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Far and Away: How Travel Can Change the World

Jun 1 2017
Sara Button

Andrew Solomon was a fearful child. His mother pointed this out to him once, suggesting his anxiety might be preventing him from valuable experiences. He retorted that he had eaten snails for lunch. “Being an adventurous eater is not the same as being an adventurous person,” she told him. That day, perhaps neither Solomon--nor his mother--would have expected, decades later, that he would give the fifth annual Arrow Lecture on Ethics & Leadership, “Far and Away: How Travel Can Change the World,” based on his latest book about reporting from countries on the brink of change. But on May 25, 2017, Solomon spoke to a large crowd at CEMEX Auditorium and delivered exactly that.

The Arrow Lecture series, named in honor of Nobel Laureate and Stanford emeritus professor Ken Arrow (also a founder of the Ethics in Society Undergraduate Program, who passed away this spring), features influential thinkers who work in their own ways to better the world. Andrew Solomon has done this with his writing, touching on topics like mental health in The Noonday Demon and parent-child relationships in Far from the Tree, and now with Far and Away.

Solomon started his lecture with a quote from German explorer Alexander von Humboldt that seemed to encapsulate his overarching sentiments: “There is no worldview so dangerous as the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.” To Solomon, “travel is a moral imperative for anyone who can afford it,” an experience powerful enough to change minds, assist with diplomacy, and connect disparate groups in invaluable ways.

This moral imperative was one of the driving factors of his talk, which led us through Solomon’s experiences interviewing survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities in Cambodia; blockading Soviet tanks in Moscow with Russian artists during glasnost; engaging with local artisans in Afghanistan, and more. Every anecdote had a different lesson, all to the same effect: travel can be the antidote to destructive rhetoric and precarious nationalism. Walls, according to Solomon, “are concrete symbols of exclusion which often hurt those who are excluding as much as those who are excluded.”

Another driving factor was the idea that reciprocity is key to meaningful interactions. Beyond taking in the sights or having a superficial conversation with a local, offer something of yourself, too. “Do you have any questions for me?” is a query Solomon poses when conducting intensive interviews; while the average traveler may not need to ask deeply personal questions like Solomon does for his work, it’s still worthwhile--a passive moment might become real exchange.  

Solomon ceded that internationalism is hard to negotiate. But that doesn’t mean demonizing immigrant and refugee populations, as we’ve seen in multiple countries over the past couple years, will improve anything. “So long as the world is infected with starvation and inequality, there will always be people who want to leave a country where they have few possibilities,” he said. But that doesn’t mean Solomon is against borders. “We must live within our own countries,” he concluded, “but also act as citizens of the world.”

The audience asked a number of thought-provoking questions. They challenged him on the privilege of travel, which he readily admitted while advocating for more robust international reporting desks and better programs to support travel for low-income students. During the Q & A he also warned against using travel as a quest for “authenticity.” So often the phrase is bandied about as something necessary to a “real” travel experience, even though authenticity itself is difficult to define. Reciprocity, he suggested, can remedy this, too. Solomon managed to turn even simple questions, like where he wanted to return most, into provocative answers. “I think we tend to overvalue depth and undervalue depth,” he replied. “Depth is incredibly valuable but there are certainly insights into having broad experiences.” This debate is alive and well among travelers--who is checking off countries on a list versus who intimately knows a place? And it made me wonder, Which of these constitutes “real” travel? Why can’t both? Would an ex-pat even count as a traveler? (For the record, if he could go back to Afghanistan safely, that would be his choice.)

Most timely was a question about what it means to travel at home. Given the divided climate, that “feels urgent now,” Solomon assented. We’re fortunate to live in a historically diverse state. The Bay Area is particularly so, and Stanford is no exception, either. During his introduction, Center director Rob Reich told the audience that 4,000 international students attend the university, and almost 50% of undergraduates study abroad. We’re very fortunate. But just because our numbers are comparatively higher than the rest of the nation’s doesn’t mean domestic travel is irrelevant to us. “We need to listen to one another,” Solomon said, “and the only way we can is to go among people who aren’t like us.” We never have to go very far to do that. In other words, if travel is “both a window and a mirror,” as Solomon proclaimed, in the United States, in Palo Alto, in 2017, what do we see?

SARA BUTTON is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Menlo Park. She has an MFA in Writing from the University of Pittsburgh.