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Reading Courtney Martin’s beautiful piece reflecting on her study abroad year in South Africa (The Third World is Not Your Classroomgot me thinking again about my college-age traveling. Hitchhiking through South America was, yes, different from living with a host family and ‘giving back’ in any way. But it was my way to explore outside of my middle-class bubble. People’s lives, it turns out, really are quite different.

Attending an integrating school where students come from totally different linguistic, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds is a kindred experience. But what is different for my kids is how they look for sameness while I spent so much time exploring all the difference. My kids are making friends regardless of background, because when everyone is different it is the sameness of spirit that you seek.

And this, THIS, is what builds meaningful and multifaceted relationships with others who aren’t just like you. And this is far more profound than dropping in and looking around and talking a bit and going back home.

This is not to say that study abroad or travel in general is necessarily wrong or fundamentally flawed (that is another conversation altogether), But if part of the purpose of study abroad is to, as one website advertises to, “expand your worldview,” “gain new ideas and perspectives about yourself,” and “challenge your own beliefs and values,” then perhaps we can have that right here. At school.

I have talked with many parents who take their kids to places like Skid Row to show their children other lives. While it’s hard to denounce the intent of teaching compassion (and gratitude), this poverty tourism leaves me troubled and a bit nauseous.

The spectacle-making of other people’s lives may bring some enlightenment to those of us who might need it but it tends to engender pity rather than compassion (and thanks, NH, for a great conversation on this topic). Pity is a detached reaction, a distancing “damn, that sucks (glad it’s not me…)!” that sits on the same psychological branch as contempt. Compassion, on the other hand, is a vigorous and deep understanding that tends to bring about a desire to create a better world

If bringing compassionate adults into this world is part of what we see as our parenting jobs, wouldn’t sending out children to school with all kinds of kids be, perhaps, more productive than sending them on a college-year abroad? Just a thought…

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