For quite a long time, particularly in Victorian-era England and in the upper echelons of society in the United States, children of well-to-do families set out (or were sent out, more accurately put) upon lengthy grand tours of Continental Europe. The purpose of such trips was to expand the knowledge of the child, to shape the child’s worldview and comprehension of her place within that international system, and to encourage in that child an appreciation for the history and culture that give shape one’s own home life and home nation. Parents would hire a tutor, or chaperone, and would send their children with that person for a year of learning and artistic inculcation. This is a simple-enough sounding thing: rich people sent their kids abroad for a year to see galleries and stroll avenues. And it might not sound like much to weep over to point out that in both Britain and the United States, the Grand Tour is essentially dead. However, the death of the tradition of the Tour is something we ought both to lament and to remedy. In fact, it is an activity and opportunity we ought eventually to broaden to include more young people than ever have taken the trip before – it was hardly an inclusive model for education, even at its peak.
In Britain as in the U.S., the Grand Tour has changed forms and degenerated into a kind of Grand Party Tour. In Great Britain and its associated, independent territories, wealthy youths take what is often called a gap year. That is, students take a year (or more, for the very-rich) break between high school and college to travel the world (often not limited to but usually focusing to a greater or lesser degree on Continental Europe).
Americans don’t take the grand tour at all. Some congressmen and congresswomen are elected in part on the boast that they have never left the country because it is unnecessary to performing their duties. (We can have an argument about this, but let us assume that this is as asinine as it sounds.) Even those who aim to be well read and well bred do not make the journey. Ever the industrious types, Americans are disgusted by the idea of stopping work for almost any period of time at all, from the time one turns fifteen or sixteen until the day one dies (this way of putting things is intended as a bit of hyperbole but is probably true of many millions of U.S. natives). So we’ve worked the Tour into places where it cannot possibly fit. Some American students are engaged in high-school exchange programs, and some take a college semester abroad in Europe. The former experience is hyper-focused in towns and countries from which the exchanged student hails and cannot possibly provide the education a broadly-educated and experienced tutor can provide; the latter of which is more like a series of party weekends interrupted by pesky class meetings with enthusiastic professors who can barely hope (under these circumstances) to have even the mildest of impacts on their students’ long-term views. Students who have had the experience will cry foul at this point, but they know this description is not far off (if at all amiss of) the mark.
I propose a revivification of the Grand Tour. We ought not only to resurrect it but also to improve and broaden it in cultural scope both of its subject and object. More students ought to have the opportunity to take the Tour, and the objects of their educational aims must be broader than used to be the case, as well. It can be done.
What children lose by skipping out (for these last hundred and some years) is the broadening of their sense of the greater world and their place – as well as the place of their nation – in that world. They do not walk along the Berlin Wall, through the Piazza del Poppolo, or through the battlefields at Ypres and learn their own relationship to those places, however seemingly distant that relationship might at first appear. If they are dragged to these places at all, most often it will be with a parent who does not have the background necessary to inform and entertain the child and who cannot perform the duties of a proper tutor, try though they surely do. The learner can continue her education as if by home schooling but in the very heart of historical events and with a qualified instructor and tour guide. The teacher can continue to learn and to hone her own craft.
So, who will perform the work involved in actually educating the students involved in the Grand Tour? The traveling tutor is not an educational position anymore (a history of the profession is not the purpose here, but pointing out that you’ve never met a person who does this job or has even heard of anyone who does the job is sufficient to make my point that it is functionally extinct). But what we do have is – thanks largely to the collapse of the economy in 2009 and subsequent trends in universities toward the elimination of full-time instructorships – a glut of degree-holding teachers. These, in fact, are often the perfect Grand Tour tutors. They are overeducated and understimulated, somehow the inverse of their younger counterparts (the kids, that is).
So – let’s send our kids abroad. After a lot of experience with travel, I’m convinced that it can be done for around one hundred dollars per day, per kid. This is not chump change, but it is also not the province of the ultra-rich alone. And with scaling, it can get cheaper.
Thoughts? Would you be a tutor in an organization like this? A parent?