I frequently tell my students that it would be so much easier to teach what I teach (Ancient and Medieval History, Religious Studies) on the road. I tell them that instead of pointing to yet another lovely photo of a piece of art, architecture, important historical place, person, random map, or other assorted visual whatnot, that it would be so much easier to simply show them.
Is that not the key to a good narrative? Show them, don't tell them?
Not only is it a good way in which to insure that they will not forget the lesson for the day - it is tough to not grasp the sheer magnitude of St. Peter's whilst standing in the middle of it, likewise it is not easy to brush off the horrors of the Holocaust while walking about the grim grounds of Dachau - it is also an excellent way in which to teach historical empathy. We need to walk in these places, see these places, be in these places, if we truly want to at least make the attempt to understand the people who lived in these places.
Yes, we want to understand history for the sake of understanding history (thank you von Ranke) - the very intellectual pursuit has intrinsic value, as does the knowing - but we we also study history because we want to see the similarities and differences between us and the people of which we read. We want to walk in their shoes, we want to know what their lives were about, we want to know the mundane and the sublime, the ridiculous and the transcendent, because in learning a bit about others we learn a bit more about ourselves. When we learn about others we also learn a little bit more about what it means to live in community - that we do not exist in a vacuum, that our understanding of the people around us, in time and space, is important.
We learn empathy. We learn, in a small way, to care. To care about others. To realize that we cannot simply muck about the place plotting out our own course without recognizing that our wake will affect others, as we are affected by others. We need to realize that we do not, cannot, live as complete lone rangers. We need each other. Recognizing this need it becomes imperative to learn as much as we can about the world around us, and to learn as much history as we can. Not only do we learn about the issues that affect those in the broader community, and thus by learning we start to learn to care about how to engage with those in need, but we also start to learn about how people in the past lived their lives, met their struggles, celebrated their triumphs. We start to see how we are connected. We also start to see how we can actually learn from what people have done or not done in the past.
Douglas Adams noted that, "human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so." Would it not be a nice bit, every now and then, to prove him wrong? Would it not be a better world if we did prove him wrong? Think of the world we would have if we actually knew and cared about the people around us, and those who walked these places long before us (or even not quite so long before us).
Study Abroad, for this group of students, is vital, essential. We need to get out there and explore and learn and walk and see. We need to do these things so that we can see our common humanity. It is an absolutely essential first step.
For here is the key - after we return, we are never the same. We are changed by our experiences. We have gained knowledge and experience, indeed, but we have also gained, in some small measure, empathy. That is a treasure of immeasurable value.