Last week in Japan I was traveling with my 3 young-adult children. I realised that travel is so important for young people that we might want to subsidize it as a society.
I am a firm believer in national service, no matter what your nation. A two-year stint of service is a way to mix the layers of society up, gain the energies of youth for all, and have them begin to repay the 18 years invested in them. But military service should be only one of many options. In addition to serving communities in need, or in health related roles, there should be the option of completing national service as a representative in other country. Like the Peace Corps. I can’t think of anything better for the world — and for the US — then sending a million teenagers overseas to live, work, and serve with others for two years. The amount of money such a program would cost would be repaid a hundred-fold in increased global business skills (ask the Mormons!), decreased war bills (it’s harder to demonize people you’ve lived with), and increase in tourism all around. Just for starters. I can easily imagine a hundred thousand startups springing from a million teenagers discovering real people in other cultures. And, as any solo traveler has discovered, the actual costs of deep travel in native style (vs staying at spas and riding air-conditioned SUVS) is modest and much less expensive than than college credits. As education, travel is cheap.
Sadly, few young people are fortunate enough to be supported for overseas travel. A lucky percent will do a junior year abroad, but the average young person — particularly the average American — will not get the chance to travel abroad except as part of the military. Our family has been privileged to be able to travel together in distant lands, and so my kids have been supported in facing the otherness of foreign cultures. (They were born biracial which also helps.) I’ve been impressed with the way this exposure has shaped their world view, molding them into critical thinkers, able to weigh different perspectives at once, and providing them a glimpse of the true global nature of humans on Earth. I really wish any kid had the same opportunity. Of course, even basic education is missing for too many youth, but my experience with young people who have travelled has persuaded me that travel may be as important as math and science in changing the world for the better. Or in other words, travel is cheap education. In the long run, there is no alternative to heavy investment in deep education with lots of science, but travel is a cost effective way for positive change in the short term.
If you are blessed with the opportunity, let your kids confront other cultures at length, without their parents around, at any age. I can promise you that time will become a touchstone for them when they become adults.