I grew up in a preppy little Ohio town where some of our high school teachers couldn’t afford to own or rent. One of the math teachers was a funny dude named Mr. Leigh.
“I know I’m ugly,” he’d open the class on the first day. “But I don’t have to look at me all day. You do!”
He would also tease us, so slyly that most of us probably didn’t notice, about our town’s wealth. I remember him asking some of us where we were going for spring break. And after everyone had said, “Florida,” or “Hawaii,” he remarked that he was going to spend his week off in Doylestown, Ohio.
I thought of Mr. Leigh the other day as I read a fun piece in The New Yorker this summer, “The Case Against Travel.” A fine send-up of the seriousness with which we take our travel. One of the many money graphs:
If you think that this doesn’t apply to you—that your own travels are magical and profound, with effects that deepen your values, expand your horizons, render you a true citizen of the globe, and so on—note that this phenomenon can’t be assessed first-personally. Pessoa, Chesterton, Percy, and Emerson were all aware that travellers tell themselves they’ve changed, but you can’t rely on introspection to detect a delusion. So cast your mind, instead, to any friends who are soon to set off on summer adventures. In what condition do you expect to find them when they return? They may speak of their travel as though it were transformative, a “once in a lifetime” experience, but will you be able to notice a difference in their behavior, their beliefs, their moral compass? Will there be any difference at all?
As someone who has often been guilty of justifying a long or dangerous sailing or motorcycle trip on grounds I somehow spiritually “needed” it—I only wish the writer, Agnes Callard—born in Hungary, educated in California, living in Chicago and obviously from various references in her essay, globally well-traveled—would have acknowledged that such a piece could not have been credibly written by someone who hadn’t traveled extensively (however disappointingly) beyond Doylestown, Ohio.