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Accidental Tourist

Mauri Ditzler
2/15/10

Sometimes I relax by surfing channels and finding a favorite movie on late night television. The great thing is that it doesn’t matter whether the movie is just starting or half over. Even more important, it doesn’t matter if I fall asleep 20 minutes later. I can enjoy the bit I see, knowing what has come before and what happens after I doze off.

“The Accidental Tourist” is one of those movies that I have seen in its entirety several times and in pieces many more. I came across it a few days ago and saw enough to remember how much I enjoy the characters who, like so many created by Anne Tyler, comfort us by demonstrating that eccentricities are the norm. The premise of “The Accidental Tourist” is that while traveling, we often look for that which is familiar within a foreign culture. The main character creates guide books that allow the traveler to, for example, find a McDonald’s restaurant in Paris. This approach is antithetical to what we teach in America’s best colleges and universities. When you are traveling or studying abroad, we tell our students, experience and enjoy the local culture. Immerse yourself in all that is new and different. Don’t search out a McDonald’s in Paris. Don’t be an accidental tourist.

But are we always true to our admonition? It seems to me that too often college students and their professors and administrators forget to immerse themselves in the most important culture they encounter – the culture of the town and region that is their host. Many of us spend four years or even an entire career in towns like Monmouth without enjoying what our hosts have to offer.

Some years ago a professor told me how much he enjoyed taking groups of students on study trips to a distant city where he had grown up. What a joy it was to introduce them to the restaurants and plays and the hustle and bustle of his childhood neighborhood. I asked him if, in 30 years of teaching in a small Midwestern town, he had ever been to the local county fair or to the banjo festival 50 miles down the road, or the various small town celebrations in the surrounding community. He hadn’t, and he didn’t seem to see the irony of not allowing his friends or even his students to enjoy introducing him to the culture they had experienced as a child.

Colleges and universities work to provide a self-contained community. Our students eat, sleep, study and play with little need to leave campus. Professors and presidents can and should return to campus for concerts, lectures, sports and meals. But if we are not careful, we spend four important years or even an entire career living in a region without experiencing what that community has to offer. When we don’t experience a community we can’t truly be a part of that community. We observe but don’t enjoy. We take services but give little in return.

I am pleased that Monmouth College’s curriculum is designed to culminate in an active-citizenship capstone course. It is both logical and appropriate that many of the projects are focused in the local community. Those experiences will be richer by far if we avoid the accidental tourist syndrome and regularly enjoy both the college and the town that bear the Monmouth name.