An Invitation to an Uncommon Education

By Dr. Dan Sturdevant

Recently, I was revisiting Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, and I was struck in a new way by Steinbeck’s command of a narrative. Obviously, he is a tremendous writer, but his writing had never given me such a rich experience as it did on this occasion. Isn’t it interesting how great writing (and I know that Travels with Charlie is far from Steinbeck’s most celebrated work) can affect us in different ways at different stages in our lives?  Classic literature has that quality, whether it was written in the last decade or the heyday of the Roman Empire. It moves us, grants us an empathetic view of the characters, and sometimes (as evidenced by this post) inspires us to action.

Now, I wish I could tell you that my response was to find a trusty and ice-breaking canine companion like Charley, and a custom-made camper and truck with which to hit the open road and rediscover America, but barring a major turn of events, this post is the crux of it so far. While the entire book is well worth your time (and I might recommend the audio-book version narrated by Gary Sinise as well), the opening chapter, wherein Steinbeck details his need to go on this trip is where I believe we can find immediate overlap with our mission to enhance our scholars’ education through VR.

“My plan was clear, concise, and reasonable, I think. For many years I have traveled in many parts of the world. In America I live in New York, or dip into Chicago or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. Thus I discovered that I did not know my own country. I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years. In short, I was writing of something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer this is criminal. My memories were distorted by twenty-five intervening years.” (Travels with Charley, chapter 1)

“I had not felt the country for twenty-five years. In short, I was writing of something I did not know about,” is Steinbeck’s lament. Steinbeck cannot relate to his subject – he has lost his empathy, or perhaps better said, his ability to empathize correctly with Americans of different stripes and sizes. As a celebrated author and a student of classic literature himself, Steinbeck knew it was his job to move others to empathy, and through empathy, to action.  Not necessarily dramatic or earth-shattering action, but a response to a new understanding of their fellow man, his or her circumstances, and how those circumstances might affect them (think of your first response when you read The Pearl or The Grapes of Wrath). He was writing with a purpose – to pull on the heartstrings of his reader, and to build their empathy for their fellow man, no matter their own circumstances.

Not a man to sit idly by, Steinbeck takes the opportunity to go and see the country to replenish his reservoir of anecdotes, experiences, and to “feel” America once again. Unfortunately, we cannot feasibly load all our scholars onto a bus and traverse the nation (or the world, as our subject matter is considerably larger!) and see the sights or hear the sounds for ourselves.  However, we can allow them to see, hear, and feel the wonder that will enable them to better understand vast stretches of the world, to engage other cultures in real time, and to visit the scope and span of western history.  Almost unbelievably, we can do this every day, from the convenience and safety of their own home, with their peers and instructors, and as part of the most advanced, well-rounded, and immersive education you can have short of hitching a ride with Steinbeck and Charlie.

I realize that sounds very idealized, and possibly too good to be true, but until you have experienced a VR field trip to ancient Rome, learned about the water cycle in a half-dozen distinct environments within one lesson, or stood at the top of the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center, it is hard to understand just how profound this mode of learning is.  At OCA we are constantly working to expand our ability to engage scholars, introduce them to new experiences and knowledge, and like Steinbeck’s travel with Charley, to grow their empathy and awareness for the world and its citizens past and present, and as a result, to further our mission of instilling civic and moral virtue in future generations.