Every year, I present a message to the incoming first year students at Earlham College who elect to come to college early to participate in August Wilderness— an outdoor pre-orientation program of three weeks that takes place in Utah (backpacking) and Canada (canoeing). What follows is my message from this year (2015).
“On behalf of the College, I’d like to welcome parents, relatives, siblings, and students to Earlham and to our August Wilderness program. For those of you I have yet to meet, my name is Jay Roberts and I am the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Earlham.
Recently, I have been reading a proposal for a new book entitled “Adventurous Learning: A Pedagogy for a Changing World” by Simon Beames and Mike Brown and I was intrigued by the premise of the title: “adventurous learning.” In the introduction, the authors state:
We are calling for a reappraisal of educational activities of all kinds, so that students can experiment, learn from trial and error, and make mistakes without the threat of physical or psychological harm. This is not wrapping our students in cotton wool; it is about providing space for experimentation within carefully considered boundaries. Indeed, powerful learning experiences can come about when neither the teacher nor the students know the solution to a given problem and must work together to find it.
Adventurous learning, then, must move beyond the given, the known, and the scripted. Adventure, someone once said, is what happens when things don’t go according to plan. Like the authors, I believe some of the best, most transformative learning happens in just these kinds of contexts.
If there is one thing that I can pretty much guarantee about your upcoming wilderness experience, it’s that things won’t go according to plan. That place that looked great for camping on the map turns out to be a mosquito infested swamp. That delicious dinner of cheesy couscous you whipped up with your tarpmates winds up looking (and tasting) like slightly burned dog vomit. That kid you thought was annoying the first two days turns out to be your best friend.
Yet even if we can recognize the benefits of adventure, we still tend to shy away from it in our daily lives. We have lots of gadgets, devices, and structures to help us defend against uncertainty. We don’t like not knowing. For example, some of you probably used a smart phone and a mapping program to get here this morning. That helpful lady on the phone tells you when exactly to turn and even what time, down to the minute, that you will arrive. If you want to know, as comedian Pete Holmes once said, where Tom Petty is from, you can simply ask your phone and, viola, that momentary sense of wonder is relieved instantly with an answer! It’s Florida by the way. Even simple internet searches have now been cut short by the “autofill” phenomenon. As if the momentary uncertainty of typing in a word or phrase was too much, Google now tries to help you out by filling in the rest or, worse, telling you that your original search query was wrong to begin with—that Google actually knows what you want more than you do. You type “Dayton tuxedo rental” with a few spelling errors and Google replies “did you mean Death Cab for Cutie?”
But true adventure, and adventurous learning, is a completely different experience than this. As Beames and Brown note, adventure can be defined through the essential elements of risk, uncertainty, authenticity, and responsibility. Brushing your teeth, for example, would not be considered an adventure. It’s an activity that is common and known—a ritual we do everyday. There is nothing uncertain or risky about that experience. That’s an easy one. But what about going on a roller coaster ride? Isn’t that risky? While you might get nervous about riding the “Atomic Drop”, this is a contrived and staged thrill—it lacks the authenticity and personal responsibility of a true adventure. It is something done to you, not something you at least partly own and develop yourself. Now, how about going to college? To me, this is absolutely an adventure—it involves all the elements in question: risk, uncertainty, authenticity, and responsibility.
And, this is particularly true at Earlham. This is a place that creates lots of learning environments where, as the authors of the book state: “neither the teacher nor the students know the solution to a given problem and must work together to find it.”
Our mission statement at Earlham talks about the pursuit of Truth wherever it leads. Sometimes the truth comes from a single individual capable of enlightening the masses. But, more often, it comes slowly, tentatively, and incompletely through dialogue, deliberation, and social interaction. Practicing an education where we tackle complex, unscripted problems without easy answers requires that students and faculty learn alongside each other—cooperatively and collaboratively. In the end, while Google is a useful tool, it cannot answer the most important questions of life—questions of love, justice, truth, and beauty. At a time when we have readymade, easy answers at our finger tips, it is the deeper, open-ended, and more complex questions we should be wrestling with. This is one of our core values and beliefs at Earlham—the power of the open-ended question (what Quakers call “queries”) in the pursuit of truth.
And it is just these kinds of questions that inspire adventurous learning. One faculty member here loves to say: “we want to be comfortable being uncomfortable.” We expect students to wrestle with ambiguity, learn to become more comfortable with uncertainty, and see things from multiple perspectives. These are fundamental traits of a liberal arts education. And, as it turns out, these traits must be practiced and refined. “Adventurous learning” then, is not something that happens to you, it becomes something to own within yourself. It is an acquired skill, a capacity, a life orientation. On August Wilderness, you will practice this in big and small ways. Whether that involves trying to figure out, as a group, what “wilderness” and “nature” really mean, where you are on a map without using Google, or who you really are, deep down, on your reflective solo. All these experiences build up your capacity, your “tolerance” so to speak, for adventurous learning. And I can promise you, that by practicing these capacities over the next few weeks, you will be better prepared to thrive at Earlham and beyond.
In 1982, Sigurd Olson, the famous environmentalist and nature writer of the US north woods, went out on a snowshoe one cold winter morning outside his cabin in Ely, MN. Sadly, he collapsed and died of a heart attack during his hike. Some days later his wife found a single sentence left on his type writer in his study that he must have written just before he went out on his walk. It read: “a new adventure is coming and I know it will be a good one.”
So, to the students (and parents and friends) I say “a new adventure is coming and I know it will be a good one”—both on August Wilderness and at Earlham. It won’t always be easy and I cannot guarantee you an experience free of hardship. But by learning to embrace adventure—and adventurous learning— in all its wonderful variability, I can promise you a more interesting and meaningful life.
I’d like to close with a poem that speaks, I think, to this ability to embrace adventure. The poem, entitled appropriately enough “Summer Day,” is by Mary Oliver. In the last stanza, she asks a simple question that speaks to embracing adventure and, I hope, inspires you as you begin both your wilderness and your college journey.”
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?