What is Outward Bound education? 1/4: Value-forming experiences

The Outward Bound school that I work for is a school, and when students graduate from the school they receive a certificate, which contains this quote from Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound: ‘The aim of education is to impel people into value-forming experiences, to ensure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an indefatigable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion.’

The process and philosophy of effecting that aim has offered itself for miles and miles of conversation and contemplation on lakes, mountains, and ocean. At the very least for my own clarity, I will try to articulate what I think matters most about that earnest project.

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Who are the ‘people’? One of Outward Bound’s central values is inclusion and diversity. Each year, only two or three out of over a hundred courses that the school I work for runs are for ‘struggling teens.’ This summer I had twenty students. They were from Maine, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, North Carolina, California, Hawaii, and South Africa. They were Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, White, Latino, African American, Asian, Native American, they had grown up speaking English, Spanish, French, Cantonese. They came from totally disparate educational experiences, and lived in a housing project, a big city apartment, a newly remodeled home, on a farm, on an island. But they ended up singing the same songs and said to one another things like ‘finally someone who understands me.’

The significant majority of the students I taught made it to Outward Bound through achieving an external scholarship, and many others who didn’t worked and saved for their course. Students attended through Summer Search Boston, Summer Search New York, the Morehead-Cain Foundation, the Portland High School Leadership Award, the Boys and Girls’ Club, Minds Matter New York, the Taber Academy Scholarship, and Outward Bound scholarships. Summer Search is an excellent organization which provides mentorship to promising inner-city minority students, and there are often several students from Summer Search alone on a course, in addition to other organizations with similar goals.

The diversity of experiences within the Outward Bound student body is a central component of the process of Outward Bound education. One model for the Outward Bound process was articulated in 1976 by Walsh and Golins:

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A student (motivated, committed) is placed into a unique physical environment (contrast) and into a unique social environment (allows both individuality and group consciousness, both conflict and resolution), is then given problem-solving tasks and challenges (organized, concrete, incremental, manageable; which require mastery of technical skills) which leads to stress/ anxiety (possibilities: succumbing, coping, thriving) to which student adapts by mastery/ competency (because student is motivated, alert, has group and instructional support, is presented problems that are structured to facilitate mastery) which expands capacity (increased self-awareness, increased self-esteem, increased acceptance of and service to others).

A wilderness expedition provides the opportunity that Kurt Hahn invokes for ‘value-forming experiences.’ On a course, there are some elements that are likely to present a problem-solving challenge to everyone—poling upstream in a rapid, hiking or paddling from 4am until 9pm, spending several days of reflection alone during Solo. Each student may then encounter innumerable other individual challenges that others can’t know. The meaning that they make of those challenges is their own. They may know immediately, they may learn it in ten years.

The end goal of an Outward Bound course is for students to achieve the mastery to run an autonomous expedition, traveling at a distance from their instructors. That means doing it all themselves—figuring out how to provide for their essential needs with new people in a foreign environment while continuously striving to push themselves in challenging expedition travel.

What is this all for? Why invite ‘value-forming experiences’? Why do hard things? Kurt Hahn said, ‘there is more in us than we know, and if we can be made to believe it, perhaps, for the rest of our lives, we will be unwilling to settle for less.’ The root of Outward Bound is that the discovery of that capability allows us to exercise service and compassion towards others. I’ll write about that in the next post.