It’s hard to pick a favorite part of an extended adventure like this one, because terrific moments just multiply so energetically. It’s a problem. But I find the “consecutive days” measure to be a useful one, comme ça: This weekend, in Derry, Northern Ireland, was the best four consecutive days of my semester thus far.

Why such a superlative? Some background. I was in Derry with seven other IAU kids to attend the Conference on Divided Societies. Sparing you the torturous travel details, we flew in on Thursday night, conferenced Thursday-Saturday, and flew out Sunday night. It was brilliant. Here’s why.

There is not really anything more amazing than finding yourself in a room with sixty-odd curious, intelligent, open-minded people. This conference draws study-abroad students from all over Europe, as well as grad students and students from the host school (in this case, the beautiful University of Ulster) – not to mention the adults, from experts on conflict resolution to a speaker from the US Institute of Peace (google it! probably the best-spent money in government) to a lady who was newly returned from peacekeeping work in Palestine. Because we were staying in hostels and eating meals together in addition to the official conference activities, this diverse collection of humans became a nearly instant community. Helped along by an invigoratingly egalitarian tone, in which the opinion of clueless undergrads such as myself was given the same consideration as the response of a career diplomat, this fostered some of the most honest and least charged discussion I’ve ever seen. Not that there weren’t tense moments (hard to avoid them when the libertarians get warmed up), but then we all went and got a beer, and that was the end of that.

Though there were piles of memorable moments (singing La Bamba at a pub at midnight with Spanish tourists; how our tour guide was probably the best actor I’ve ever seen, in the purest sense of finding a new truth in the same words, even the hundredth time; getting drinks with the prez of IAU on Friday night; arguments on political theory that lasted all through dinner and into dessert), here’s the one idea that’s going to stick with me, even when my notoriously poor medium-term memory has lost track of the specifics:

This is, as much as possible, how education should be conducted.

Hands of Peace statue, Derry.

Let’s be honest – Cornell College is not a big place. This can be true not only geographically but also conceptually. For the most part we are too similar, either in our opinions on important topics or our ignorance of them; we have largely comparable educational, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Our discussions become circular easily. None of which is to say that I don’t learn from fellow Cornellians – I absolutely do. But somehow it’s not quite the same as sitting in a circle with a trilingual German, a Dutch girl writing her Master’s thesis, an American attending a conservative undergrad business school, and an Irish reporter who describes herself as “not at all a capitalist.” I could actually feel my brain expanding. I have never learned so much about my own unconscious assumptions in one sitting.

Why isn’t everything we do based on dialogue? (this week’s Economist cartoon notwithstanding.) It wouldn’t have to be political dialogue, although pretty much everything worth debating is somehow “political”. What if an essential element of our secondary and post-secondary education was the opportunity to attend conferences on subjects that interested us? Can we resurrect Socrates and repurpose lecture halls? I do tend to fall asleep in lectures (there are witnesses to this across several continents). And also forget everything after the test is over. So, instead – teach us how to talk to each other? how to construct a verbal argument, how to present information, how to be real listeners? Train us, not to memorize, but to be problem-solvers, conflict-resolvers, critical thinkers, global skeptics, educated optimists. Bring us together, because it makes it a lot harder to forget that we’re all just people.

That’s the this-weekend-rearranged-my-brain-cells story. The other part of the story is Derry itself. Another “I have never”: I have never been to a city where history is so emphatically something that is still happening. The Troubles linger in the stones of the city, in the murals, in pub decorations, in the demographics of Derry’s neighborhoods; people button up shirts to hide crucifix necklaces before crossing the river. The peace settlement was brokered by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and the people there still honor their herculean efforts. Northern Ireland’s school system remains profoundly segregated between Catholic and Protestant children. The last bomb was last month. It’s difficult to describe – it’s just that everyone we met lived through it, or their parents did. Ancient ruins and 15th-century churches and 18th-century revolutions are important, I guess, but they are never going to seem as real to me as this courageous Irish city. Which is why, if I ruled the world, history would be taught chronologically backwards.

One of the multiple murals commemorating - remembering - the Troubles.

I seem to have left out vast swaths of important stuff, like most of the details of what we actually did, but as I could write about this forever, I’m instead going to stop here. Moral of the story, for me: Once, I let an opportunity like this pass by – never again. You just never know when you’re going to get on a plane to Ireland and come back a different person.

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