What’s the minimum distance required to call it travelling, anyway?

The more I travel, the more at risk I am of becoming one of those terrible stereotypes who declares of every new city that this is the one they just LOVE above all the others. When I went to Venice in February, I adored it. When I went to Belgium in March, I thought it was great. Drinking with my friend in Barcelona in April was amazing. And now, London in June seemed utterly splendid – apparently I was too busy to go anywhere  foreign in May. What a shame. I’m sure I’d have loved wherever I’d gone.

 

It’s a pretty common phenomenon to feel like each new place you visit is, impossibly, the best place to be, and I suppose the apparent excellence of each new city is based on a few things – largely on the novelty, but also on the fact that each offers something different. Even in the cities where I did roughly the same thing, that is, tramp around sightseeing alone or with a friend, the sights and culture are always different enough that it’s a new experience. And really, in hindsight, I can’t necessarily say that drinking super-strong beer at 5pm in Belgium was better nor worse than the cheap sangria I was drinking at midnight in Barcelona, and similarly, I can’t compare either evening to eating fritelle by myself on the vaporetto taking me back to my hostel in Italy. They’re too different, and I can’t say which was better – it’s like being asked to choose whether you prefer hot chips or brownies. Both are delicious, but even when you have a sweet tooth like me, sometimes you’d much rather hot, chicken-salted chips to the rich, sugary chocolate.

 

This leads me on to an important point, being that no one place is inherently better than another. Of course, there may be particular things you want to visit – historical sites, certain climates, places you can ski or swim or hike through jungles – but everywhere you go will have its own charm, so that you can equally enjoy trekking through a rainforest in the tropics or spending all day round a crackling fire in the Alps. Because I’m headed back to  Australia in a matter of hours and know that I’ll be unlikely to be travelling abroad again in the too-near future, and will be sighing over everyone’s holidays photos of Greece, Croatia, India, wherever they may be, this is something I’m trying very hard to remember right now.

Thankfully, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the time spent here in France, it’s that you can still enjoy yourself without travelling too far. It’s a cliché, but it’s true – sometimes hopping on a train for 2 hours will get you somewhere quite new and fascinating, and while you don’t get the social-media points for having gotten to a new country, that doesn’t mean you should enjoy yourself any less.

I can’t count the amount of people I’ve met who know Australia better than me because when they visit it, they go looking for the best parts to see, the best things to do  – whereas those of us who live there tend to stay in our neighbourhood, only venturing forth to select holiday destinations. But because I know my time in France is limited, in 6 months I’ve been to visit five nearby countries and half a dozen towns or palaces within 2 hours train ride of Paris, trying to fit as much in as possible. In Australia, in 6 months, the furthest afield I went was going to Canberra to visit my grandmother. No wonder I feel like Europe is more interesting, when it’s in Europe that I actually bother to get out and do things.

So, to make up for all the foreign cities I won’t be visiting for the next six months, year, or however long it takes for me to get myself on a plane again, I’ll be doing my darnedest to appreciate what I can find a bit closer to home. It might be daytripping somewhere an hour away, or trying to go to Melbourne for a weekend. Regardless of where I go, I’ll be doing my best to enjoy it – and that’ll make half the difference.

 

On Perspective, and what you wouldn’t do

Sometimes, I’m convinced that being able to see things from other people’s perspectives is the most important skill we learn in our lives. I’m not very naturally empathetic, and if someone has even slightly different opinions or feelings to me on something, my immediate response is to stare at them in complete confusion, and perhaps tell them they’re wrong. Probably with rather unkind language.

Instead of doing that, I have to make a concerted effort to understand why they think differently from me. Frequently it seems impossible to do so, and I try to attack the issue as logically and analytically as I can. It’s a hard task, precisely because I am blinded by my own perspective, and because often I don’t even know what the biases I should be trying to overcome and see past even are. I am regularly amazed to discover the thousands of nuances that wealth, cultural background, religion, social status, education and myriad other factors bring to our personal understanding of the world.

It would never occur to me that women resent the endorsement of females in the workforce because it threatens their family income. In fact, something as relatively controversial as people disliking the growing prevalence of alternate gender identities always seemed strange to me, until I realised that it was because they didn’t want to see their own established sense of identity undermined.

Even if you like to think you’re pretty good at being broad-minded, it’s dreadfully easy to slip into the habit of forgetting how much your perspective changes everything in your life. If you’ve ever read about a rape victim who kept silent, an abuse victim who went back to their abuser, a bystander who watched people be mistreated for the colour of their skin – anything that made you think, ‘If that had been me, things would have been different. I wouldn’t have done what they did,’ you’re guilty of forgetting all the thousands of differences between your life and theirs. It is pointless to think about what you would do in that situation, simply because the other person is not you. They don’t have the same influences, fears, securities and knowledge. You can’t judge their actions by the same metre as your own.

That is not to say that people do not do evil, terrible things of varying degrees, or that they shouldn’t be condemned for injustices against others. But the vast majority of people do believe they’re doing the right thing, or else they’d change their ways – we need to be able justify our actions to ourselves. And arguing with someone by telling them their views are wrong achieves very little when both sides are equally certain the other is wrong. It is better by far to, as it were, take the higher road and dedicate some time and care to figuring out why they feel that way, and which biases might be guiding their opinions. It is only when you discover that, and truly attempt to see the scenario from their viewpoint, that you’ll be able to convince them of anything new, because it’s only then that you can provide arguments, reasons and explanations that will mean anything to them.

By the same token, it’s equally important to remember that you are not an infallible source of human reason and justice. We are all fettered by our own perspectives, and if someone is willing to take the time to explain to you how some small part of your individual life might have changed your opinion on a certain issue, you should be willing to hear them out and do your utmost to move beyond such a bias.

Remember; perspective changes everything, regardless of its abstract justice or righteousness, and regardless of whether it’s your opinion, or theirs.

 

On Education and Utopias

I’m a self-confessed nerd, as unspectacular a confession as that is. That doesn’t mean I always loved going to school because I downright detested it at some points, but that was always due to other issues rather than a hatred of education, which I love whole-heartedly. That’s partially because I’m good at it, and partially because I simply can’t imagine going through life without wanting to absorb all the knowledge I can from everything I encounter. But this isn’t about converting anyone to the wonders of learning – it’s just an attempt to prove that this is more than just the stereotypical embittered teen complaining about the stress of formal education and how ridiculous the system is.

With that kind of upbringing, and since I’m finished with it (though yet to receive my results), it’s easy to look back and argue that it wasn’t that bad after all. Even while I was in the midst of it, trying desperately to memorise 3000 words of literature analysis for an exam the next day, although I felt desperately unable to cope, I still knew somewhere in the back of my mind that it wasn’t as bad as I thought. That’s what I find so horribly fascinating and terrible about the whole experience, because I instinctively want to join the chorus of students decrying the unfair standards, the ridiculous nature of the whole system…and yet I can’t help but want to defend it, in part, as well.

I do think there are major issues in the way some things are assessed. The importance placed on the final exams brings a sense of urgency and absolutism that can ruin any learning environment, and most teachers share a hatred of ‘teaching to the test’, because they want their students to learn for the sake of knowledge, for their interest in the subject, or to acquire proficiency in the area, not to pass an exam. It’s an anti-climactic, drab kind of way to sum up the entirety of anything as broad as biology, or history, or literature.

And yet, what on earth is the alternative?

Students love to talk about this supposed ‘better’ systems, the way they do it in this country, in this state, in primary school, in this utopian daydream. But it’s damned difficult to implement their half-expressed ideas, and we do, it seems, need some way of separating those who know things, and those who don’t. That’s essentially what assessment is about – much like championships in a sport, the aim is to find the people who are the best at what they do, which in this case, is learning. And that’s why I feel our current system fails, because it separates out two different products: those who are naturally intelligent, and those who work and work, not to become more intelligent, or more knowledgeable, or better at what they do, but to arbitrarily ‘prove’ that they are intelligent, through a few hours in an exam hall and a lot of memorised answers and rote-learned responses and stoic acceptance of the flawed system that results in a decision to go along with it if it gets them what they need.

Education systems are flawed when they value rote answers over understanding, and when they praise students for intelligence that’s actually hard work, or vice versa, and we need to do our best to ensure our systems work as smoothly as they can by considering every aspect and all possible biases and outside factors. That said, no one will ever like exams, or assessments, or assignments that make them have to think and work hard. It’s documented across the decades, even centuries – de Balzac’s description of lazy students, bright but resentful of having to give evidence of the fact, remains startlingly close to any modern description, as does de Maupaussant’s, these 19th century French intellectuals echoing the complaints of any average 21st century high school student.

But really, most education systems aren’t so awful, because whatever is good about them is likely taken for granted. Any assessment will be biased, obtaining a thorough education without at least a little effort is perhaps impossible and certainly extremely difficult, and we do need some method of figuring out who’s good at what and how good they are. Your marks shouldn’t determine self-worth, and the education system should strive to make them as accurate a reflection as possible of your ability and achievement, but there is no perfect system that suits every single individual and makes school absolutely easy for everyone.

If people want to complain about their education system, I completely understand and will likely join them, as long as they complain about the right things – the way things are assessed, the accuracy of the assessment system, the ultimate goals of the assessment, the value of that assessment in wider society. Whining about how boring essays are and how damn much there is to know about kidneys is understandable, but it won’t achieve anything because humans will always complain about having to do any kind of work and the people who do have the power to change things won’t listen, because they know it won’t matter if we have to write one essay or ten, we’ll whinge just as much. If you want things to change, accept that life will never be perfect, and remember that that applies to school and assessments just as much as anything else.