Should all school programs include an Outward Bound?

I wasn't doing the climbing; I was sitting at the foot of the cliff learning how Outward Bound trainers teach others how to be Outward Bound teachers. Joining us as "subjects" were some 20 eager Vermont summer campers delighted to be taught how to climb up a rock face.

I asked the young man in charge if he knew my friend A. Donn Kesselheim, and that's all it took for us to visit for nearly an hour about Donn, and teaching, and the Outward Bound philosophy.

As we watched teachers, counselors, and campers learning to use ropes and bodies intelligently to scale the rock face, we talked about what it means for someone to come face to face with a situation that pulls deeply on his reserves.

For some, the activity touches on spiritual reserves; others wouldn't use the terms Spirit or God to describe their experience, but instead might talk about self-discovery and self-mastery.

More recently I visited with the head of an independent boarding school in Massachusetts which has -- and frequently uses -- an Outward Bound type of ropes course. She felt that the course was necessary to help today's youngsters "find themselves," and that for many high school students, challenging physical experiences had great mental (and for that she meant intellectual) ramifications.

And still more recently, I have come across a paperback distributed by Outward Bound Inc. of Greenwich, Conn. 06830, written primarily by A. Donn Kesselheim. The title, "Outward Bound Adaptive Programs for Independent Schools ," tells precisely the purpose of the book.

Donn has played out many of the reasons he feels an independent school would want to offer its youngsters (as well as its full staff) the opportunity to reach outside themselves to survive -- yet, as he posits again and again, the purpose to help others survive, too, is equally important.

Nor does he shrink from some of the intangible qualities he feels can come from offering students physically demanding experiences. He speaks eloquently of aesthetic awareness or aesthetic percepts.

"Aesthetic percepts enrich one's life enormously. They can add emotional color to an otherwise black and white world. They nurture the soul. They are a basic tool for human survival." And then to give aesthetics even more emphasis, he argues:

"If there were to be allowed only one meterstick by means of which to measure the quality of a school, this criterion could well be developed around what is done with aesthetic education."

For a time in the 1960s, it rather looked as though no independent school would be without some type of adapted Outward Bound experience, but the early fervor for such types of challenges has worn off. Hence, perhaps, this paperback and other recent attempts to explain for educators not only what Outward Bound is, but just what it is expected to accomplish.

Safety, though, is certainly one reason for the reluctance of many independent schools (and certainly most public schools) to provide Outward Bound-type experiences as a regular part of the school program.

A ropes course must be very carefully designed, and it must never be used without properly trained staff in attendance. A world of difference exists between a group of students using a ropes course, for example, and a group of students enjoying a soccer scrimmage.

Similarly, no one would want to try scaling the rock face under which I sat without safety equipment and expertly trained climbers to advise and help.

But the desire to provide such experiences for youngsters continues.

That we all learn from challenges and soul-searching experiences is known to all. The question persists, though, of how to help our children (safely) learn their lessons "the hard way."

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