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Wilderdom Vignettes

Peace & Education

Outdoor Education in the New World:
Reflections on My First Semester Teaching Outdoor Education at the University of New Hampshire, USA

James Neill
Last updated:
05 Feb 2005

Published in Outside of the Box: The UNH Outdoor Education Community Newsletter, 3(1), 2001, 1, 2, 4

barn's burnt down...
now i can see the moon
- Masahide

Wilderdom Vignettes

I was asked by the students' Outdoor Education Community to write some reflections about my first semester at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) as a faculty member.  To me this request illustrates one of the richest aspects of the UNH outdoor education learning environment, that students get the faculty to reflect on what they are doing, just as much as faculty are asking students to reflect on their learning.

Just a few months ago I lived with Jackie and our one year old son, Tom, in a small cottage called "Booroomba" on a hill in the Australian bush, with no houses for miles around, surrounded by farm and wilderness.  My road bike lay disused in the shed, because mountain bike was the only way to go, and we had a four wheel drive to access the three miles of dirt road into our place.  When we went for our daily walks along the river or through the bush we'd come across wallabies and kangaroos, sheep, cows, rabbits, echidnas, snakes, tortoises and foxes.  We had an organic vegie garden and lost count of the chickens and ducks we'd bred to keep us company.  Our summers were spent swimming in a magical waterfall just a few hundred yards away and watching the exquisite sunsets, whilst in the winters we enjoyed cracking through the frost and collecting wood to keep us warm.  As much as possible we would cook on our wood stove and live by candlelight.  To keep bread on the table I taught psychology at the local university.

So, why on earth would we want to move to America? For us, the choice was simple.  Life is an adventure and it is to be lived that way.  So when opportunity comes knocking, we say yes!  Even more importantly, as idyllic as our lifestyle was, it was a kind of fantasy.  For most people on earth, life is much tougher and it is a fundamental responsibility of those of us who have more resources to dedicate our energies towards furthering human equality and looking after nature.  For me, outdoor education has a vast potential to become a revolutionary educational movement which helps to transform the way people relate to themselves, society and the environment.  So, the chance to start a new adventure and a new outdoor education career (we had both previously worked at Outward Bound Australia) was one to be grasped with both hands and all our heart!

Fast forward to September 11th - we can all replay scenes of that day in New York, at the Pentagon, and somewhere in Pennsylvania.  Several people asked whether we were sorry that we'd come to America. Our reply? Absolutely not!  The Sept. 11 incidents highlighted some major problems in the world and for me only served to increase my resolve to work hard helping students interested in studying a profession which can make a difference. Many people seem to have forgotten that the very subject we are studying, outdoor education, emerged in its modern form during the last major world conflict - World War II.  Outward Bound was invented as a result of Kurt Hahn and Lawrence Holt's intense thinking around the issue of how to help merchant seaman who were ill-prepared for surviving new challenges.  And Kurt Hahn saw that youth overindulged in modern comforts were going to have problems coping with adult life. Without being satisfied with having diagnosed the problems, Hahn acted passionately and boldly, which is what I believe anybody who is serious about outdoor education today should also be demanding of themselves.  This is clearly not a time for sitting and watching, keeping silent, feeling powerless, or indulging in self-pity.

Every outdoor education student has the potential to make a valuable contribution via their personal life and through outdoor education in the local community, but also now it is very important to move our consciousness and action beyond the shores of America. When you leave the comfort of your culture, 'the barn burns down' and you can see many fundamental issues more clearly.  After Sept. 11, I found students in my classes were suddenly more interested in organizations like "Play for Peace" than they were in NOLS or Outward Bound.  The little every day things, such as the football scores and the local weather ('the walls of the barn') faded away and happily the needs of humanity ('the moon') become much more clear.  We need to nurture this fresh new focus with care.  For many people, when the walls of World Trade Center 'burnt down', it was easy to stay stuck in focusing on the 'tragedy' and not see the moon.  The braver path is to lift up one's heart from the ashes and to take up new opportunities to embrace the needs of humanity and passionately work towards expanding the rich possibilities for outdoor education making a difference in this new world.

I am proud and excited to have become a new part of a community which is trying to make a difference.  I've received many appreciative and helpful notes and comments from students and faculty during this first semester and am sincerely appreciative of the support our family has received in being welcomed into this community of outdoor educators.  Thank you and I very much look forward to sharing the adventurous times ahead with you.