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Can the Mountains Speak for Themselves?


Thomas James

Colorado Outward Bound School



Several years ago, a course director named Rustie Baillie coined the phrase, "Let the mountains speak for themselves". He was reacting against pressures in the Colorado Outward Bound School to verbalize student experience on courses and to use counseling techniques to manage the group process of patrols. Baillie was not the first to react. In interviewing staff and trustees from the early years of Outward Bound in this country, I discovered that the issue was as vehemently debated then as it is today. In fact, the debate began right after the first season in 1962 when there was a falling out about whether to instill an "intellectual element" in courses, and since then there have been plenty of historical examples of the rift. In 1964 the school director required nightly staff debriefings on the meaning of each day’s activities in the base camp at Marble, and one staff member of those years told me that instructors breathed a sigh of relief when it came time to go on the six-day alpine expedition. In 1966 the chief climbing instructor tried to introduce a written guide to counseling techniques. In 1967 or so there started to be readings and other written materials available for use in the field. By the next year there was an outline to help foster spiritual awareness.

In the years since then there have been other examples of the urge to intensify the counseling, teaching and therapeutic aspects of working for Outward Bound. For those who were not sympathetic it was all cant and crud they had to clear away to run a straightforward Outward Bound course. For those who were sympathetic, the school’s support for this kind of skill was not anywhere near adequate. Many felt, and still feel today, that there would have to be a great expansion of human relations techniques in Outward Bound before the program could offer its students personal growth that would transfer to their lives back home.

The issue has been around long enough to make me conclude that it is one of those defining tensions that is built into the identity of Outward Bound and will never go away. At the risk of offending many people who have strong feelings and a lot of their own lives wrapped up in the issue, I am going to summarize a few perspectives that I have heard or witnessed. I will add a couple of thoughts of my own, for whatever they might be worth to others. Finally, I will sum up the issue in a way that I hope will be conducive to further discussion among staff. The purpose of this paper is not to fix one point of view as right and good. It is merely to give others some tools for thinking about their own roles as Outward Bound instructors. I hope my thoughts will be a stimulus to continue the discussion wherever it may lead, not to end it or demand a certain outcome.

To begin with, it seems to me that the people who are saying anything equivalent to "Let the mountains speak for themselves" are also saying something more, which is that instructors can rely on the overall structure of the Outward Bound course to give their students a good experience. They can rely on a training sequence, a way of grouping students and committing them to task performance, activities like solo and the rappel etc. In an evening discussion on Kurt Hahn last winter, course director Chris Brown put it well when he said that no matter what else might be added on, he always comes back to the tried and true activity structure of the course. The rappel works; the expedition teaches; solo asks the questions that need to be asked.

So the point is not exactly that the mountains do the teaching. It is that the training sequence we are using is a remarkably effective way to help people to learn in the mountains. When it is applied in a straightforward way, then the mountains, which we might as well translate to mean "Necessity" or "Natural Process" , do in fact teach their valuable lessons to all who are willing to make the effort.

This is what Jon Waterman was driving at in the last Staff Newsletter when he said that "a patrol’s experiences need relatively little ‘instructor facilitation’ in the realm of an intensive twenty-two day mountain expedition". The experience happens naturally if instructors are skilled enough to take their students safely through the adventurous activities that make up Outward Bound, and when they do that, the mountains are extraordinary teachers indeed. From what I have been able to gather as a newcomer to Outward Bound, this is what the British instructors have generally represented in the Outward Bound movement in America: strong, taciturn, no-nonsense mountaineers who look like the type who have saved lives and mastered impossible situations, but who would never want to make a big deal about it. They want students to know by experience. They want to keep other activities and "head trips" from hampering the direct experience of mountain wilderness, teacher extraordinaire.

Having said that much - and I think it is obvious that much more could be said - I want to add only two points about this perspective. To begin with, on the positive side, mountaineering per se is an activity that requires a high degree of consciousness and self-scrutiny. The same is true, I believe, of river running. Sometimes it is tempting for educators and psychological buffs to depict the action side of Outward Bound as devoid of reflection, when in fact that life of actions is often composed of mental activity of the most significant kind. As I see it, the so-called "rock jocks" are not pushing a low-consciousness activity. From an educational standpoint, I would interpret their point of view to be saying that the learning that takes place naturally and integrally on an Outward Bound course does not need elaborate verbalization and testing in a controlled group process in order to be conscious, useful and transferable.

On the negative side, letting the mountains speak for themselves means that the staff may be transmitting little culture and few values other than those of mountain living and expeditions. There is a danger, cited by a staff member in another Outward Bound school a few years ago, that this kind of teaching could amount to saying, "We are the people and this is the life." The lesson then would be one of self-absorption: "We are a strong, beautiful, alienated elite that treasures above all else this lifestyle and these awesome mountains. Don’t you want to be like us?" I am putting the argument in an extreme form to make a point. There may not be a single person in the whole Outward Bound movement who exemplifies the extreme. But there cannot help be some tendency that way in anyone who loves the mountains and is young. Moreover, in a program in which formal ideology is to teach through the mountains and not for them, any instructor worth his/her salt is going to assume that you have to do a lot of teaching for before you have a safe and adventurous context to teach through. Yet, if the learning ends at mountain living, then is it not at least debatable whether the life-stylist may have given their students short shrift?

Usually during the past year when I have heard people talking about this issue, they put "rock-jocks" (or some more or less derogatory phrase) on one side and "touchy feelies" on the other. I hope I have said enough about the former so that anyone who is not sympathetic to them will take a fresh look at their point of view, perhaps seeing in a new light the excellences and depths of human response that they are capable of bringing to an Outward Bound course. Similarly, I hope that what I am about to say on the other side will give pause to those who are intent on letting the mountains speak for themselves, a pause long enough to consider why some people might want to explore other possibilities on a course. One surprising discovery I made this year while researching the history of the Colorado Outward Bound school was that student impressions of courses are remarkably consistent even where different styles of instruction were involved. It seems that all kinds of instructors can impel students into a good Outward Bound experience. This suggests to me that no one has a corner on the best way to do Outward Bound. Ultimately, the differences do not represent conflict so much as they reflect creativity. What this says to me is that no one stands to lose from greater communication and a wider range of sympathies.

So why do some people want to spend more time verbalising the experiences of students on an Outward Bound course? If we ask this question, we might as well also ask another one: Why has this school, which was originally staffed mostly by mountaineers and ex-military men, drawn so many educators and social worker types since the mid-1960s? The answer to the latter question is that these people have found an intensity of learning and being in Outward Bound that usually does not exist in conventional institutions. Isn’t this what has brought us all to Outward Bound? But they also look for a connection between that intensity and the life to which students return. This is really what is meant by teaching through the mountains and not for them. And this is why, in the model developed by Vic Walsh and Jerry Golins, and also the similar one developed by Ron Gager, to explain the learning process of Outward Bound, they say that the outcome of the stress, challenge and mastery in an unfamiliar environment should be to reorient the meaning and direction of the learner’s life experience. Direct experience is the key, but there must be some way to help the student beyond immediate consumption of experiences to the greater challenges of improving their lives back home. The usual label is "transference", helping students to transfer their newfound competence and confidence back to an environment that may not sustain them so excitingly as Outward Bound did.

The people who talk about education and personal growth and group process are not denying that challenge and adventure are the bedrock of Outward Bound. They are not seeking verbalization and reflections instead of action, but in addition to action, as an enhancement and not as a substitute. Now, as I did with other perspectives, I’d like to make only two additional points here, one positive and one negative, though of course there is much more than could (and I hope will) be said.

On the positive side, the verbalising point of view is sensible because it reflects the way most people go about learning and making changes in their lives. I will first say what I mean by this in the abstract; then I will describe how it might appear on a course in the field. In the abstract (and please bear with me if you are not sympathetic to this kind of talk about Outward Bound), educators are apt to follow John Dewey’s notion that the challenge of any form of education is to select present experiences that will live fruitfully and creatively in future experience. Few would disagree with this. Dewey, who was probably the greatest educational thinker ever produced in this country, wrote of learning as an experiential continuum, a continuity of growth experiences. But here is where the disagreement begins, because he characterized learning not as the experience itself, but as thinking about experience. So a form of education like Outward Bound that provides intense experiences also needs to provide tools for thinking about those experiences, for tying what has happened on a course into the experiential continuum of those who have passed through it. Another equally abstract way of saying this comes from social scientists who have studied learning behaviour and concluded that the experience of the learner must be generalized into the learner’s repertoire of skills and knowledge. Students need help to draw inferences, to see the pattern that connects their continuous experience. And this is precisely why we have schools, even those as informal and far-flung as the Colorado Outward Bound School.

In a less abstract vein, the process of thinking about experience doesn’t have to be either a church social or a Mazola party. It can be as integral to the experiences as is skills instruction, if handled skillfully It might be only a well-placed word here or there on a course, some perspective on nutrition or safety or physical exercise, a sincere but non-judgmental suggestion of the possibilities back home, perhaps just an openness to someone who is thinking out loud about the past - and beyond this, some knowledge of things that work in helping students to reflect on their experience. This could be as simple as an initiative game or as elaborate as an intensive journal, depending on the circumstances. It could be a chat about energy use while doing the dishes or a nightlong rap on philosophy and previous lives around glowing embers. As in the teaching of skills, it is crucial to maintain the pace and authenticity of the experience, not interrupting adventure with contrived interactions. But the process of thinking about experiences does not have to be contrived, though I suspect it does require more energy from instructors than they would have to put out for a straightforward expedition with no extras.

Much of what the educators and personal growth advocates are talking about is remarkably similar to what all instructors are trying to do in their own way. In a recent paper on working with small groups, Candice Chrislip described it as helping student "to isolate a particular success on the course, to identify the process they went through, and to make this success available to them as a future resource". Although I must admit to a bias in that direction because I am an educator in my own values, I still would find it hard to argue on any ground that her statement was not central to Outward Bound. And the more tools we have for carrying it out, the better.

On the negative side, it may be pretentious to expect that Outward Bound can do any more than give its students what course director Ron Gager has called a "short-term turn-on". The standard course is only twenty-three days long. Instructors have no formal training in counseling, therapy, communications, human relations etc. In fact, what instructors are trained to do is let the mountains speak for themselves by guiding a patrol into the wilderness, building up its skills for outdoor living, and then confronting it with a characteristic set of problem-solving tasks. Students coming to Outward Bound are looking for this very thing. For the most part they will not ask of more (especially the adolescents). Certainly there are very few who are ready to give the profound emotional assent and perseverance that is required for therapeutic healing in any meaningful sense beyond the "short-term turn-on". Most are looking for action and they want more than anything to learn that they can do more than they thought they could. What I am driving at is that the mountaineers are making an important point by demanding a more limited set of expectations for an Outward Bound course. Perhaps that point is that we should do what we do best, which is to deliver students into an extraordinary experience of action and adventure, leaving them to make of it what they will. We can provide the spark, as Kurt Hahn said, but it is up to others to keep the flame alive.

Obviously, the dichotomy or "defining tension" I have described is too simple. Everyone is in the middle somewhere, partaking of both sides, but I hope what I have said will be useful in firing up others to think about the possibilities of Outward Bound. It may be that someone who has been a hard-core skills person for a few courses will find it interesting to experiment with new techniques in human relations, just to keep the job interesting and find out why people make such a fuss over "touchy feely". On the other hand, for those who came fresh from highly verbalized settings and are ready to charge into the millennium of human potential, it might be interesting to ease off for a bit and savour the excitement of Outward Bound in its most austere and economical form. Meanwhile, the school will probably continue to do what schools always do in staff development, which is to push people to build up the complementary side of their skills and knowledge, either to strengthen hard skills if they are weak in that area, or to soften up a bit if they are so hard as to be antisocial. Hooray for our differences!