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?