International education is inefficient education. It is much less costly to have a classroom of 200 students watching a video than it is to take 25 students to Italy with a professor leading them through the Roman Forum.
Even more efficient would be to avoid bringing the students together in a classroom at all—have them stay at home, hundreds, potentially thousands watching a virtual tour of the Vatican Museums or the palace at Versailles; the student can watch at his or her convenience, never having to wait in line or work his way through the Paris Metro system or risk getting the wrong food because of her poor German.
One doesn’t have to leave Keene, Texas or Hattiesburg, Mississippi, or Pocatello, Idaho. Not only has the computer or handheld device replaced the book; now it can replace the airplane.
I wish to argue for inefficient education. I believe there’s something special about a professor sitting with students in Vondelpark in Amsterdam discussing hard and soft power or walking with those students through the Pergamon Museum in Berlin as they discuss the nature of Hellenistic art or riding around Venice in vaporettos to look at Palladian churches from the waterfront. I believe in international education.
Certain things just have to be seen. Some Rembrandts may reproduce in books fairly well; The Jewish Bride in the Rijksmuseum is not one of them. The heavy texture of the bride’s dress is built up through a technique called impasto, thick paint built up in layers on the canvas.
This technique of impasto is understood even better when one moves two blocks away in Amsterdam to the Van Gogh Museum. Swirling fields of grain, the petals of sunflowers, and the movement of trees in wind are all represented with thick and swirling brushstrokes and even palette knife uses.
Furthermore, one can see, all in one museum, several hundred Van Gogh paintings, arranged in chronological order to illustrate his changing styles and locations. Also, many paintings by Van Gogh’s contemporaries are displayed there, offering the opportunity to see subtle influences on each other’s styles and choice of subject matter. One is literally placing oneself inside an art history textbook.
Sculpture is another obvious example. Books can show pictures of statues, but one can’t walk around a picture in a book. One can’t begin to understand the play of light and shadow as part of the creation of the musculature of Michelangelo’s David until one sees the statue in Florence at various times of day.
Going to a place will not immediately turn you into an expert on that culture. Spending a week in Amsterdam will not turn you into a scholar on the Dutch Republic. However, spending a few days in Venice and then Florence will help you understand the differences in political and military culture which are the results of topography.
The palaces in Florence are solid built with large stone blocks, facades called rusticated because of the design of the rough stones facing the street. This structure was necessary because the city was prone to riots, uprisings which would have confronted the rulers, who were often citizens with powerful influence rather than hereditary monarchs.
In Venice, on the other hand, water was the protection; the island inhabitants didn’t worry about land invasion. Their houses, therefore, could face the Grand Canal with windows outlined in tracery and delicate decorations. The facades could have balconies and portals. One understands the once-estuarial nature of Troy and Mycenae by standing on the heights of the ancient sites and seeing the vast plains flowing beneath them, all the way to the borders of the present-day sea.
It has never been easier for Southwestern students to gain an international experience. Adventist Colleges Abroad continues to be a great residential experience, with year-long, semester, or summer options open.
For Southwestern honors students, the honors study tour in May is in its fifth year, with this year’s class “Hemingway in Spain” spending two weeks touring Pamplona, Madrid, and Cordoba, going to the Alhambra, the Prado, the cathedral at Seville.
Southwestern is also a member of the University of Southern Mississippi International Programs Consortium, which makes a number of choices available for the international experience. The Abbey enables students, especially freshmen and sophomores, to spend the spring semester in France; The Compass is a five-week traveling classroom, designed for students who are a bit more comfortable with frequent and independent travel; the courses move from Amsterdam to Berlin to Paris and to London over the time period.
The British Studies Program is another residential program, with a variety of classes being taught while the student lives in London for a month in the summer. Other travel is also part of the British Studies Program; for instance, the World War II history class spends several days in Normandy, touring the beaches of the D-Day invasion.
Yet, the greatest benefit of international education cannot be measured or even always defined. It’s a maturity of mind and being that comes through experience: the experience of not always being comfortable with one’s surroundings; the experience of being lost in a city in which one doesn’t speak the language; the experience of being confronted with great art, culture, and architecture and having the time to think about their beauty, antiquity, and engineering; the experience of understanding a new concept, looking at the Parthenon and realizing its influence on Palladio as he designs Venetian churches; the experience of self-discovery.
It’s the moment of self-confidence and pride in discovering one’s place in a much larger world of custom and time.