Enlightened Through Traveling

September Long

September 10, 2014

When Thomas Jefferson lived in Europe for his diplomatic mission to France, he expressed his views of Europe and its culture in much of his correspondence. In a letter to James Monroe in 1785, Jefferson writes to urge Monroe to visit France. He explains why he believed traveling to Europe was beneficial: “It will make you adore your own country, it’s soil, it’s climate, it’s liberty, laws, people & manners. My God! How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of.” This attitude of positivity towards leaving America to visit other nations may seem odd, considering Jefferson was a Founding Father who despised the aristocratic traditions of Europe and thought America to be the greatest nation on Earth. Jefferson saw traveling as an experiment separate from just learning about another culture, but rather it could teach you about your own home and also give you a greater appreciation for it.

Unlike the sentiments of the average American traveling abroad in the 21st century, Jefferson viewed traveling as an opportunity to remember the “precious blessings” of the rights and freedoms Americans enjoy. Living abroad for Americans like Jefferson entailed gaining an even deeper gratitude for America and the unique and incomparable regime we enjoy. While Jefferson encouraged Americans to travel abroad to Europe and be enlightened through a comparison of their home country with the aristocracy of Europe, Jefferson also emphasized that Europe had little to offer Americans in terms of actual education in his following letters. In a letter to John Banister, Jr. in 1785, Jefferson wrote, “It appears to me then, that an American coming to Europe for education loses in his knowledge, in his morals, in his health, in his habits, and in his happiness.” Jefferson viewed an education for an American in Europe as nothing more than an opportunity for young men to “acquire a fondness for European luxury and dissipation” and therefore forget the beauty of the republican virtue and freedom in America. These observations Jefferson made over 200 years ago about the nature of studying and traveling abroad still hold true today. Most American students who study abroad believe that if you travel to Europe, you must act European. Jefferson, even as a defender of republican principles and enemy of aristocratic European tradition, believed that traveling abroad with the correct mindset could be beneficial for Americans.

I used to think that traveling was an act of freedom, an escape from any stage of life or geographical location which has caused one to feel trapped and restricted to one place. When I was in grade school, I would dream about traveling to Europe and visiting the town in the mountains of Italy where my grandfather was born; he spoke of it often. I would fanaticize about visiting the sites in Ireland on the coast about which my grandmother would constantly reminisce. All I wanted was to escape small-town Ohio and see the world. With the notion that traveling was equivalent to freedom and independence impressed firmly in my mind and soul, I enthusiastically embarked upon the journey to study abroad in Prague for a semester. Before I left for Europe, I was made to believe that studying abroad would be an escape from the monotony of college life and a delightful vacation from the narrow-minded, apathetic students, friends, and colleagues of Ohio. I was pining for adventure, yet unprepared for the lessons that I would learn while thousands of miles away from my safe and quiet home in America.

When I arrived in Prague and began to get acquainted with the rules and customs of their society and the university I was attending, I began to realize just how different America truly is. The anti-American sentiments spewed from students and professors alike did not shock me so much as the lack of quality of the courses themselves. I was the foreigner and felt completely lost. I missed home but also felt cheated that this experience was not what I had always dreamed it would be. My classes were filled with students who hated America, many because they were taught to think that way; many because they thought that hating America would make them more European. Discussions in these classes were senseless and always overshadowed by the arrogance of European professors who held several PhDs, yet still did not seem to care at all about their students. Though the education itself was just as useless as Jefferson described in his letters, the act of traveling is what actually granted me a new understanding.

Every time I would visit a new country, it would somehow make me think of America even more. When I was in Budapest and saw the “Liberty Statue” standing proudly at the top of Gellert Hill, all I could think of was, naturally, the Statue of Liberty in New York. Though these monuments may have similar names, their stories and symbolism could not be more different. Our Statue of Liberty represents freedom and is a beacon of welcome to immigrants traveling to America. Liberty Statue in Budapest, which was unveiled in 1947 to celebrate the Soviet liberation of Nazi-occupied Hungary, is a sign of a celebration of peace, but at the hands of a communist regime which would rule their people for nearly 50 years after the “liberation.” Both were symbols of a sort of “freedom,” however the underlying stories and principles behind them were vastly different. Europe was indeed a lovely “escape” but in this new environment, all I could think of was how much I appreciated my home in America and missed the genuine liberty that is prevalent everywhere.

Traveling changed me and my view of traveling itself all at the same time. I used to think that traveling was about escaping but I am now convinced that it is about discovering more about what is already familiar and, more importantly, realizing why you love what you left behind. With every lethargic political science class I sat through in Prague while reading second-hand scholarly research, I thought more about how much I appreciated classes at home where professors cared about the subject they were teaching and also about the students themselves. With every stranger in Prague who was rude and dismissive, I recalled and appreciated the warmth and welcoming spirit of my family and community in my hometown in Ohio. With every insult I heard angrily muttered or shouted about the “arrogance and absurdity” of America, what I know to be true became all the more clear: that the republican principles and liberty which exist in America are not found anywhere else in the world and that, as Jefferson wrote, these “precious blessings” are something to be truly grateful for.

September Long is a junior from Barberton, Ohio majoring in Political Science and History.