Having traveled quite a bit for work and for fun, I’ve never learnt more about a new culture than immersing myself in it. We always learn best through our experiences, yet most of what’s taught is still inside a classroom. Now if it’s maths, that’s fair enough as there are many basic concepts that need to be worked through in a fairly structured way, but if it’s cultural understanding for which you’re aiming, then it’s near impossible to truly learn anything unless you immerse everyone in the cultural experience.
There’s a lot of schools doing just this with countless overseas trips happening each holiday period. But why should this be just an optimal extra in a holiday program? Firstly, the cost involved to take an entire school away each year on some sort of cultural experience would potentially be prohibitively expensive. However, there are other options. Why not explore the cost of chartering an entire plane? If you’ve got to move a few hundred people, surely one of the airlines could come up with a special deal, plus it removes the often annoying feeling for other passengers of being surrounded by a group of school students.
Anyway, major logistics aside, which I’m sure when you think of it aren’t insurmountable, there are some massive benefits to taking students away to experience another culture. Students today are getting a very distorted view on life due to the bombardment of marketing and digital noise that’s constantly around them. For many, it’s all about image and consumption, which creates a disconnect with relationships and so many aspects of the world. This is not of their own making, but conditioning being experienced in their every day lives.
What many students and teachers need is a good shock to the system to snap out of the sometimes monotonous grind of every day classrooms and experience something different and amazing that can never be taught. Immersing students in a different culture, can create a life changing experience which they can’t get any other way. It can provide them with a completely different perspective on life and enhance their appreciation of others. For any worthwhile cultural experience, it has to be dramatically different. It doesn’t have to be the shockingly inappropriate orphan tourism which so many schools have enabled in recent years, but is does need to be something remarkably different from our own culture.
Thankfully, we don’t even need to go outside of our own country for this as we have some unique local cultures and aboriginal communities in places such as Arnhem Land that welcome school groups for extended stays to experience a more simple way of life that’s focused on relationships, rather than consumption.
An Aboriginal Person - Tjapukai Cultural Centre
Māori Cultural Performance - Waitangi
Another great place to go, which is only a couple of hours flight from Darwin is East Timor. With a mix of Tetem, Portuguese and Indonesian influences, this is a remarkable country with a unique culture. Whilst still a very poor nation, the Timorese people are big on education and are in the process of rebuilding their nation after years of conflict. Whilst now a relatively safe country, it’s worth connecting with the Department of Foreign Affairs for the latest assessment. However, from an educational point of view, immersion in this type of culture that’s so close to our own country, is a great way of developing the global citizenship within our community.
Until going to East Timor, I had no idea how devastated it still was from years of war, but contrasted with this was the positivity within the community that with democratic freedom, they could now build a nation of their design and not one imposed from outside. Having been occupied by the Portuguese and more recently the Indonesians, this is something we can’t fathom as Europeans, who have done most of the occupying.
One of the key skills required for students to be successful into the future, is cultural understanding. It’s not just knowing about a culture from reading about it. It’s about truly understanding other cultures and gaining an appreciation for a different kind of world view and life experience. This doesn’t need to be limited to our own regional ‘backyard,’ but can extend to all sorts of places around the world. Living this sort of experience can put into perspective the history, the geography and the global perspective of another culture which in turn can help develop an appreciation for others and a greater understanding and appreciation of our own culture. Whilst it may not be possible for everyone to go away every year and experience a cultural immersion, (although you could charter an A380), it should however, be part of an integrated Yr 7-12 curriculum. The long-term educational benefit for students and the development of global citizenship would be profoundly impacted on in such a positive way.
As I might have mentioned at some point, I love medieval history. Having studied the Vikings through to Elizabethan England for history at uni, it’s an amazing, disturbing and rather dysfunctional period of history, but what period isn’t? However, when it comes to anything but medieval Europe, I’m at a bit of a loss. Consequently, if asked about medieval Japan, all I could tell you was that there was some unpleasantness, a civil war, lots of people in armour and many in their pyjamas grabbed their swords and got stabby! For many it didn’t end well…
Yes, I know, for those Japanese historians amongst you, not a very detailed picture of the Shogunate! However, I recently had the chance to visit a number of castles in Japan and to read up on some of this history.
I started the day in Hiroshima. I visited the rebuilt Hiroshima castle, which I found out was in fact the main target of the Americans, not because they were trying to capture the castle from the Shogun, but because the Imperial High Command was based within the castle grounds.
The restoration work is amazing with the entrance and main keep having been rebuilt from scratch with original materials. The time, effort and care that’s gone into this is astounding and something you have to see to really appreciate. Hiroshima, in medieval times, was a centre of trade and power and its huge defensive advantage was the fact that it’s on an island. It may be difficult to see today, but as with many medieval Japanese castles, there are several outer layers that make up a fortified walled town before you even get close to the castle itself.
This layering of walls, outer perimeters, moats and fortified townships is often seen in European castles, but not to the same extent that the Japanese castles were. This gave a massive defensive advantage for the incumbent in the castle as they could still grow crops and have fresh water for longer periods of time before an enemy could get close to starving them out through a siege.
One interesting feature I saw in Hiroshima, that you don’t find in European castles, was that of the sliding wooden doors. These were a feature in the outer perimeter of the castle. If an enemy got in here, the guards could swiftly slide open the doors, fire a volley of arrows, then slide them shut. The outer-side of this part of the castle had holes in the walls for doing the same, but the rapid attack and withdrawing feature meant far more arrows could be poured on a visiting enemy.
As with European castles, Japanese castles have a keep, or an inner tower that’s the most secure part of the castle. For Japanese castles, these are massive wooden structures which are built up with progressively smaller levels until you reach the top, giving the classic and unique tiered look of the castle.
From Hiroshima I travelled to Himeji, less than an hour by bullet train and it was here I found the most stunning castle I’ve ever seen. One family held this continuously for 120 years and standing at the front entrance, you can see why. This is a grand imposing structure that can be seen from anywhere in the city, except now through skyscrapers. In its day, it would have commanded unbridled position in the Himeji skyline. Now world heritage listed, you really have to go there and experience it for yourself to understand the sheer size, scale and defensive capabilities of this castle. This left every European and English castle for dead that I’ve visited so far in terms of layout, design, functionality and standing the test of time.
To get to the keep is a relentless uphill climb through layer upon layer of walls, gates barricades and watch towers, all of which could decimate your army. Even if you managed to get inside the first or second layer, you still continued to have to battle through so many obstacles to try to even get close to the keep. I guess when you’ve got samurais and ninjas wanting to break in and kill you, then it makes perfect sense to build so many fail- safes into your house.
Himeji Castle, A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Himeji castle is distinctively white in design, which I can imagine on a moonlit night would have been a glowing beacon for the surrounding villages. This is a stunning and well-preserved building which is steeped in history. Despite massive cities having developed around both Hiroshima and Himeji castles, there are still obvious remnants of the original fortified townships. It’s easier to work out with Hiroshima, as you just have to look for the natural water ways. However, generally if you find a canal or small brook that’s been built with amazing stonework, then the chances are you’ve reached one of the defensive lines of the castle, often so far away from the castle itself. Without the context of the castle design in mind, it’s just another waterway next to a city street.
Having written about two major human risk factors involved with any outdoor program, the expert blind spot and the idiot blind spot, I thought it worth talking more about risk management training.
Despite the attention to risk management forms, this is one area which is seriously lacking in schools today and is unlikely to ever be covered by any education degree. However, as experiential education and outside of classroom learning expands, the need for risk management training will become critical to any uni course. However, this doesn’t mean that it will find its way into the curriculum at any point.
Unless you’re an outdoor ed person, for most teachers the first time they encounter risk management is when they’re taking a group of students away for the very first time. With puzzled looks, they ask someone else what to do. The equally uncertain colleague says something like, “Oh! I’ve gotta fill in a bunch of paperwork.”
It’s more often than not the blind leading the blind and one poor practice is followed by another, with the end result being that people think they’re doing the right thing, when they’re not even aware of most risks involved in a program, nor how to eliminate, mitigate or accept the risks.
Without any training, a school or organisation can stumble through, reliant mainly on luck for the success of their programs. This is never a good approach, since unless you’re a Marvel superhero, luck tends not to be a terribly effective way of managing risk. Instead, you need to build systems that are reliable, trackable and continuously reviewed. Risk management is a culture within your organisation and not a stand alone document that gathers dust until the lawyers and coroner want to take a look. Without a culture of risk management, then your organisation is leaving itself open to poor planning and potential operational disasters.
Swift Water Rescue Training
How do you avoid this? As with everything else you want to improve in, do some training! Learn to what risks you’re exposing staff and students. Learn how to effectively plan and implement good risk management systems and build a culture of risk managers. Also learn how to respond when things don’t go to plan. I’ve seen far too many teachers over the years start to fall apart when things don’t go to plan. Instead, train and practice for the worst case scenarios, to ensure you’re ready to deal with any scenario.
The more teachers take students outside the classroom, the more critical it is to be trained in proper risk management. You can’t rely on a third party provider to do everything. Despite what many people may think, you can’t subcontract your risk out to someone else. Therefore, to protect you, your staff and students, get trained in risk management, which incidentally our partner company Xcursion runs. Everything from basic risk management for new staff, to senior management programs to organisation-wide training can and should be covered. Pleading ignorance is no defence in court, so it’s not worth the risk of not understanding risk management.
One of the most interesting tours I’ve ever been on was in Vienna at the Schönnbrunn, which is a stunning palace made up of 1441 rooms! Built between the 16th & 17th century and further improved upon in the 18th century to its current standard and design, by Maria Theresa, who was given the estate as a wedding gift, which I’m sure would’ve been a nice surprise. This is one of the most magnificent palaces in the world and is World Heritage Listed. It remains the property of the Austrian people. However, it’s had a fascinating history of splendour, grandeur, victory and success, sadly contrasted with conflict, conquest, decline, depression and death.
Stepping into the grounds of the palace, I was immediately impressed by its sheer size and magnitude. I can imagine in its heyday, anyone riding into the city from the countryside would have been blown away by it. However, it’s not until you step inside that you get the true sense of just how magnificent it really is. The high fresco ceilings, intricate gold leafed embossed paneling, grand furnishings and sumptuous artwork, makes you feel somewhat insignificant in comparison with what has gone on within its walls.
When you add in the fact that Maria Theresa was the mother of Marie Antoinette (who most famously suggested the French to eat cake, before losing her head in a disagreement with some poorly dressed commoners wearing silly hats over the said comment), you start to see how important the business of the palace was to the political landscape of Renaissance and post Renaissance Europe. The palace was even suitably grand enough for Napoleon, who commandeered it and took up residence in 1805 when he captured Vienna. It was an ideal location for a visiting tyrant, as it has a very attractive backyard in which you could accommodate an entire army, right next to the zoo.
Palmenhaus Schönbrunn, A 128-Meter-Long Greenhouse
However, it wasn’t just the site of political power, diplomacy and a pleasant weekender for the invading French army. It was a central hub of the arts, music and culture, with Mozart playing his first ever concert here at the age of 5! “If the walls could talk,” has never been a more appropriate term uttered for a grand building that’s seen hundreds of years of fun, excitement, glamorous parties filled with ballroom dancing, as well as forced marriages, intrigue, poisonings, suicides, hostile occupations, declarations of war and finally capitulation after years of bloody conflict in the Great War that saw a family destroyed, an empire collapse, millions killed and the world changed forever.
The Schönbrunn Palace Park Is A UNESCO World Heritage Site
When we visit a palace such as Shönnbrunn, or Versailles, we can often romanticise what it would have been like living with everything. The land, the grandeur, the wealth, the armies, the servants, the parties, the decadence! The strolls through the gardens, the visiting envoys bringing gifts you don’t really need, the polite yet saucy lovers and the luxury to do whatever you wanted to do. Sounds wonderful right? Unfortunately however, the reality was quite different. Austria was on the frontier to the Middle East and the threat from the Turks was ever present. After the reformation, Austria was one of the few European countries that remained Catholic, which was yet another source of conflict within the Central European States. Suddenly the money, the palace, the fast sport carriage and the decadent parties feel a little less attractive when you have to deal with all the intrigue, wars, death, destruction and lots of people wanting to kill you all the time.
Despite these constant threats, Austria prospered and became an extremely powerful empire. Having gained control over Hungary, Tuscany and a few bits of Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, Czech areas, Slovakia, Croatia and a bit of Poland for good measure. The empire was the third largest power in Europe by population and was an economic powerhouse. However, having everything was ultimately a poison challis for Emperor Franz Joseph I who was emperor from 1848 to 1916. During his reign, despite his best efforts, the empire started to decline. Plagued by ethnic problems, assassination attempts, economic strains and ultimately the Great War, Franz Joseph remained a diligent leader to the end. With the assassination of his nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, being the catalyst for WWI, this was just another devastating event in what can only be described as a tragic life. Franz Joseph died in 1916 from pneumonia and although he was succeeded by Charles I, this reign was short-lived when Austria lost the war in 1918. Charles also died from pneumonia four years later in 1922 at the age of 34.
When you look at the history of such a magnificent palace, the Schönnbrunn, you only have to scrape away the thin veneer of wealth to see how fickle and empty life can be when you supposedly have everything.
In today’s world of endless consumption, marketing and imagery targeted at people for the desire to have it all, we must be mindful of the fact that having everything can come at a very heavy price. Power, wealth and material goods whilst on the surface look wonderful, scratch that surface and it can reveal that it’s nothing more than the same thin veneer covering another deeply unhappy and flawed core. Why in an age where we can have more than we’ve ever been able to have before, are mental health issues such as anxiety, body image and depression on the rise? It’s because our relationships are what is fulfilling in life and not all the stuff and power over others we can amass for ourselves. Vienna and its palaces are truly stunning, as are many throughout the world, but it’s always worth looking a little deeper at the true cost of those palaces and the lives lived within them.