Getting Around Again: Paradoxes of Mobility

Apr 29, 2022 4:30:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President for Strategic Engagement Dr. Michael Woolf.


In this column, Dr. Mike Woolf examines the paradox between the environmental impact of traveling, privilege, and educational enrichment. He also talks about the positive technological leap into virtual mobility and the sensory drawbacks in a post-pandemic world. 


In March, I traveled to Chicago to attend the Forum on Education Abroad conference. Not so long ago that would have been unremarkable but, in our recent circumstances, it was very special. It was a pleasure to dig out the dusty suitcase, resurrect the moribund suits, and redundant ties. These accoutrements had no place in zoom land of course[1] but, in Chicago it felt just right to be uncomfortable again. My suits had mysteriously become smaller. 

It was a great event, as much as anything because we were able to rebuild our community. It was even nice to see people we didn’t like much— we sort of forgot why. We were, Hallelujah, like our students, mobile again. 

Going in Search of America

As an observer from across the Atlantic, I think that American journeys accrue a mystique and generate mythologies in ways not readily found in European perspectives. Wilderness, for example, is not the absence of something but a space inviting exploration and reflection. The frontier in American history and myth, in addition to the size of the country, may have much to do with the way in which journeys are invested with heightened metaphorical potency. The road movie is essentially an American genre.The “hobo,” unlike a “tramp,” is, at one level, a romantic figure representing something of a dying American ethos, as expressed in Bob Dylan’s elegy: “Only a hobo, but one more is gone.” While “only” indicates a socio-economic assessment, “but” hints at a quasi-iconic status. 

The significance of movement is exemplified in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road:

Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there
Where we going, man?
I don’t know but we gotta go

The protagonist is in search of reconnection with something elusive, perceived as missing in modern America. As with many of the Beats, stylistic innovation co-existed with a form of conservativism. The protagonist seeks to reconnect with a version of the American past: a pre-mechanized, pre-commercialized, purer world, often envisaged through the poetic imagination. Kerouac describes a secular pilgrimage: 

Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. 

Dorothy’s journey in the film of Frank Baum’s novel, The Wizard of Oz is along a comparable route. “Follow the yellow-brick road” leads to “somewhere over the rainbow.” This is the place for which we yearn, however elusive or illusory it may ultimately prove to be; therein exotic mysteries are found, and love is a color.[2] The journey is towards an America reconstructed in the imagination. 

That inter-relationship between mobility and reflection resonates within the context of education abroad. We aspire to move through space literally and metaphorically, to enter, ultimately, into the landscape of mind and heart. The line between travel and introspection is porous.

Beyond Euphoria

Home again, post-euphoria, it was inevitable, then, to reflect upon mobility. The impact of travel upon the environment was discussed at length at the Forum. I feel, like many others I suspect, a sort of helpless unease. I also wonder why responsibility (even guilt) seems to be placed primarily upon the consumer of travel services (us, our students) rather than upon the agents of pollution. An environmental priority should surely be to divert the gargantuan profits made by oil companies away from shareholders towards urgent research into cleaner fuels.

In any case, trying to restrict travel, human curiosity about unfamiliar places, is akin to striving to put the cork back into a champagne bottle—it can’t really be done. The environmental impact issue reminds us, however, that mobility exists in paradox.

In a British television series, Great Continental Railway Journeys, the presenter and ex-politician Michael Portillo notes the enormous impact of railways in the development of a European identity. “Citizens and ideas move freely,” creating commercial and human connections undreamt of before train networks shrunk distances. However, the positive consequences on the screen collide with images that represent an alternative narrative. Images of involuntary, desperate mobility are daily features of the news from the Ukraine.

This collision demonstrates the darker side of mobility. In education abroad we enjoy great privilege. Our journeys are towards pleasure and enrichment—going to, not fleeing from. Global inequalities and suffering reside in the space between “I want to go” and “I have to go.” 

From the great technological leaps forward in transport in the 19th century to the satellites and missiles of the 21st, ambiguities have accumulated. Trains enabled the development of pleasure resorts in many parts of the world. Trains also went to Auschwitz. Holocaust survivor, Rabbi Hugo Gryn, characterized the 20th century as “the century of refugees.”

Virtual Mobility and Education Abroad

Our necessary sojourn in “virtual reality,” during the worst of the pandemic, taught us something about that space. Valuable lessons may be learned there but it is not a replacement for mobility. In movement through space, we encounter serendipity, become beneficiaries and victims of chance. Things are not under our control. In virtual space we move and stay still at the same time. Horizons are contained within the computer screen. Sensory encounters are limited to sight and sound; we cannot touch or be touched; smell the roses or suffer the stench of decay. If what we see on the screen becomes too uncomfortable, we have the power to switch it off. Akin to the book, it is a medium controlled by the user. 

Post-pandemic student demand is overwhelmingly for the challenges and rewards of physical encounters in unpredictable, unfamiliar spaces. Access to those experiences, as we well know, is easier for some than for others. The need for justice and equity in the operational practices of education abroad is starkly evident. 

In the longer view, however, there has been significant progress in increasing access. The history of student travel since the end of World War 2 is often overlooked. In 1947, Fulbright-inspired legislation released military ships to be refitted as student transport. Subsequently and up to the late 1970s, air travel for education abroad was mostly based upon charter flights. 

A necessary pre-condition for growth in education abroad is the relative democratization of international travel.Since the 1950s, the cost of flying has fallen significantly in real terms. In 1955, for example, a one-way ticket across the Atlantic on Trans World Airlines cost more than £5,000 in 2019 equivalent value. The costs of flying were, for most people, prohibitively high.

The critical legislation that enabled mass student mobility from the USA was the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. The Act removed federal government control and established a free market in the commercial airline industry. As a consequence, competition intensified, the cost of international flights fell, and an environment emerged in which education abroad could grow.

Deconstructing the Languages of Mobility

Refugee, outcast, nomad, flâneur, flâneuse, pariah, cosmopolitan, hobo, pilgrim, tramp, missionary, migrant, tourist: these are just some of the ways in which we name versions of mobility, and they illustrate inherent ambiguities. For a privileged elite, journeys are towards things positive. In a global context, mobility may be involuntarily and traumatic. Others may be precluded from mobility by poverty or politics. 

The contrasting contexts in which we might perceive mobility are illustrated in these examples:


In classical Rome and Greece expulsion was a punishment for the most serious of crimes. This is represented, for example, in Euripides’ play Medea, written almost 500 years before the birth of Christ. The Roman poet Ovid (born in 43 BC) spent the last 10 years of his life exiled by Emperor Augustus. Biblical sources also tell of enforced expulsion, mostly painfully from Eden. Additionally, the first murderer, Cain, is told by God that: “A fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth” Genesis 4 KJV

In early-modern European Christian myth, Jews and Roma were doomed to wander because of perceived complicity in the suffering of Jesus. The Wandering Jew derives from a Christian legend of the shoemaker who denied Christ rest or comfort:

Being weary thus, he sought for rest,
To ease his burthened soule,
Upon a stone; the which a wretch
Did churlishly controule;
And sayd, “Awaye, thou king of Jewes,
Thou shalt not rest thee here…”

Anonymous Ballad [3]

Roma are similarly cursed as, according to legend, they made the nails that crucified Christ. The rootless Roma and the Wandering Jew suffer permanent mobility. 

Connections between Roma and Jews go further than legend. They have a common history of persecution and expulsion, given spurious legitimacy through histories and myths that dehumanized both groups. They were marked as outcasts, cursed wanderers, alien intruders with deadly consequences in the Holocaust.

Mobility as punishment is not limited to the distant histories. From the mid-18th century for 80 years, around 162,000 convicts and political prisoners from Britain were transported to Australia.

April 2022 Column Photo 1

Caption: Boarding a convict ship, Portsmouth, England.

In an ironic transformation, subsidized travel (the 10-pound scheme) tempted more than a million migrants to take the same route between 1945 and 1972. Mobility as punishment became mobility in search of betterment: the pursuit of a promised land.

April 2022 Column Photo 2

Caption: In search of a better life.

Seeking a Promised Land

Journeys have great significance in most major religions.

And the Lord spake unto Moses, Go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him,
Thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me.

Exodus 8 KJV

Exodus combines three influential narratives: escape from slavery, the search for a promised land, and epiphanies or visions experienced on the journey. The idea of a promised land is embedded in American political rhetoric. The story of Moses offers an inspirational metaphor in the Civil Rights movement, as in this speech by Martin Luther King:

If … the Almighty said to me which age would you like to live in?...
I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt … through the wilderness on toward the promised land.[4]

During 40 years of wandering, the Jews received the word of God through the Ten Commandments. Similar epiphanies during journeys occur repeatedly in world religions. Jesus confronted demons in the desert. In 1844, Brigham Young followed a vision to lead his followers to a promised land. Buddha wandered in search of enlightenment. In 620, Muhammad toured heaven and hell with the angel Gabriel and spoke with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

Mobility is more than a route from A to B. Within world religions, it offered pathways towards God. The hermit travels inward into the self to find spiritual meaning. The pilgrim journeys into space in search of the same objective. 

Pilgrimages were not always inspired by such pure aspirations. The Christian pilgrims of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c.1388 – 1400) are a motley gathering, “sondry folk,” who in due course, reveal that spiritual issues are not in the forefront of their minds. They gather for good company, pleasure, and, most importantly, security. The journey from London to Canterbury in the 14th century would have been perilous for any lone traveler:

 Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Of, by áventure y-falle
In felaweshipe…

A group of 29 travelers created fellowship and safety.

However, pilgrimages continue to have the significance envisaged by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010: 

To go on pilgrimage is not simply to visit a place to admire its treasures of nature, art or history … To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God.

For Muslims, the Hajj attracts an estimated 15 million pilgrims each year. Varanasi is visited by approximately four million Hindus annually. For Jews, the Wailing Wall, a remnant of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem, attracts approximately eight million annually. Over 300,000 people take part in the Camino de Santiago. Somewhere between six to eight million people visit Lourdes. The Alliance of Religions and Conservation estimated that, pre-pandemic, around 155 million people participated in one pilgrimage or another each year.

The Secular Pilgrimage

The pilgrim is a traveler seeking iconic places considered rich in profound possibilities. The idea of a secular pilgrimage is, thus, not an oxymoron. For the American literary expatriates of the 1920s, Malcolm Cowley noted that: “a long sojourn in France was almost a pilgrimage to Holy Land”.[5] Generations of Americans have been drawn to the idea that the great cities of Europe are repositories of history, sophistication, and high culture: a dreamed landscape, a secular shrine.[6]

The development of motor transport created other types of secular pilgrimage. The open road, along which Kerouac traveled, is expansive space rich in the possibilities of exploration and discovery. Route 66 has acquired something of a mythic status. The fact that it has to be searched for and now exists in fragments adds to its iconic status: a lost route through and into the heart of America.

April 2022 Column Photo 3

Caption: Remnants of Route 66.

The trail has also acquired a particular significance in America. A trail may be invested with historical meaning and generate national myths. The Turquoise Trail from Santa Fe to Albuquerque offers, for example, a version of Native American society, allied with histories of mining, and pioneer ingenuity. The Appalachian Trail is constructed to take the hiker into unspoiled, virgin territory, to enter a myth of innocence, and, thus, to avoid the industrial blight that deforms parts of the region. The concept of the Oregon Trail resonates with a critical event in the development of the USA, a symbol of national resilience and courage.In contrast, the Trail of Tears (1830–1850) represents national disgrace: government authorized ethnic cleansing. Some 46,000 Native Americans were driven from their homelands in the southeast to allow white settlers to occupy their land.

April 2022 Column Photo 4

Caption: Up to 15,000 may have died on the Trail of Tears.

Conclusion: Privilege and Pain

A myriad of factors including technological change, political will, prejudice, aspiration, competing ideologies, and myths shape the ways in which we perceive mobility. Mobility pollutes and enriches. It involves spaces that exist in geography and imagination. 

There is an evident lesson here. The ability to travel and the means of travel are privileges. This is not what the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948 says:

Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

 “Universal” applies only to those who enjoy the gifts of birth, place, time, and money. 

In 2019, there were around 6 million “international” students. [7]

In 2019, the number of displaced people were estimated at about 76.5 million. [8]

Therein the paradoxes of mobility are hideously, starkly obvious.


[1] For a discussion of the etiquette of dress in that space see: 

[2] The literary technique of combining senses is often used to suggest raised, altered, or intensified consciousness (synesthesia). “Tender is the night” from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” was taken by Scott Fitzgerald as the title of his fourth novel. In The Great Gatsby, he describes cocktail music as yellow. Emily Dickinson describes the flight of a bee thus: “With Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz.”

[3] There are many versions of the story. This is typical and was first published in 1765 within an anthology of old English verse: Thomas Percy. (1858 version): Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, vol. 2., James Nichol, Edinburgh.

[4] “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top,” April 3, 1968.

[5] Mark Cowley. (1934 rev.1951a): Exiles Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s ed. D. Faulkner, Penguin Books, London.

[6] A fuller discussion of the implications in education abroad may be found in my essay “The Baggage they Carry” (Frontiers, 2011): 

[7] UNESCO estimates.

[8] The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimate.


Thanks, Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Michael Woolf is Deputy President for Strategic Engagement of CAPA: The Global Education Network. Mike has had much of his career in an international context. Prior to working in mainstream international education, he completed a PhD in American Studies and taught literature at the universities of Hull, Middlesex, Padova, and Venice. For four years he worked as a researcher-writer for BBC radio. He has held leadership roles in international education for many years and has written widely on international education and cultural studies. Much of his work has focused on areas of strategic development with particular focus on the status and credibility of education abroad within the wider academic community. He serves on a number of boards and was a member of the Board of Directors of The Forum on Education Abroad from 2006 to 2012. He was the recipient of the Peter A. Wollitzer Advocacy Award (2020) from the Forum on Education Abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: London, England, International Education