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Are The Mountains Still Speaking For Themselves?

James Neill
Last updated:
02 Aug 2004

Summary of original article by Thomas James (1980)

Mountains vs. facilitation workshop materials

Original article by Thomas James (1980)

Recent article with detailed workshop description by James Neill (2002)

Summary of "Can the Mountains Speak for Themselves?"

Thomas James' (1980) classic article "Can The Mountains Speak for Themselves?" articulated a defining tension in outdoor education - when should an instructor facilitate an experience and when should an instructor simple let the experience be? James eloquently describes the debate between the stoic, traditional, mountaineering-type "rock-jocks" from the early days of Outward Bound and the more recent influx of softer-thinking, verbal, new-age-type "touchy-feelies".  James puts forward incisive descriptions of the potential strengths and potential limitations of both positions.

If you are instructing your ideal program,
where does your preference as an instructor lay along a continuum…?


Experience speaks for itself   Facilitate & process experience

In the 1960's, Rusty Baillie, at the Colorado Outward Bound School, coined the term "Can the Mountains Speak for Themselves".  James' classic paper in 1980, of the same name, stands as a landmark in Outward Bound and outdoor education philosophical literature.  James observed that the early Outward Bound programs tended to be run as a series of engaging activities which, through their careful design and sequencing, had the desired effects of enhancing participants' personal capabilities and general wherewithal. 

Thomas James commented that Outward Bound instructors in the early days tended to be  competent and comfortable guides in the outdoors.  This was necessary in the beginning of new schools, especially as new area and programs were being explored and developed.  As the educational success of Outward Bound's methods became better known, and as the program developed and matured, James observed the influx of instructors who were attracted more strongly by the educational possibilities as opposed to the outdoor life per se.  This second generation of Outward Bound instructors felt it important that Outward Bound programs also facilitate the psychological experience via processes such as group discussions, diary-writing, individual counseling, and so on.

Thomas was commenting on the meeting of two philosophical waters.  To make it clear, James characterizes the first type as stoic, outdoor rock-jock types and the second type as touchy-feely types.  Of course, there is much ground inbetween, but this fundamental tension exists today within and between every Outward Bound school.   

“Mountains” versus “Facilitation” is a necessary and healthy tension.  No school should try to solve the issue - it is there as a source of debate and challenge in the search for effective programs.  The issue can be part of initial training.  I have instructors read James’ paper and identify strengths and weaknesses associated with '"letting an experience speak for itself" and "facilitating".  I then have them design their own model for resolving the issue.  These exercises can be used as an important self-reflection tasks for better understanding one’s personal preferences when approaching the design and instruction of Outward Bound programs.

James, T. (1980/2000).  Can The Mountains Speak for Themselves?  Scisco Conscientia, 3.  This is the original paper, with permission from Thomas James. [html]


Mountains vs. Facilitation Workshop Materials

One effective way of helping trainees, staff, undergraduate students, or conference participants engage in the defining tension of mountains vs. facilitation is to conduct a workshop.  Basically the 60-90 minute workshop engages participants experientially in the issues by having them identifying their own instructional preference, discussing their preferences with others, and then working in small groups to develop a new model of the issue.

Summarizes the currency of the "mountains versus facilitation" issue in the context of more recent literature on facilitation and program design; describes a suggested 60 to 90 minute workshop structure. 

Note: I recommend starting the workshop with an invigorating, colorful warmup to get the creative juices flowing and encouraging out-of-the-box thinking - see Index to Group Games, Activities & Exercises.