Claire: For two years, Heather and I worked at the Traveling School, an academic-semester program for high school girls. Every semester, we spent 15 weeks in either southern Africa or South America; the courses consisted of the traditional array of high school classes such as literature, history, economics, and science, but each focused on and was based around the regions through which we traveled. What we studied surrounded us: we investigated geology while camping in the rocky plains of Namibia; history, while walking down countless Simon Bolivar Avenues; the legacy of the Incan empire, while hiking the four-day trek to Machu Picchu.

In such a school, it was impossible for our students not to learn: everything we experienced reinforced what we studied. There was no time to indicate when school ended and life began . . . Our students began to realize that they could learn from anything and everyone.

When we asked our students about their connection to the United States, however, they invariably responded with apathy. They knew very little about areas outside their own, and they felt little impetus to learn about them.

We realized that this ignorance about the United States was not unique to our students . . . Few of them have seen the diversity of places and populations that compose the United States, and thus few of them have a true understanding of the United States. In fact, few Americans at all do.

We want to change that.

We want to create a generation of citizens who have been to New York City and Ames, Iowa, and who have talked to survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and to Native Americans on reservations in South Dakota; who have seen the canyons of Utah and the changing leaves of Maine; who have listened carefully to the opinions of conservatives, liberals, libertarians, and evangelists, and who have consciously formed their own systems of belief; who are equally knowledgeable about localized sustainable agriculture and the global economy, about the physics of wind energy and the innovations of American literature; who have critically explored the question, "What does it mean to be American?"

Heather: I have realized that for myself as a student, I always had 'what I was learning in school' and then 'what I was passionate about.' The two ran parallel to each other for a long time, though very rarely intersected. In many ways, I feel that my real education began when I finished college and started following the thread of what I was passionate about . . . I felt like I had been stumbling around in a dark room for years trying to find the light switch, touching pieces of furniture here and there but still having no understanding of the actual layout of the room. When I began to follow my own educational path, it was like someone turned on the light and I could see the way that each piece of furniture was related to and connected to the others.

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  Topics: This Just In , Harvard University, Machu Picchu, Williams College,  More more >
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