Education Through Adventure

Education Through Adventure

Elias King Naegele

The road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began…

When we think of school, most of us have an image of sitting in desks, heads propped up by scrunched fists. The teacher stands in front of the classroom, droning on about names and dates, the quadratic formula and other intangible things that seem to float on the board. Our eyes anxiously watch as the second hand of the clock makes its painstakingly slow revolutions, while the minute-hand seems locked in time. The sheer misery of it is enough for us to measure school by weekends and vacations which always seem so far away.

But I like to imagine something else—of Gandalf coming up the path, pipe in hand, and rap-rapping upon our classroom door—as he does in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which we read in the fifth grade at Sparhawk Academy—and inviting the class out for another adventure into the wild world that surrounds us.

Adventure and wanderlust have driven human civilization forward since pre-historic times. An oppressed people, forced to live within strict borders and boundaries, is by nature a dispirited people. Boys are not meant to be chained to a chair, closed up in a classroom or secured to a screen. To flourish and maximize their potential, they need to tap into their innate desire “to explore, to dream, to discover.” And they need to come home dirty from time spent outdoors (when I attended The Heights School in Potomac, MD, my parents knew that I must have been in trouble if I didn’t come home covered in mud). Yes, this can be done in a classroom and on the verdant Grounds of Sparhawk, but it is capped off by the regular field trips, or “Adventures,” upon which each class will embark.

With our Grounds suitably located only twenty-six miles from downtown Boston, our property is adequately situated to touch upon a seemingly endless stream of American historic hotspots. Stretching from the King Philip’s War all the way to the present, we are surrounded by places to explore, both inside and out, making the kind of connections in learning that help us realize how everything is in some way intertwined. Our world is quite small in the grand scheme of things, and the amount of time that we have in it is miniscule, so it is critical that we take advantage of every opportunity to expand upon what we know.

John Adams’ dear friend, Thomas Jefferson, postulated that there is no cap on one’s education. At Sparhawk, we adhere to this philosophy wholeheartedly. There is no moment when learning takes a pause, even on a field trip that may be construed as simply “fun”—such as a camping trip in the White Mountains, or whitewater rafting on the Deerfield River in the Berkshires. These types of trips, though not strictly academic, awaken a boy’s mind through sheer thrills and communal hardship, while generating empathy for literary and historical figures. Think of Bilbo and the dwarves escaping the wood elves in apple barrels, or of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark leading the Corps of Discovery across the untamed rivers of the great American West.

Adventure teaches us to look around, to observe things that we never would while trapped between four walls and fluorescent lights. One of the drills my boys will do in class will be to find a comfortable spot on Grounds and divide a page in their Natural History journal into four quadrants, with their own position being in the center. Then they will listen.

They will listen for the sounds that we so often miss while plugged into our myriad devices—a tufted titmouse chirping a hundred yards to the northeast. A large mammal—perhaps a deer, perhaps Mr. Golden—moving through the woods to the south. A flock of wild turkey skittering through the underbrush down by Marwood. The two pups barking playfully as they gambol through the sheep pasture. Each time they hear something new, they will pencil it into the respective quadrant, keeping track from which direction the sounds comes.

Learning should not be a chore, but an adventure—and yes, that means that it may be difficult at times! An adventure is, after all, somehow lacking if everything goes smoothly. No one remembers the moments of trips when everything went swimmingly. Rather, we recall the times when we were faced with a challenge and overcame it; that is what makes a great story and an even better occasion to learn. Let’s take Boston sports for a moment. Would Grady Little have been fired if he hadn’t left a clearly tired Pedro Martinez in to face the Yankees in the eighth inning of Game 7 in the 2003 ALCS? Think of the implications of that decision. Sure, the Red Sox ended up losing the game, but if not for that decision, Terry Francona would never have been hired by the Red Sox and gone on to lead the downtrodden franchise to two World Series championships. It is in losses that we reevaluate and rebuild; without taking risks, without adventure, we become stale and fail to properly grow.

In his book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell explains how near-misses bolster our confidence, how loss can embolden us to improve, while constant victory blinds us to our weaknesses. A boy who sits in a classroom, consistently receiving perfect scores on his tests with ease, is in some ways a weaker student than the boy who must struggle to get good grades. The first boy can coast and thus fails to hone important skills that will come in handy when he makes his way into a bigger pond. The second one, meanwhile, builds up the toughness and habits that will propel him forward.

Challenges are the calisthenics of our minds. They awaken our sleeping intellect, highlight our strengths, and reveal otherwise hidden talents; they cultivate self-knowledge and embolden those who persevere. Naturally, challenges will sometimes painfully expose our weaknesses as well and therein lies their greatest value. Not only do we learn where we need to improve, but we also discover the importance of trust and reliance on others—trust in ourselves, trust in our peers, trust in God. Trust, which is the most basic and important building block of any successful relationship. For the realization will eventually come that “no man is an island entire of itself” and no man can forge through life alone. In short, the challenges that we meet in adventure force us to be human.

Boys need to move. Learning through Adventure serves as an antidote to the vacillation between chaos and boredom which many boys perceive in the classroom. A boy’s mind is dulled by inactivity, while exploration and adventure help to engage his mind actively, allowing for education through osmosis.

Of course, regular school adventures aren’t enough—a boy can learn all that he wants at school, but if his home life is not working in concert, we end up with a boy being pulled in two directions and, thus, a broken boy. A life of adventure is just that—a full life pulling us ever upward. And a boy’s life does not begin at 8:30 in the morning and end at 3:00 in the afternoon, September to June. The parents are the primary force in molding a boy and without fathers and mothers acting as guides, the boys will eagerly stray from the path, in pursuit of easily attainable pleasures, just like the dwarves and Bilbo as they stumbled through Mirkwood chasing ever-fading lights.

Bilbo could have lived vicariously through the stories told in pubs and through those of his Took ancestors, but did he really, truly live until he embarked on his epic adventure with the thirteen dwarves? And ever afterward, he longed to see the mountains again, to walk in the woods with the elves, to see the great eagles and their massive eyries. He experienced these things firsthand and his mind was awakened—he was shaped by those experiences. His life changed forever as a result of his adventures.

In his poem, “Caminante, No Hay Camino,” Antonio Machado urges us to walk the path which we have been given, a path unique to each of us:

Wayfarer, your footprints are
The path—and nothing else.
Wayfarer, there’s no set path,
One makes the path as one walks.
As one walks the path is made,
And when looking back,
One sees the path
That won’t be stepped on again.
Wayfarer, there’s no set path,
Only wakes on the sea.

Adventures are a necessary part of forming the paths which we create, as they help to mold our understanding of the world and help us to decipher the part that we must play in the grander narrative which surrounds us. But how does this relate to a lower school or middle school student who is seemingly years away from figuring out what he wants to do? These years are incredibly formative; it is here that the foundations are built—the development of sturdy habits and virtues and an ardent love of learning—upon which each student will one day build his magnum opus.

Adventure gives a boy the tools he needs to “cast off the bowlines [and] sail away from the safe harbor,” to rise, unafraid of challenges, and become the man of virtue that he is called to be, that our world needs him to be. To paraphrase St. Josemaria, the founder of Opus Dei: why tie down a boy to flutter around like a barnyard hen, when we can help him soar like an eagle?

Elias King Naegele was part of the founding faculty at Sparhawk Academy, where he taught Grade 5.