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Questions From a ’round-the-World Academic Exploration

Questions From a ’round-the-World Academic Exploration

I’d like to begin with an overview of my voyage and studies – not a travelogue, but an exploration of cultural, political, religious and lifestyle differences, shared values and common goals. I’ll explain what Semester at Sea is and how adults can participate as lifelong learners in educational voyages that are very different from typical luxury liner cruises other kinds of educational touring. My own experiences as a lifelong learner on the ship MV Explorer started with a Pacific Ocean crossing. I  traveled through 23 countries in Asia, Africa and Europe over five months. I participated in five academic courses, more seminars and lectures related to the places I visited than I can remember, and countless informal discussions with professors and other seekers of knowledge.

The most important thing I learned – actually relearned – is that the questions we seek are often more important than the answers. If we can find good questions, especially those that cut across traditional fields of study, cultural and regional differences, ages and learning styles, the answers will come. I am not disappointed that the most interesting questions lead to unsolved or seemingly intractable problems. Focusing on questions rather than the “right” or “best” answers not only leads to better solutions, but helps avoid solving the wrong problems.

For this discussion session, I’d like to offer a sampling of questions in the context of the places I visited and the ideas presented in classes, seminars and discussions related to these places. I’ve divided the questions into three groups and, depending on the level of interest, we might discuss only one or two of them at this session.

Massive Public Architecture

As tourists we are easily impressed by the size, cost, beauty, workmanship or age of world renowned monuments and buildings. Let’s discuss why they were and still are being built. What common values are reflected in their design, construction and preservation? Do they inspire awe and adoration and reverence; promote cultural, artistic and religious values; provide employment; flaunt power and wealth, intimidate subjects and enemies; separate the wealthy and powerful from the weak and poor? Are the costs worth the benefits? Some of the places I’ve visited during this voyage that brought these questions to mind include places you may have visited or plan to visit, like the Taj Mahal and Mogul forts and palaces in India; the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia;  Versailles and the Arc de Triomphe in France; Edinburgh castle in Scotland; castles with slave dungeons in Ghana; immense cathedrals, mosques, temples, religious shrines and gigantic sculptures throughout the world. Some of the newest have recently been completed like Hassan II Mosque in Morocco, or are still under construction, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Spain. I saw a new traditional gateway completed in a tiny village in southwestern China. It was not large, but in scale and workmanship it contrasted with the simple lifestyle and modest economic status of village. Given that it had no functional value and was not a work of art, I asked what value it might provide. When I saw the people come by to watch the final stages of construction and later to attend the dedication ceremonies, they appeared to be proud to show it off and grateful to the government for paying for it.

Diverse and Unexpected Religious Practices

Some observations have led me to questions like, “What does it mean to worship?” Little gold-colored statues of Mao can be found on the dashboards of vehicles in rural China of the same sort that depict the Buddha. I was told that many formerly secular Chinese informally worship Mao – ironic because he so vigorously tried to stamp out religion during his life. I found it surprising that he is still revered because his cultural revolution was a failure and communism has been largely displaced by capitalism. I don’t think it’s a real religion or a cult, but it could become one. What does it mean to pray if one does not believe in a god? In Ghana and South Africa the practice of traditional medicine and respect for shamans is widespread, even among college-educated people. Why do people hold on to superstitions to guide them in health and nutrition after learning about contradictory science-based approaches? The practices and values of Buddhist monks in Burma (Myanmar), which has a long history of isolation, are out of line with those of other Buddhist sects. How is possible for Buddhist monks to attack and kill Muslims? Fighting broke out in some Burmese cities two weeks after we left the country.

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

While in Northern Ireland I visited small memorial parks celebrating the courage and sacrifice of men, women and children who died on both sides of the wall that still divides some Belfast neighborhoods. I saw no evidence that there has been any reconciliation – no compassion for their longtime religious/political enemies. I think there is still deep hostility and distrust that will likely erupt again. I question whether they have stopped fighting because the pain of losses is greater than their hatred of their enemies. The contrast with what I saw in South Africa was dramatic. I saw so much evidence of true reconciliation of former enemies. I had the opportunity to listen to lectures and to engage in conversations with Archbishop Desmond Tutu on ship before we reached Cape Town. He has often sailed with Semester at Sea as a guest lecturer. Archbishop Tutu won the 1984 Nobel peace prize primarily for his role in national reconciliation. His greatest concerns were for the poorest blacks in the townships and in rural areas. They have so far received little of the education and housing benefits promised by the government, he said. But middle-class blacks are doing very well and progress in racial integration of businesses and government is remarkable, given the short time since the end of apartheid. What are the differences between South Africa and Northern Ireland?


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  • Tee C.

    Sandy, thanks for doing such a good job of helping us to raise questions about your observations. I think that you could sell all of us a cruise!!!

    1 · August 7, 2013

  • Janet H.

    I enjoyed the lively discussion around some very intriguing questions posed by our knowledgeable presenter, Sandy Catz

    August 4, 2013

  • Jyoti M.

    One of the best thus far! Sandy, I was very impressed with your choice of interactive format. It gave each one of us an opportunity to relate about our experiences, opinions and attitudes. I think you worked very hard to organize and synchronize such a broad topic in a very structured manner. Also thank you for keeping us on track especially me who became very passionate at times . I congratulate you for conducting an outstanding group discussion. Additionally , I enjoyed interacting with the likewise group who were very engaging and intellectual. I was glad to have attended the meet up today. Thanks!

    1 · August 4, 2013

  • susan

    I am not sure that I will be well enough to attend. Regrets. If I feel better, I will try to come.

    August 4, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Change of plans. Next time hopefully.

    August 4, 2013

  • Sandy C.

    What to expect at "Questions From a 'round-the-World Academic Exporantion" this Sunday -- Obviously, we can’t cover all the questions I’ve collected in a couple of hours without being grossly superficial. That is not my intention. We will pick and choose, based on the interests of the group. The questions I’ve collected arose from observations of similarities and differences that may provide insights into human nature. I don’t know whether the similarities or the differences are more useful or important.

    While this session was inspired by my travel and study experiences with Semester at Sea, I hope my recent experiences will trigger recollections and insights you can share from your own travel and multicultural experiences. We’ll vote on which set of questions to start with and we may only get through one or two of the them at this meeting. If you think any of the questions we raise on Sunday are worth a full Meetup session, I'll pass that recommendation on to the organizers.

    August 2, 2013

  • Patty

    I'm not sure if I can be there, but I'm jumping onto the waiting list just in case.

    July 30, 2013

  • Katie

    so wish I could make it to this one!

    July 21, 2013

  • Will B.

    Sounds interesting, but I have to be at a workshop that weekend. I'll have a few questions when I see you, Sandy.

    July 20, 2013

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