There is no place like someplace else

A message from the Executive Dean of Theology and Philosophy Professor Dermot Nestor

Travel and change of place impart vigour to the mind – Seneca

A recent trip to Bogota, Colombia gave me pause to reflect on the significance and experience of travel. While my passage on a Qantas Dreamliner was quantitively different from those terms that define the etymological origin “travel” (torment, labour, strife), what concerned me over the week was less the experience of travel than the motivation for it and the benefits that accrue from it.

We often travel because we have to: an experience familiar to anyone living on an island where the gulf between population centres and extended family members is conceptualised under the rubric of  'tyranny'. Yet we also travel because we want to and, because we need to. Travel is a basic desire of what is fundamentally a migratory species. Travel is also borne from the existential necessity of separating ourselves from the familiar. Distance and difference are the secret elixirs of creativity. They loosen the chains of cognition, making it easier to see something new in what is otherwise old. The mundane and the habitual is grasped from a slightly more abstract and speculative perspective. Efficiency is traded for creativity. Where proximity conditions us to always address the operational requirements of the 'problem at hand', distance sanctions us to activate our imaginations, to think laterally and to embrace the sometimes-errant ideas that can inform strategy.

As an essential habit of effective thinking then, travel and distance – whether physical or cognitive – provides an antidote to the solitary and introverted nature of the traditional academic enterprise. It allows us to recapture the original spirit of exploration that informed our decision to become academics and scholars. The change is decisive.

This trajectory was signaled by Pope Francis in his recent visit to Canada. It is also something we are witnessing closer to home as a firm feature of the eco-systemic framework that defines the Research and Enterprise Plan. This has been embraced by colleagues in discussions of themes that can inform the university’s work; themes that conceive of research and learning and teaching as inherently related rather than activities to be related. The experience of another culture, of another perspective, of other ways of working and thinking leaves us open to the provocative effect of realising all that we do not know.

As I prepare to bring my 16-year-old son to Ireland to undertake a term of high-school, it is my hope, and his, that the experience will change something in his mind: and that will change everything.

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