As we approach summer and the Technology of Wilderness (via Camping)

I want to revisit a post from last summer when I had just experienced a strong dose of Nature on the Flambeau River, in northern Wisconsin (depicted in this blog’s current masthead and in this post. I wanted to connect my experiences with a vision of better schooling.

I wrote about the important lessons that Nature teaches everyone:
Nature reminds canoe travelers who’s boss.
  1. that a human in wilderness is at the mercy of powerful forces–among the most obvious: weather, rivers, bugs, and one’s mental and physical health. In Nature one recalls how closely one’s machine is fundamentally networked to everything, subject to the environment, constrained to operate within it and with it.
  2. that a human in wilderness requires certain physical conditions (food, water, shelter, sanitation) to stay functional. One recalls how one’s machine needs fuel, both physical and emotional.
  3. and that similarly, a human in wilderness requires certain social conditions, a sense of connection or community. One recalls how necessary are story-telling and values sharing, how they are in fact the same– that a social animal cannot stay emotionally healthy all by itself.

Aldo Leopold saw the way “wilderness” functions as a learning “technology” for civilized man, the way it can stimulate and foster healthy development. Going to the wilderness, Leopold says in the Flambeau chapter of his million-selling Sand County Almanac (1949), allows a human space to organically learn and develop: to attempt, err, succeed, reflect, and so to learn. Leopold writes about these young men–recent college grads–he encounters on the river. When they return to civilization, they will march off to the war and its horrors, but for now, part of a primitive eco-system, they feel “thrilled” by their circumstances:

Aldo Leopold’s great hit

The elemental simplicities of wilderness travel were thrills… because they represented a complete freedom to make mistakes. The wilderness gave them 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. [emphasis added]

Their “thrill” comes from a distinctly modern and human emotion–the thrill of being able to freely and safely learn in stimulating but benign conditions. In the war, or even in college or the workplace, mistakes are costly, and people will suffer. No so much in Wisconsin’s north woods. 
When the Flambeau gets rough, you must adjust!

Can educators in the city create a simulating, benign place for our children to learn, to enjoy the “freedom to make mistakes”? How would a school with wilderness trip qualities look? 

For one thing, kids would be engaged in reality-based problems. While canoe-camping, one is surrounded by real problems: hovering insect swarms, foraging bears, adverse weather conditions, the lack of dry shelter, the imminence of capsizing into a cold stream if one doesn’t act wisely and quickly. Activities like go-karting (before the students’ “last night in civilzation”), managing a shared tent (and dealing with personal hygeine issues), shooting the “rapids” (and staying safe), or taking part in a team-building high-ropes course (and accomplishing team goals), evoke strong learning and a sense of pride in accomplishment in students. 
On the other hand, test-prep programs are not designed for “failing up.” There are no complex, evolving, open-ended learning experiences in classrooms “Racing to the Top” of the US Dept. of Education’s Sisyphusian mountain.

Kids in wilderness-quality schools would be encouraged and facilitated to confront, analyze, and deliberate alternate solutions to exigent problems. Failure would be built-in to the design, and reflection on failure, too. And at the end of the course, students would have real competencies and have experienced some “winning” with their team. 

There are schools already that use wilderness. I have heard of extreme schools for troubled teens in the wilds of the US western desert. Kids stay on the trail and off drugs, etc. I am reminded of the Norweigian kindergarten that takes place outdoors, too, and the way those kids emerge confident mountain climbers ready for life. 

So, Arne Duncan, how about it:

Why not utilize our great outdoors this summer to inspire new learning experiences in AND out of school buildings?

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