I have a very old Louis Armstrong album. On it is a picture of Louis as a youth, clutching a beat-up old trumpet. If you look closely, you'll see lots of adhesive tape wrapped raggedly around the pipes of the trumpet, an attempt at plugging leaks in the dented and corroded tubing.
I played trumpet all through high school; I can't imagine how Satchmo got a decent note to come out the end of that rotting sieve!
As a youth, Louis likely didn't see himself as having to survive the limitations of his horn, or the dangers of failure due to bad equipment, he just blew like hell as if it were entirely natural--and his chops eventually thrived on the workout. Ah youth!
I am reminded of this after reading of recent events involving Fort Myers (Florida) school officials refusing an invitation on behalf of the local high school band to play in London's New Year Parade "based on lingering concerns from last summer's London subway and bus bombings, which killed 52 people." (Florida school to London: "We don't have trains blowing up in America")
Forget that those school officials seemed to be suffering from a selective amnesia over similar events that have happened with even greater consequence in the US. In my mind, these school officials are not only keeping youths from a great opportunity to see the world and participate in a wonderful event--they're keeping our future leaders from experiencing a culture that's different from ours, and they're doing it with the most flimsy of political excuses.
Why Travel? It's a Social Issue With Huge Consequences
Passports are relatively rare among US citizens, estimated to be as low as 20 to as high as 34 of the total population, quite low for a country attempting to assert its will to shape the entire world's idea of freedom, democracy, religion and culture.
At one time, travel was considered more important than a formal education. Some (including this writer) still think it is (Time abroad can be more formative than formal education)
Travel is important because other societies around the world have faced the same problems as we in the US have--and they've often implemented somewhat different solutions to these problems. Some solutions work well for many, and some don't. Travel makes people in these cultures valuable resources on the way to a kind, safe and generous society. The open-minded traveller can no longer see "the other" as a strange tribe of incomprehensible people more dangerous and at the same time more naive than us--just because the passport-free majority refuses to understand or even talk to them.
Why is Youth Travel so Important?
To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries. -- Aldous Huxley
To society, enticing young people to travel and see the world should be a priority. These are our future leaders, after all.
Youth are resilient, resourceful, and looking to leave home in order to build relationships with others like them. They can make perfect travelers. While we old fogies muddle along on our bus tours, admiring the scenery and appreciating the architecture and the foie gras, young folks are interacting with the culture, often by necessity, one more wrap of tape on that battered horn.
Without the wealth that brings isolation in a luxury hotel, they're living abroad communally in hostels and sleeping in trains. Along the way they're experiencing and debating the social controls and problem solving within a society having different politics and a different history; they're looking into the guts of an unfamiliar culture and acquiring a true and rounded education, skirting the perceived "dangers" by becoming fully informed through their social interactions.
Given a few years of seasoning and book learning, these are the people I want leading my country.
Youth Travel Activism
Ferne Arfin of UK Travel comments: "Even if (European students) are going to University, they may take a "gap year" first, to travel and work their way around Australia, America or the Far East."
If you're a parent, why not consider letting your student taking a year off. If you're a concerned citizen, why not press Universities to make "gap year" travel a feature of a good education in the United States?
Suggestion on Where to Go and What to Do
Anouk Zijma, About guide to Africa for Visitors encourages visits to Turkey. "It's a wonderful example of Islamic culture, the people are incredibly friendly, it's moderate, it's interesting and it will hopefully enlighten American youth that not all Islam = terrorism in the safest way."
How to best interact with the locals if you're not very socially oriented? Kerry Kubilius of Eastern Europe Travel suggests living with host families. Lots of language schools feature housing with host families throughout the world. You'll find links to some in Europe below.
Another way students can see the world while building it is through volunteering. Volunteer resources are also found in the boxes below.
And finally, we've added our thoughts on what makes a great destination for the young--and young at heart.