The Frontier of Education

“The idea of progress persists only because we have forgotten more than we have remembered.” – William J. Lines, Australian writer

One month ago, I read this quote in Terry Tempest Williams’ book, Red, while overlooking a Days Inn parking lot in Provo, Utah.  It was a sunny Sunday morning and I had a few hours to kill before boarding my flight back to Vermont.  I sat on a second floor balcony, watching the world awaken while enjoying my coffee with the inspiration of one of my favorite authors.  Most of the world was still quiet, and the sun peeked over the Wasatch front, bringing a gleam to the frost lying heavy on patches of grass and parking lot windshields.  My heart and mind were full with myriad emotions that I was, and, honestly, still am, trying to fully understand. In one line, this author, unknown to me, was able to put into words this feeling that had been circulating in my mind and pulsing through my veins with each beat of my heart. 

I had just emerged from a two-week wilderness expedition with BOSS, the Boulder Outdoor Survival School.  For over 50 years, this organization has been taking people into the deserts of southern Utah to learn primitive skills, wilderness travel, a conservation ethic, and something else… something more.  

And while the name might suggest that you would find a group of people living on the fringe of society – backwoods hermits lacking social skills or doomsday preppers readying for the zombie apocalypse – this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Well, the fringe part is true.  

What I found, instead,  was a community of people engaged in the act of remembering.

Simply put, they were remembering what it means to be human.  

You see, we live in a world in which we are becoming increasingly disconnected – from ourselves, from one another, from our communities, and from the natural world.  There are many reasons for this disconnection, some of which are in our control, and many more of which we aren’t even aware. We are influenced in ways, and by powers, that we can’t begin to imagine.  We are changed by all of this, and we call this change progress.  It seems inevitable, as we march towards a better future, as if we can do nothing to resist it.

At some level, I think most of us recognize this disconnection in our own lives.  We wish we were closer to our family and friends, more engaged in our communities, or that we were more intentional with our time.  And yet, it’s so easy to throw on Netflix or scroll through an Instagram feed, all the while feeling like something is missing in our lives.  We live in a world of constant connectivity, yet most of us, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” What is it we lack, with so many luxuries in this modern age?  Connection, I think.

So, the act of taking people into a vast wilderness with extremely limited gear and resources (and no technology), in order to learn “survival” skills, becomes a fringe, even revolutionary act.  When we make fire with our own hands, procure our food for the evening from the surrounding landscape, and sit around that fire together until stars fill the night sky, we remember. This is what it means to be a member of a community.  This is what it means to contribute. This is what it means to really be human.

And this level of connection – to ourselves, to others, and to the natural world – is what so many of us are missing.

I am convinced that the future of education lies not in technological gadgetry, bigger and better assessments, or finding countless new ways to put lipstick on the proverbial pig.  The frontier of education will be in “remembering” all that we have forgotten about how we can best prepare our children to be the humans that this world needs in the future. We will gain insight by looking back, not mindlessly marching onward with the blind assumption that the future must be better than the present, let alone the past.  Like any “frontier”, we will need to strike a balance between the knowledge and insight that we bring with us, and the energy and promise of the unexplored. We must adapt and be open, but we also cannot forget.  

Let’s face it, Homo sapiens, as a species, has been around for over 200,000 years; our hominid ancestors, millions of years more.  In all that time, we somehow managed to rear and raise offspring whom became the community members that were necessary for the survival of our kind.  In many cases, based upon historical records and studies of indigenous cultures throughout the world, children transitioned into adulthood, with all of its responsibilities and privileges, between the ages of 12 and 16.  This is nearly a decade earlier than it was for me and many of my friends, and even more than that 30 year old you know who still lives in their parents’ basement, playing video games and eating Doritos. 

On top of all of this, it can also be argued that our ancestors did so sustainably, that is to say, none of those previous generations of humans brought our planet to the brink of disaster quite like we moderns.  And this isn’t the fault of our youngest generations. It can be attributed to a social programming and cultural apparatus that has us believing that the mindless march forward must be progress.

So what is progress?  

I like to turn to Doug Tompkins- adventurer, former CEO of The North Face, and philanthropist- who, along with his wife, Kristine, purchased, and then gifted, millions of acres of South American wilderness to establish the first national parks in Chile.  Tompkins is quoted as saying, “What happens if you get to the cliff, and you take one step forward? Or you make a 180 degree turn and then take one step forward? Which way are you going? Which way is progress? The solution to many of the world’s problems is to turn around and take a step forward.”

Are we on the edge of a cliff?  Yes, unfortunately, I think we are.  Our cliff is social, political, economic, cultural, climactic… you name it.  And it’s clear to me that we aren’t going to find our way out of this predicament by being bull-headed and trudging onward.  Progress, in this case, means having the sense to turn around and look backward.

Progress means remembering.

Our children, our students, need not only know how to operate the latest iPhone, but how to really connect with others, in person, and especially those that are different than themselves. They can’t exist only in virtual or augmented realities, but must be grateful for the lives they lead, not envious of the ones that they don’t.  They can’t be so hypnotized by screens that they fail to notice the brilliance of nature unfolding around them, and the reality of the destruction that our lifestyles create. They can’t be so focused on their “followers” that they fail to recognize their power to become a person worth following.

There are powerful forces that aim to shape the minds and souls of our children.  To these forces, our students are consumers meant to be influenced and political pawns meant to be polarized.  They are not the independent, autonomous, thoughtful, caring human beings we aim to create… that our communities so desperately need.  We must endeavor to push back against these systems and to question what is meant by the relentless pursuit of progress.   We need to engage in the fringe and revolutionary act of “remembering.”

Luke Foley, a 2019 Rowland Fellow and the 2014 Vermont State Teacher of the Year, teaches at the STAR Program at Northfield High School.  Foley has a unique educational background, having worked as a wilderness guide, field instructor, and program director for several schools and programs in Vermont, the western United States, and around the world. Foley received his Masters in the Arts of Teaching from the University of Vermont and has a B.A. in International Political Economy from Colorado College in 2004.  He is a 2015 fellow for the Lloyd Milken Center for Unsung Heroes and a 2017 National Park Service Climate Resiliency Fellow. 

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