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The World is a Classroom
By Forrest Brown (Doctoral Candidate at GWU)
Good morning, Bonjour, Guten morgen, Buongiorno, Kalimera, Günaydin
Fifty-one anxious seekers of knowledge and understanding recently traveled to England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Vatican City, Greece, and Turkey to enlighten their learning abilities and gain a better understanding of history and cultures. The primary purpose of this trip according to Dr. Andrew Groft, President of George Wythe University and director of this educational adventure, was to “…increase the awareness and connections between a human family that is mistakenly ‘us and them,’ a shared history that is erroneously ‘then and now,’ and an inevitable future that is our mutual responsibility to create.” This was no ordinary field trip.
The first stop was London, England, which included a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Christopher Wren built this edifice in 1677 in the detailed gothic style that was prevalent at the time. It is a magnificent structure that became a primary target of Adolf Hitler’s aerial bombers because he knew if he destroyed it he would destroy the spirit of the English people. However, the building miraculously survived Hitler’s onslaught due largely to the efforts of American fighter pilots. We all felt a sense of gratitude and pride that this beautiful edifice was saved by some of our own American countrymen. Also in London we experienced Westminster’s Abby, Parliament, Buckingham Palace, The Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square, and various historical museums, including one of the world’s best: The British Museum.
In London the group was also able to take a tour of a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. It was fascinating to sit on wooden benches in the upper gallery and visualize what a play of 1595 would have been like. We walked down to the open area in front of the five-foot high stage where the commoners stood for hours to witness the theater. Next, it was on to Windsor Castle, which was built by William the Conqueror for protection from invaders as well as from the very British he conquered. Windsor is a few miles outside of London and has some unique features such as the arrow slits where archers were able to hold off invading armies. This unique castle was built in 1066 and has withstood the test of time as foreign dignitaries are still invited here for formal occasions by the Queen Elizabeth.
We traveled to Canterbury, England which is home of the Church of England as well as the pilgrimage destination for the unique characters in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales written in the late thirteen hundreds. The group then traveled through the “Chunnel” under the English Channel and into France on the famous EuroStar high-speed train. Paris was somewhat cooler and wetter than England, and in addition to its stunning Louis XIV and Napoleonic architecture, it is known for its excellent food. Some of the cuisine sampled included flam, crème brûlée, and the many varieties of crêpes. Paris is also the home of the Eiffel Tower, which was built in 1889 as part of the World’s Fair with intentions to only remain for one year. Our group rode the elevator to the top of the nearly 1,000-foot structure. The view of Paris was incredible at this height. At night the tower is lit by thousands of lights and is beautiful as it stands close to the River Seine. One of the highlights of Paris was a visit to the Louvre, which is the largest and best-known museum in the world. It’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci, is a popular piece for most visitors. Almost everyone remembers his or her first impression of da Vinci’s lady and her mysterious smile. On another day we traveled from Paris to Versailles, home of one of the greatest palaces in the world. The buildings which housed over 20,000 people at one time were begun in the late sixteen hundreds by King Louis the XIV at the great expense of the French people and their economy. This is also the location where the French Revolution gained strength in 1789. Our lesson learned here was that when a few people in charge live much too lavishly at the expense of everyone else then the whole of society fails. Inside the palace it was exhilarating to view the Hall of Mirrors where the Treaty of Versailles was signed officially ending World War I. The grounds surrounding the palace are immense with numerous fountains, pools, tall green shrubbery, and many gardens. King Louis spared no expense in making this the palace of all palaces.
We visited Giverny, a quaint town that was home to the famous French painter Claude Monet. As we traversed the beautiful gardens and ponds we gained an appreciation of nature that Monet captured in his renowned paintings titled Water Lilies. This was a nice mid-week escape from the traffic and noise of Paris. A light rain fell and the birds sang and Monet’s beautiful gardens came alive with multiple colors of nature.
We left Paris after four days and headed to the mountain lake village of Lucerne, Switzerland. The overnight train ride through Stuttgart, Germany was an experience that most of us will never forget. We were stacked three high in small beds with six people to one cabin—a little cramped but since it was only for one night, it became an adventure of its own. Switzerland is known for its beautiful countryside and its high Alpine peaks. The group ascended 7,000 feet to the summit of Mount Pilatus by way of the steepest cog-rail in the world. This mountain was name for Pontius Pilate, who, legend says, wandered for many years after the public trial of Jesus Christ. It is said that being tormented over the death of Jesus he traveled until he ended up in what is now Switzerland. From there he climbed this very high mountain and upon reaching the top looked down at the lake which forms the shape of a cross. Instead of accepting the crossed lake as an omen of forgiveness, he saw it as a reminder of a grievous sin and threw himself off the cliffs to his death.
Italy was our next stop going to Venice where transportation in the city is done exclusively by walking, gondalos and other boats. It was very relaxing to ride up and down some of the many canals that crisscross the city. We were able to learn that the typical gondala costs around $50,000 and the trade is passed on from father to son. The training requires a two-year certificte in school, and the student must be a good swimmer. In Venice we were also able to witness the art of glass blowing. From a very hot oven the glass is formed and shaped on a long pole by the master. We watched in awe as the master produced a blue horse made out of glass in less than five minutes. After Venice, en route to Florence and the brithplace of the Italian Renaissance, we stopped in Bologna, home of the first European University founded in 1088. The Itanian countryside is some of the most picturesque in all of Europe with fields of grape vines and olive trees. We stood at the Piazza della Michelangelo which gives an awesome view of this historic home to painters, sculpters, scientists and musicians alike. We visited the tombs of the shrewd politician Machiavelli as well as the great poet Dante. We stood in the exact spot where Savanarola, in an attempt to stop the Itallian Renaissance, built the bonfire of the vanities and burnt thousands of paintings and manuscripts before the town rebelled and burned him in the same spot. We also learned of the trade rivalries between Genoa, Venice, Florence and Pisa. We learned of the devistation of the Black Plague which was a result of this trade rivalry, and some of us went to the top of the Leaning Tower and understood why Galileo used this as a “dropping off point” for some of his most famous experiments.
On the way to Rome we stopped in Assissi, home of Saint Francis. We saw the greatest collection of Giotto frescoes and learned of a man who had it made with family wealth and gave it all up to serve God. Rome is home to the Colissem, the Pantheon, Vaticum City, and amazing Roman ruins. The Sistein Chapel contains the famous works of Michaelangleo. The intricate paintings on the ceiling and walls were a sight to behold. It was obvious that this was not an easy task. As we gazed at the ceiling and at the huge murial on the wall deplicting the end of the world, we gained a better understanding of the effort that Michaelangleo put into this three-year project. He was able to capture the creation of the earth and of man; and also he captured the great and dreadful day of the Lord’s second coming. We also beheld the magnitude of the St. Peter’s Square where over 300,000 people are able to gather for special religious occations conducted by the head of the Roman Cathlotic Church. Rome is the residence of other historical gems such as the ancient Roman Forum which is where the market place and businesses resided along with government and various reglious buildings. Again, the magnitude of what has so far been uncovered is incredible. Some of the more famous sites in Rome include the Coliseem, the Forum, and the Pantheon. The group toured the Pantheon and gained insightful information about this unique structure. Pantheon comes from ancient words that meant many gods. Once inside we learned not only that the distance from the ground to the top of the dome was 142 feet, but that the diamiter of the dome was also 142 feet—this was no accident. The massive dome also has a hole in the very top measuring 30-feet in diameter. Enough air pressure comes into the church doors and out through this hole, that unless the rain is very heavy, it cannot get into the structure. A choir was singing when we were inside the the achustics were fantastic.
After leaving Rome we ventured to one of the most interesting sites of the tour. Laying close to the western shore of Italy is Ancient Pompei. In AD 79, Mt. Vesuvius errupted, and within seconds the gasses from the explosion essentially vaporizes approximetely 30,000 inhabitates. The entire region was then covered with 27 feet of volcanic ash. In 1836 a farmer in the area was digging and hit a cavativy in the ground. What he found was the city of Pompei. As we explored the 20% of what has been unearth, we realized that this was a thriving and advanced, if not slightly decadent, society.
Our trip continued through the heel of the Italy where we boarded an overnight ferry to Greece. Many ruins in Greece dated back over 5,000 years such as Delphi where Statesmen and Generals came from all around to seek the advice of the Oracle. From Delphi we traveled to Corinth, which was the ancient city where the Apostle Paul visited and preached before he was exiled as a disrupter and blasphemer. On the mountain behind Corinth we walked up to the huge stone fortress called AcroCorinth, or the Corrith on the Montain. One can see why the conquering Romans built this massive fort, not only because it is triple fortified, but you can see for miles around and have an excellent view of the narrow (4-mile) Isthmas of Corrinth.
I could go on with stories and lessons from Athens, Istanbul, Ephesus and the Greek islands of Patmos, Rhodes, and Crete. But all of the sights and sounds, smells and tastes, stories and people would bring me back to the overall lessons I learned that make Dr. Groft’s earlier statement make more sense:
1. It is not us and them. We are part of a human family that is much more like us than different. There are beautiful and wonderful people out there with ideas and dreams as well as fears and struggles. This world is a world of “WE” and we would all do well to spend our lives bringing people together, learning from each other, and enriching our lives by seeking to understand, to love and to serve.
2. It is not then and now. At least, the past is not as distant as it seems, not as dissimilar to our own day. People of the past, like people of various parts of the world, were very much like us. They made huge strides and triumphs, but they also made massive and costly mistakes. They would speak to us if they could. They do speak to us in books, ruins and relics. They would tell us that this life is very short; and that we should live it more fully. They would warn us that there is an enormous difference between actions that are lasting, and actions that are selfish, futile and nothing more than distractions to a life of purpose.
3. Finally, I learned that I have maybe 20 or 40 more years where I can make a difference. The future is ours and we have a responsibility to learn from the past and then live to create the future we want. In a letter sent to all of us the day after we returned, Dr. Groft said,
I hope all of you are home, safe and sound. I am so happy to be reunited with my little family after being away for five weeks. But I admit that there is a pang in my heart for my Europe Adventure '09 family. Thirty-five days ago I knew a few of our group pretty well, and most of our group not at all. And now I not only know your first and last names, not only your faces and personalities, but your keen and curious intellects, your humor, your dancing skills, and your powerful spirits. As sentimental as it sounds, I miss you all, and thank God for the adventure that brought us together. The world is a much smaller place than it was. Our brothers and sisters from continents afar are less foreign, less mysterious, more real, and more beloved.
The past seems less distant and more real. The present makes more sense. The future beckons us to choose to live lives of greatness, of service, of understanding, connection and impact. And if we make that choice, the world literally will be a different place. People's lives will be touched. Families will be stronger. Governments will be more informed, more secure and more free. Business, religion, community, media, family, government, education, the arts, relationships, all of it will be affected by that choice to live lives of greatness.
It is easy to fall into the mundane habits of life, to take our lives and opportunities for granted, and simply to forget or to choose to be blind to what is real. Experiences like those we just shared have a way of making us see life differently. They cause us to reflect. Please don't let this opportunity to reflect pass you by, because the habitual, the mundane will sneak back in very soon. What did you learn from this experience? How can you re-enter the state of objectivity and reflection that you are in now next week or next month? What is your role now? What are you going to do? Who are you going to be? These are questions we must continually ask ourselves, but especially so after experiences like this one. So thank you again for a truly life-changing experience.
Traveling through the heart of Western Civilization really was a life-changing experience, especially with Statesmanship as a continuous theme and filter. I think others who traveled with us feel the same way. Whether it was the 16-year-old Stephanie from Alberta who marveled at the ruins in Pompeii, or the 28-year-old Robert who cherished the opportunity to read Acts 17 while standing on Mars’ Hill in Athens, or the 48-year-old Glenn who relished the chance to investigate up close the actual structural engineering of Brunelleschi’s Dome in Florence, every member of our group grew because of this awesome opportunity to spend a month in Europe with history, Dr. Groft and our fellow classmates.PrintShare this article with a Friend