Back to

History of Outdoor Education

Psycho-evolutionary Theory

A Socio-cultural History of Outdoor Education

James Neill

Last updated:
27 Jul 2004

A socio-cultural history of outdoor education

A sociocultural history of outdoor education suggests that outdoor education has emerged as a  semi-ritualized form of encounter with nature since Western consciousness moved indoors.

Once upon a time, all education took place in the outdoors.

In the days of hunter/gatherer lifestyles, a child learnt by observing others and experiencing the challenges of survival for him/her self. 

But early on humans also began making shelters.  The "door" became physically and symbolically a critical access point between the inner sanctum of relative protection (inside) and the relative wild and uncontrollable outside.  Previously the human only lived inside his/her skull and skin, occasionally journeying outwards on shamanistic flights.

But with the advent of simple dwellings, the human consciousness expanded and became contained within the space of the house.  Two critical aspects of the house negotiated entry and exit of consciousness -- the door and, later, the window.

The door has had a remarkable and profound cultural impact.  Huxley's "The Doors of Perception" and Jim Morrison's "The Doors" (e.g., "Break on through") are just two examples of the power of the symbology expressed by the door explored in recent culture.  Both these references draw their inspiration from William Blake's poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite.

When the invention of the door was combined with industralization there was a mass shifting of the loci of human consciousness indoors.  Long forays into forays into the natural, outside world in order satisfy their basic living needs became the exception rather than the rule.  It was not the door per se -- animals also use door technology for a variety of purposes; molluscs, for example, are experts, as are trap-door spiders, and many mammals, such as those which use tunnels -- the problem was the massive shift of consciousness away from intimate encounter with the rhythms of nature.

During the twentieth century, the fruits of industrialization became over abundant, and excess material wealth accumulated in industrialized civilizations.  Houses and suburbs got cluttered with possessions and absorbed the time and focus that people used to spend engaged with the natural environment.  Industrialized countries lost connection with the sustainable systems of nature.  The people of industrialized nations lived during the 19th and 20th century lived off the back of nature and off the back of people in less industrialized nations, two-thirds of whom lived in poverty.  The resource consumption rate of the average US citizen, for example, is approximately six times that of the rest of the world.

Its a remarkable story but so much of the remarkableness is lost because its common knowledge which is taken for granted.  The situation needs to be "made strange" to sense its remarkability.  For example, what observations would aliens make about our human situation?  They might report back to their fellow aliens something like these World facts about the universe and human activity.

The excising of everyday contact with nature for humans was problematic not only for the natural environment, but also for the humans themselves because were genetically pre-wired over millions of years of evolution to live in natural environments (E. O. Wilson's biophilia hypothesis).  What's more, there seems to be an innate calling to adventure in the human (as Jung said, "man needs difficulties; they are necessary for health") to keep the survival instinct sharp and strong.  The difficulties inherent in surviving in nature are perfect for the shaping of human behavior and nature's deeper effect on the psyche has been critical in guiding humans through the past challenges and, undoubtedly, the future challenge of sustainable human living on earth.

Outdoor education, then, can be understood as a logical response to the widespread societal disconnection from immediate experience with nature-based living.  Since industrialization created material wealth and humans have largely lost the simple cultural living skills, they now largely either fear returning to nature at all, or return scared and ill-prepared, thus feeling the need to drag along excessive amounts of equipment.  The tent, for example, in most situations, really only serves the psychological purpose of being a mobile door, to create a sense that the individual is protected from the unknown.

In this socio-cultural sense, outdoor education programs are symptomatic of post-industrial societies suffering from prolonged and institutionalized disconnection from the natural environment.

Outdoor education programs can be very valuable in helping individuals or groups to develop higher levels of functionality and consciousness, but unless longer-term, nature-based living systems are the real purpose, then the value resources and efforts used for a foray into the woods remain somewhat questionable.  Currently, outdoor education programs are a mere drop in the ocean of the global human challenge.  Whilst this might seem grim, let us take heart from the wisdom of Marx:

Mankind always sets itself only such problems as it can solve;
since, looking at the matter more closely,
it will always be found that the task itself arises only
when the material conditions for its solution already exist
or at least in the process of formation.
Karl Marx, A Critique of Political Economy (1859)

Outdoor education programs, then, can be seen then as offering some of the initial materials and possibilities for a more widespread rejuvenation of sustainable living experiments.  To date, outdoor education programs have largely been in an extended hippy period, functioning as modern substitutes for the paganistic, romantic attachment to a simpler lifestyle in the Garden of Eden.  Then commercialism got hold of outdoor education programming and we now have a glut of irreverent, shallow outdoor education programming.  But there are grains of gold and speckles of jewels deep within outdoor education programs -- and therein lay many fascinating examples, possibilities, experiments, research leads, and inspirational people.  From these beginnings and with existing outdoor education infrastructure we can stand a chance of initiating a new phase of programming which will help guide human adaptation for the future.  After all, the new phase of human history will have to be one of human adaptation and only nature can teach us how to adapt.