Without a knowledge of history and cultures, can travel be more than merely looking at snapshots of places and things that can be just as easily — and often better — seen in videos and photos? Sightseeing is not a rich experience when travelers are simply checking sights off their monument or famous building list.
Our national parks focus on the spectacular mountains, canyons, rock formations, trails and history that beckons travelers to explore what they have not experienced and learn. But our American youth don’t seem to take advantage of our national park system.
When it comes to submerging oneself in any destination, culture and history are a must. Even dreaming about travel involves, in many cases, bringing history to life and discovering new cultures. History brings normal buildings and vistas to life. History feeds the explorer in us all. Stories of yore can add romance and wonder to what otherwise would be just another church, museum or restaurant. Videos and photos cannot communicate what created, shaped and formed the cities and towns travelers are visiting.
Maybe being forced to eat regional cuisine is a way to push local culture and history down visitors’ throats, literally. Italian pizza in Naples, or New Haven pizza, lobster in Maine, jambalaya in New Orleans, steaks in Kansas City, Dungeoness crabs in Seattle, bratwurst in Germany — all are culture that everyone devours, but few know the stories behind the delicacies.
Hearing locals speak with accents different from our own, or even in different languages, offers a sense of place that isn’t communicated with photos alone. Plus, it is hard to miss local music if someone stays in New Orleans, Memphis, Jamaica, the Appalachians, West Virginia or even Texas and New Mexico.
But, what about United States history, European history or North American history? This factor adds, perhaps, the most important depth to any travel experience and motivates many to travel.
A visit to Quebec is hollow without the history of the conflicts between the French, British and native Americans, or by not taking into consideration the real fears that Canada had of invasion by the USA during the War of 1812.
What is New Orleans without an understanding of from whence came the French culture that permeates the city? The history of Cajuns links the lands north of Maine with the Caribbean islands themselves and explains much of the Louisiana cultural worlds.
Europe and each country that makes up part of that continent are far more rich for travelers when the history of France, Britain, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Germany and others are considered.
What is the Alamo without its history and the legends that live within its walls? What about Charleston, SC, and Fort Sumter? Or the Ford Theater? Paul Revere’s house without history is just another wooden house squeezed into a growing city. The Wild West conjures cowboys, the gold rush, steam engines chugging along never-ending tracks and herds of buffalo.
If history is one of the main motivators and one of the main creators of the travel industry, it is in for a rough time. Americans are not learning history.
“American students are less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject, according to results of a nationwide test,” the New York Times reported last year. “Most fourth graders [were] unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure.” The exam found 12 percent of high school seniors “proficient” in American history.
But statistics can’t measure the outright grotesqueness of our failure. Earlier this year, the Huffington Post reported on “Lunch Scholars,” a high-school student’s video about his fellow students. “Do you know the vice president of the United States?” the filmmaker asks. One student volunteers “bin Laden.” “In what war did America gain independence?” No one had the right answer without a hint.
This sad state of ignorance is evident when wandering through the museums of Washington, DC. During one afternoon at the Jefferson Memorial, I listened to kids asking their parents about who Thomas Jefferson was and why does he have such a nice memorial. Their parents’ answers ranged from, “I’m not sure, I think he was a president,” to “He wrote the Declaration of Independence.” One parent told a story about why the blossoming cherry trees surrounded the memorial. Guess why? “To commemorate the cherry tree he chopped down when he couldn’t tell a lie.”
I’m not sure how we can bring history back from the educational grave to which it seems to have been relegated, but travel and tourism depends on it to a degree far more important than we give it credit for.
I know there are far more important reasons to bring back some knowledge of history. However, developing a love of travel is a beginning. Maybe love of country and understanding of how a democracy works may follow.
Photo: New Orleans from Flickr Creative Commons by Beadmobile