“This is impossible” I thought or maybe even said out loud. I saw instructor Dave far out beyond me on the other end of what seemed like an interminably long and narrow log, the penultimate leg of the rope course. I began to walk, worried about the direction of my feet, feeling cold and sweating at the same time as I thought of the distance below. Suddenly I focused on my breathing, deep audible inhales, long slow exhales. And I started walking. The world fell away around me, and all there was was the log and Dave’s beckoning hand. I breathed deeper, and deeper, my chest rising and falling visibly, dramatically. My mind suddenly still and calm. The world pulled away from the rich auburn log like a receding tide and suddenly it was me, the earth, and the beckoning companionship of a fellow spirit.
– Carmen James, OB Journal, North Carolina 2012
The overarching question both today and a hundred years ago is “What are the aims of education?” It has become increasingly obvious that the aim is not merely knowledge acquisition. It is not merely learning to perform well on tests or even make connections between ideas and information. It is is not even just to think critically, per se, but more than this, to think in a philosophical sense. And by being able “to think,” I mean to be able to map out the course of one’s actions and ideas in the community of others. I mean being able to see new solutions in the face of obstacles, to identify and follow one’s own curiosity. To be thoughtful, empathetic, and persistent with ideas.
The Outward Bound curriculum transcends the mountain experience. As Josh Miner wrote in the book Outward Bound USA: Crew not Passengers, on Outward Bound participants learn not about the mountains but through the mountains, a pedagogy of being impelled into experience that founder Kurt Hahn believed to be critically important. One learns outdoor skills, but in learning those skills, one also learns teamwork and self-reliance in the higher aim of learning to overcome adversity. The course is designed in such a way that you must actively participate, you must face physical, emotional, and interpersonal challenges, you must remain mentally calm and alert to operate effectively, and you must learn to care for yourself and others in order to function.
A compelling and important concept to remember is Outward Bound’s model of challenge by choice. That is, students meet challenges in a caring and supportive environment. Students develop the capacity to express themselves and their emotional state, for example, by talking about comfort, stretch, and panic zones. The design of the course involves direct instruction in the first third of the course, supervision in the second, and then by the third part of the course the students are running the show, discovering and feeling their own self-reliance and potential, both individually and as a group.
The Outward Bound for Educators course began by driving to a remote location, meeting instructors, and packing up backpacks. It was based out of the Table Rock base camp in Asheville, North Carolina, and the breathtaking views on the drive up were nothing compared to the views we were to achieve on our on hikes. At the trailhead, we played ice-breaker and team-building games before the challenge: forging a stream with our backpacks on to reach our camp site. The process of setting up camp, improvising a kitchen, and performing all the ritual tasks of initiating an Outward Bound course, such as daily readings, job distributions, dinner circle, meant we had our latest night of the trip. Dinner was not until after midnight.
Over the course of the next few days, we developed the strengths and capacities to survive in the outdoors. We gained physical strength as we hiked and scaled rock faces with backpacks and all. Over the course of eight days, our group built bonds at what seemed an unimaginably quick pace. We developed mental strength in the form of self-reliance, patience and calmness in the face of unpredictable conditions and challenges.
The experience was personally and professionally transformative. And it was meant to be that way. I learned the impact a curriculum can have when an overarching philosophical vision streams through it. The mountain setting, craftsmanship of building tents and tying knots, mapping and communication lessons became secondary to the fact that the instructors, working within the larger Outward Bound curriculum, were able to teach practical skills and life philosophy in an integrated way, so that individual participants were able to use those skills and philosophy in their own lives in the short span of eight days.
As teachers, we were fascinated to experience what it felt like to be truly in the unknown, on the other side of the lesson plan, feeling at times as if not everything made sense or that things were hard because we weren’t given enough guidance (the lack of guidance was intentional). Being a student helped us as educators to develop empathy as we discussed what it must be like for some of our own students in our classes.
The Outward Bound for Educators course ended with a reflection and workshop for participants that marked the beginning of the year-long workshop. The workshop allows the educators to synthesize their experience and think about applications for their school communities.
Since the course, I have read and reflect on implications for this course today, at Riverdale and in public and private schools in the United States. When Hahn visited Philips Academy, he said “Phillips Academy is like a ship on a first-class voyage through education, but without a member of the crew in sight”(p 65, Outward Bound USA: Crew not Passengers). He meant, as Miner goes on to write, “students, in his thinking the most visible part of the crew, were only passengers on this cruise”(65). The educational aim is to make students active crew members in the process of their learning. This means developing critical thinking and a deeper understanding of the nature and purpose of schooling.
Outward Bound principles and course design offer ways of thinking of meaningful projects or experiences that RCS students could have in the community that would build lasting ties.
In his design of Gordonstoun, the school he founded in the UK in the 1930s, Kurt Hahn was adamant that students of all socio-economic backgrounds be part of the school community. He called for such representation not only because a diversity of experiences benefited the school, but also because if we are committed to a just vision of the world, to a belief in core democratic ideals, and to the idea that school initiates students into that world, then we have no other choice but to create that world in our schools.
Outward Bound is not just about building a community within a team or within school walls. It’s about empathy, responsibility, and action outside the school walls and in the larger community.
This is a key point to reflect on in the Bronx community and with Riverdale’s partner schools in the surrounding communities and the vast economic divide in the Bronx. A program that emphasizes facing adversity, team-building, relying on oneself, and realizing everyone’s fullest potential would by hugely beneficial to public, private, and charter schools.