of China. I became a better teacher in the process. In 2012, my classroom was the high seas, and my research library was the world itself.
Since 2001, I have worked as the on-board lecturer for several cruise lines, and have traveled to South America, the Caribbean and Alaska in this capacity. In 2011, I was named Wheeler Professor of Political Science at Hollins University, an award that brings a substantial travel budget. Finally, my sabbatical leave came around in early 2012, leaving me with the flexibility to travel at a moment’s notice. As a result, I got to see more countries in one year than most people get to see in a lifetime.
I did not always have smooth sailing. In January, I gave the lectures on a Celebrity Cruise ship that traveled from Sydney to Tasmania and on to New Zealand. Thanks to Australia’s byzantine immigration rules, I had to be listed as a member of the crew for this voyage. Celebrity, however, considered me a guest. The result was that I occupied a sort of Never-Never Land in which no one was exactly sure how to deal with me. I had a guest stateroom, but had to settle all my bills in cash, something I was not told until I was on board, and at the mercy of a particularly unreliable ATM.
On the plus side, I got to see the Sydney Opera House, the New Zealand Sounds, and even a real Tasmanian devil. I lectured about Australian and New Zealand history and politics, to audiences that were almost all from the area. I found a deep curiosity about how an American professor sees the history of these two nations. I learned that Australia is the only country in the world that has supported the United States in every war we have fought in both the 20th and 21st centuries. I saw the devastation in Christchurch, a year after the earthquake, and saw how hard New Zealanders are working to make things right. New Zealand is forging an independent foreign policy that gives the small nation influence far beyond its actual strength. Australia is making a fortune selling coal to China. My classes on U.S. foreign policy are richer for the knowledge I gained first-hand, and my students learn about the world through their curiosity about my experiences.
In April, I was on another Celebrity ship, sailing to the Caribbean. I learned that almost all Arubans speak four languages (English, Dutch, Spanish and pidgin). As a young staffer in the Reagan Administration, I gave briefings on the 1983 invasion of Grenada. In 2012, I toured the fort stormed by American soldiers. I saw the only completely undefended international border in the world, between the Dutch and French halves of St. Martin/Sint Maarten. Crushing poverty in some places existed only yards away from great prosperity. I saw islands that depended utterly on tourism, like Barbados, and islands where tourists could be politely ignored, like Grenada. I lectured on the pirates of centuries ago and the sometimes-crazy economic schemes of today. I started plans for a Caribbean Studies program, so that my students might learn more about this most diverse area.
Over the summer, I was back on Celebrity, for two cruises to northern Europe. I got to compare the Norwegian fjords with fjords in Alaska, Chile and New Zealand (Norway wins, hands down). In the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Finland, I saw what had been committed socialist nations moving toward free market capitalism. I saw Scandinavians breathing a huge sigh of relief, because they had never joined the Euro, and so do not have to worry about its collapse. In St. Petersburg, I passed the most depressing apartment blocks I have ever seen, on the way to see the most beautiful art I have ever seen. Thousands of windmills in the North Sea provide clean, renewable energy to Europeans. This Fall, I offered a class on European Politics, with the “street cred” that comes only with first-hand knowledge.
Finally, I traveled to China with the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce in October. No trip in 2012 left me with more conflicted feelings. In Beijing, I saw undeniable signs of economic progress: busy people, sparkling office buildings, no beggars, brand-new cars, and thriving businesses (both new and traditional). I also saw the worst air pollution I have ever seen, possibly from burning too much Australian coal. In Shanghai, I saw the glittering skyline, which will soon include the world’s tallest building. Less than 200 yards from the glitter, an elderly woman rooted through the trash. A canal ride in Suzhou revealed the saddest, weariest people I have ever seen. One block away, there was a thriving market, filled with happy people with money to spend.
The detailed knowledge from my 2012 odyssey will soon fill a book. But I think I place more value on the overarching truths that I learned. Making economic policy without taking into account popular support is always a bad idea. Repression and prosperity can go hand in hand. Rich and powerful nations can throw their weight about without even knowing it, while smaller nations can transform altruism into power. Contrary to popular belief, many people are neutral in their feelings about Americans. It is possible to travel without learning, but it takes effort. Finally, no matter how often I flew across it, the Pacific Ocean never got any narrower.
Ed Lynch is in the Political Science Department at Hollins University
elynch (at) hollins.edu
More life and comment