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Experience History, Language and Culture Firsthand Through Educational Travel

by Richard Newton

Apr 27, 2023


Age Specific / Multigenerational

There are many forms of education. There are many forms of travel. When education and travel combine, the results can prove surprising, challenging and inspiring.



Witness the group of high school kids from Michigan walking somberly through Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich, Germany. As the Holocaust recedes in time and the last survivors pass away, it becomes hard to grasp a sense of the full horror merely through history books and TV documentaries. But to visit a camp, to be exactly where it happened, provides a harrowing, never- to-be-forgotten experience.


In the camp’s Church of Reconciliation, one of the students suddenly, spontaneously begins a hymn. Fellow students join. The other visitors (including me) stop in their tracks as the concrete building fills with young voices in harmony.


For American students, the top overseas destination for educational group tours remains Europe. The old continent offers a wealth of historical and cultural attractions, as well as the opportunity to try newly learned languages.


The Michigan students were on a tour of Germany and Austria. In Germany, they focused on 20th-century history, while in Austria they would immerse in music, their impromptu performance in Dachau a taste of that. Throughout their two-week tour they would also put their German to the test, though one admitted the Bavarian accents of Munich proved difficult when their entire previous experience of the language had been confined to an American classroom.


Accents can also pose a challenge when visiting the United Kingdom. The U.K. and the United States, it is often said, are two countries separated by a common language. But they are also, in many respects, united by a common history.


Although most educational tours overlook northern England, the city of Durham boasts one of the most breathtaking cathedrals in the world (as well as one of the world’s top universities), while the nearby town of Washington gave its name to the family of George Washington and, in turn, to the capital of the United States. Washington Old Hall, the family seat from the 13th century, is now a museum that helps celebrate Anglo-American links. American students who visit the region leave with new insights into their own country.


The great cities of Europe, of course, are the star attractions for students crossing the Atlantic. Foremost among them, London boasts so many famous landmarks, so many world-class museums and galleries, and so many cultural and historic sites, few tours can do more than scratch the surface.


Massachusetts-based EF (Education First) Tours boasts more than half a century’s experience tailoring itineraries to the needs of individual groups. Lately it’s seen increasing demand for tours centered on science, technology, engineering and math. A medical-themed tour of Great Britain initially explores the medical heritage of Edinburgh before moving on to London, with a guided Jack the Ripper walk and participation in a forensics workshop. EF also runs agricultural tours to Ireland, as well as tours of Germany and Switzerland focusing on sustainable living.


The best educational experiences should be immersive. It happens, sometimes, in the classroom or lecture hall; ideas take flight, and the students go with them. But during the pandemic, any form of immersion became virtually impossible. Students were isolated, and the world was reduced to a screen. Travel offers a great way to make up for lost time. Students can plunge into a subject completely, gaining life-changing experiences in the process.



You’re struggling to learn French? Try a week or more in Paris. It’s not all clear sailing. If Parisians don’t understand what you’re saying, or if they disapprove of your pronunciation, they will often let you know bluntly. You must up your game. Every time you attempt a conversation, the stakes are much higher than they would be at home … and for much greater reward. The satisfaction of getting by in France without resorting to English is priceless.


Other popular destinations for language-focused tours are Italy, Spain, Latin America and China. It’s not just about conversing in your chosen language but also about experiencing it in its cultural context. Every transaction, every attempt to use public transport, every meal brings out nuances in the language that can only be discovered there.


The same applies to the various accents of Great Britain, where complete strangers will address you as “luv,” “pet,” “duck” or even “my lover,” depending on the region. For example: “Would you like vinegar on your chips, luv/pet/duck/my lover?”


Language is a vibrant, dynamic subject. History, by comparison, may seem dull. All those battle sites tended as neatly as golf courses, all those meticulously preserved ancient ruins. But again, the experience of being there can prove transformative.


The students visiting Dachau were visibly impacted. World War II is relatively recent history, and many of us still have family members who remember it. What of ancient history? Can Greek or Roman ruins have a similar effect?


Just check the selfies on social media for the answer. Once-stuffy archaeological relics now offer the ultimate backdrop, whether the Parthenon in Athens, the Colosseum in Rome or Stonehenge in southern England. They have become as recognizable as logos. To see them in context adds new dimensions of understanding.


Between selfies, visitors are awestruck. In part, it’s down to appreciating the sheer age of these human marvels. But there’s more to it than that. These historic sites do not exist in isolation. Especially in Rome and Athens, the modern, bustling cities envelop the ancient ruins. Gradually you realize the ruins do not exist separate from the streets around them, but gave rise to them. Modern cities owe their existence to everything that came before. Visit a traditional market in Rome or Athens, and you’ll experience life as it has been lived there for centuries.


Virginia-based WorldStrides and other companies offer educational tours of a country that may not leap to mind when thinking of ancient history. But South Africa claims a human timeline vastly older than Rome or Athens.


A complex of limestone caves 31 miles northwest of Johannesburg holds the world’s largest concentration of ancestral human fossils, dating back up to 3.5 million years. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, it earned the name The Cradle of Humankind. An impressive visitors’ center at Maropeng provides a fascinating insight into our evolving understanding of human evolution.



South Africa remains one of the flashpoints of humanity’s ongoing troubles with racism. Although white minority rule ended in 1994, the country is still coming to terms with its legacy. The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg uncomfortably illustrates the injustices (for instance, visitors are asked to use the entrance designated for their race) but also provides hope. It offers a profound experience.


A highlight of any visit to South Africa is a safari. The best educational tours include a visit to Kruger National Park, a protected wilderness the size of Israel. Here, in open safari vehicles driven by experienced guides, you search for the Big Five: elephant, buffalo, lion, rhino and (the hardest to find) leopard. Along the way, you learn about the wider ecosystem and gain appreciation for the lesser creatures and the habitats that support them.


From famous cities to the wilds of Africa, from concentration camps to 1,000-year-old cathedrals, the world serves up an education.


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