The technology of Camping, part 2

To pick up on the certain existential truths, things one already knows, but can easily forget in suburbia.

Aldo Leopold’s greatest hit


  1. that a human in wilderness is at the mercy of some powerful forces–weather, rivers, bugs, one’s mental and physical health, etc. [One remembers that one’s machine is fundamentally networked, subject to environmental effects, and only operates accordingly]
  2. that a human in wilderness must secure basics (food, water, shelter, sanitation) to stay healthy [that one’s machine needs nourishment, both physical, and–next–emotional]
  3. that a human similarly needs community (with its story-telling and values sharing ) to stay healthy, and [no machine works well by itself–we are social animals], and
  4. that because of his urgent needs, a human in wilderness can only somewhat effectively act purposefully [that one’s machine, un-modified, is only somewhat reliable

The technology of “wildnerness”–and by “technology” I mean the way in which it is instrumental, the way in which it works for civilized humans–is something the midwestern father of the green movement, Aldo Leopold saw. In his chapter on the Flambeau River in the million-selling Sand County Almanac (1949), Leopold says that nature, especially a canoe trip down the Flambeau River, allows a human space in which to organically learn: attempting, erring, succeeding, reflecting, and so learning. He is writing about these young men–recent college grads–who are about to go off to the war, and he recognizes how they are each “thrilled” by their circumstances.

“The elemental simplicities of wilderness travel [are ] thrills… because they represent complete freedom to make mistakes. The wilderness gave [the young men] their first taste of those rewards and penalties for wise and foolish acts which every woodsman faces daily, but against which civilization has built a thousand buffers”
Where is that freedom in our schools? Our test-preparation lessons are not designed for “failing up.” There are no complex, evolving, open-ended learning experiences in most classrooms, but these are at the core of the camping trip’s curriculum:  with each hardship came an exigent challenge–a series of critical questions that called on creative cognition. Camping is a series of these questions: What will you do in response to this problem? Why this option? instead of what?, etc. As a group and individually, student-campers pursued their own evolving answers — a wonderful example of long-form autonomous learning.
In our classrooms if our curricula ever impose meaningful  “hardships” on students, it is a miracle.  But in a camping trip such as this, it is the necessary norm. Activities like the go-karting (engaged in during the students’ “last night in civilzation”), managing a shared tent (and dealing with personal hygeine issues), shooting the “rapids” (and staying safe), and finally taking part in a team-building high-ropes course (and accomplishing team goals), students were encouraged and facilitated in confronting, analyzing, and deliberating alternative solutions to very present problems. And yes, of course they failed, but they were able to do so safely, with reflection, and so educationally too. All the campers were competent canoeists by the last day; all had had success as “winning” team members. 
The “test” of the camper-learner is the biosphere around him/her. Talk about being “engaged” in your learning is moot when a problem literally surrounds the camper (in hovering insect swarms, foraging bears, adverse weather conditions and the lack of dry shelter;  in the imminence of capsizing into a cold stream if one doesn’t act wisely and quickly). The camper is immersed in his/her learning, and the slow, organically paced wilderness experience might be one of the best way to experience long-form educational activity, long-term learning. There are schools that use wilderness so. I have heard of extreme schools for troubled teens that take place in the wilderness of the western desert. They stay on the trail and in campsites. I am reminded of the Norweigian kindergarten that takes place outdoors, and the way those kids emerge confident mountain climbers. So I’m only asking, Mr. Department of Education:

Arne Duncan, what are you doing for experiential learning, outdoor ed and a robust physical fitness component that includes brain nutrition?

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