Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Travel Theorem

In Herbert Simon's Models of My Life, he states his "Travel Theorem":
  Anything that can be learned by a normal American adult on a trip to a foreign country (of less than one year's duration) can be learned more quickly, cheaply, and easily by visiting the San Diego Public Library. San Diego is not essential; you can substitute any other major city. (I conceived of the theorem when I was about to go to India, where I was supposed to acquire expertise in Indian management education and a good tan--in San Diego, I could have acquired both.) The theorem holds in spades if the traveler does not have a fluent knowledge of the language of the country visited.
 So most American adults, long before the grasp their first passport, have had contact with a wide range of human cultures. If they have been at all observant (if not, they will be no more so abroad), they will have learned what a peasant is, and what are his feelings toward the possession of land; they will have heard the political views of a blue-collar worker; they will have glimpsed the life of a Midwestern born-again Christian; they will have observed the flittings of Beautiful People, and the diligent journeys of salesmen.
  The theorem was discovered during a period when I was advising the Ford Foundation about its programs in management education. whevever the Foundation was considering a new program in a foreign land, it would sen out an an American expert to survey the scene in two weeks and return with recommendation. The expert need not have any background of knowledge about the country to be visited--only about, for example, American management education, if that was the topic. The procedure was so obviouisly ridiculous that the travel theorem came to me in an immediate Aha!
It is a pity that MIT Press has not found it worthwhile to keep the book in print...

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