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Experiential Education: A Fragile and Incomplete Project

Jay Roberts
Article Date:  May 29, 2007

Keynote Speech to the Rocky Mountain Regional Conference of the Association for Experiential Education, April 7, 2006


Projects are interesting things. My wife and I own an old, Victorian age house in Indiana. When we purchased it two years ago, we knew then that it would be a project to get it to where we wanted it to be. Several rooms were in various stages of construction, the backyard was a mudpit- the previous owner also had kids and I continue to find little spooky treasures all over the place including several decapitated dolls and a rather disturbing clown figurine. On our house inspection report, the inspector noted  that the garage was in danger of falling down if the termites ever stopped holding hands. But, we love our house and the project that it is because we see its potential and we believe in the vision of what it can become.

Projects can be other things as well- such as an unfinished project. Our daughter will be turning two next weekend. I have learned that parenthood is most definitely a project and one that will always remain unfinished. Recently, she has been protesting both getting dressed and undressed. I feel like I am wrestling a spirit possessed oompa-loompa as I try to get her into and out of her pajamas. I am a logical person most of the time and I cannot seem to figure this out. How can you be upset BOTH about putting on your PJ’s AND conversely taking them off? One or the other makes much more sense. Either you LIKE your pj’s, hence you want them on and not off or you don’t like your pj’s- hence you want them off and never put on. But, of course, toddlers are not logical- or, at least not logical in the way we adults see things.  I’ve come to realize that it’s not the pj’s that bother my daughter, it is CHANGE itself. This revelation does not make things any easier at changing time of course. This is why I consider raising my daughter a project too- and one that will always be incomplete- such is the role of a parent.

Projects can also be fragile. Sometimes it takes just the right combination of factors to pull it off- like a new route up some challenging and dangerous big wall. Other times the smallest hiccup can doom a project- like the time I told the Canadian border guard I was guiding a canoe trip for a group of students up in northern Ontario. After spending a night in customs limbo in Thunder Bay, I learned later that it is illegal to “guide” in Canada if you are not Canadian (the irony of it all was that at first I thought it was the undeclared tomatoes I was carrying that got me in trouble).

So, things can go wrong despite the best of intentions.

I would like to dedicate this talk tonight to Alvin. Alvin was a past student of mine and, in many ways, he is why I am here, in front of you tonight. Some time ago, Alvin helped to show me the fragility of the educational project and has inspired me ever since to spend my time trying to do better. Alvin will weave in and out of our conversation here tonight and I hope he will serve as a concrete reminder of why we are all here, doing what we do.

Alvin: Part One

In 1993, I was a team leader for a nationally known summer program in Lake Forest, Illinois. The camp specializes in brain-based, learning how to learn programs for at-risk youth. Their programs are highly experiential and it was through them that I got into this field in the first place. Now, while the camp targeted at-risk youth, it was predominantly highly privileged at-risk youth, kids from wealthy families who may have gotten into minor trouble either at school or with the law- the kind of kids popularized by the Brat Camp reality show recently on TV. In an effort to diversify the program, several scholarships were awarded to inner-city youth from South Chicago. Alvin was one of the first recipients and was placed in my group. Alvin was a young 15 and he still had that rolly-polly baby fat that made him seem even younger than he actually was. He was loud and out-going and his brashness (not to mention his skin color) stood him out within the camp community. Things were difficult right off the bat for Alvin. No one else looked like him, talked like him, or came from the same background. He portrayed a tough persona and the other kids in my group mostly kept their distance. During one of our first, intensive group sessions, Alvin spoke openly about the drugs he had done and watched others do. So openly, in fact, that some of the other campers in my group snickered and shook their heads, thinking Alvin was just showing off and not being real about his background and his history. I took to Alvin almost immediately. He had that kind of personality that even when he was being resistant and uncooperative, he was still engaging and alive. I’d take a thousand Alvin’s over one tired, dispassionate, and cynical kid.  So I knew that things at camp were likely to change for Alvin and they did. The ropes course day was huge for him. The physical learning and trust he established with his group over the course of that day seemed to shift something in him. Slowly, his energy and brashness turned from negative attention getting to positive encouragement and support of his group. We have all seen this countless times- camp was doing its magic on Alvin. By the end of the program, Alvin was transformed. He cried the final night of camp and made sure to get everyone’s phone numbers and addresses before his session ended. I remember the hug I got from Alvin the day he left- he was just a kid needing love- such a simple thing. As he hugged me he leaned in to my ear and whispered a private message, one only for me to hear. He said, “you’ll always be my favorite teach…”

It is this sort of success story that we all know and can appreciate. The transformative power of experiential education and its ability to reach kids in a way that can shift them, despite previous school experiences, challenged background, or diagnosed condition. But, Alvin’s story does not end there. His story has more to teach.

Cornell West, perhaps our most provocative philosopher-activist in the US today once wrote,

“Anyone who has the audacity to adopt a democratic vision cannot be optimistic, though I do not conflate optimism with hope. Why? Because democracies are rare in human history, they are fragile, and historically they tend not to last that long…And America has been so privileged because there has always been a prophetic slice across race, region, and class, and gender, and sexual orientation, a progressive slice that says we are not going to give up on this fragile democratic project, it is incomplete and unfinished, but we are not going to give up on it, even against the grain of so much human history.”

I would like, tonight, to draw from West’s notion of democracy’s  “fragile and incomplete project” and suggest that the time is right for Experiential Education as a field to take a hard look at where we are and the future challenges and possibilities that lie before us. I believe our work in this field is both fragile and incomplete and I hope to share with you both my concerns and my hopes for the field as we move forward. But, like West, I am not cynical about the future. I have hope for our field and for the project of education in the United States. I believe now, perhaps more than ever, we need the values, beliefs, and ideals of experiential education for our children. But this hope is not a blind optimism. There are forces allied against such a vision of the future. There is much work to be done. So I have a hope without illusion and I would like to share this vision with you as we look toward the future of our schools, and our democracy.

On Democracy and Democratic Living

Now that I have mentioned “democracy” I would like to say a few words about it before we get into the nitty-gritty of experiential education if you will indulge me. Democracy is one of those terms that, if you are not careful, can mean nothing by meaning everything. It is certainly evoked with some regularity by folks on all sides of the political spectrum. I recently heard Garrison Keilor give an apt definition of it. He said that democracy was a lot like sex. When it is good, it is really good. And, when it is bad, it’s still pretty good. Someone else (I believe Winston Churchill) said that democracy is the worst form of governance imaginable, except when compared to all the other options. To me, I return to John Dewey’s construction of democracy not as a form of government but as a form of living. It is necessarily social and practical- that is, it is a process that can be practiced on a daily basis in a myriad of ways as communities of people interact with one another. And practice is important. Democratic living is never static, it changes as conditions change which requires a constant “re-figuring out” of how we are to best live with one another. Interacting in such a way takes practice. This is why Dewey, while an intellectual giant in the world of philosophy who could have placed his attentions on any number of lofty questions or problems, chose schools as his main project. To Dewey, it was education and schools that served as the central laboratory for democratic living.  Schools are where we learn to live well with ourselves and with one another.

I say all of this because I believe (and I am certainly not the only one) that we are living in a time where democratic living is threatened. We often speak about our democracy as the central strength of the United States. But we seem to focus less on the small, public spaces that encourage the growth and development of that democracy- that is, the places where we can practice democratic living. Protecting our democracy is about much more than border security or the global war on terrorism. And in relation to schooling, it is about much more than test scores and “academic achievement” as it is currently defined. Deb Meier, one of our best writers about the connections between democracy and schooling talks about the real crisis (not the crisis of test scores) in our education system. She wrote,

“an understanding of this other crisis begins by noting that we have the lowest voter turnout by far of any modern industrial country; we are exceptional for the absence of responsible care for our most vulnerable citizens (we spend less on child welfare- baby care, medical care, family leave- than almost every foreign counterpart); we don’t come close to other advanced countries in income equity; and our high rate of (and investment in) incarceration places us in a class by ourselves” (12).

Vital, democratic living in community with one another would not allow such a condition to arise. How fragile has our democracy become when we do not vote for our leaders, we do not see the most vulnerable among us, and we do not help those in most need? I would like to argue, tonight, that this kind of crisis requires a renewed emphasis on placing experience at the center of the educational endeavor. So that in our schools we begin again practicing being active in our communities, seeing and talking with each other across race, class, and generation, and understanding our responsibilities as citizens of our country and our planet.

What does it mean to place experience at the center of the educational endeavor? I think it involves at least five key characteristics:

1.   Students actively engaged in the co-construction of the curriculum not just passive recipients of it ;

2.   Integrated, thematic content that immerse students in relevant, local, regional, and global problems that draw upon a number of disciplines and perspectives to try to address. Since when in the real world are problems solved using just math, or social studies, or biology?

3.   Teaching people first, not content. Real, live people with interests, emotions, challenges, and gifts and the understanding that relationships drive learning;

4.   The value of less is more. Meaningful, immersive, challenging experiences are worth a hundred thousand worksheets, pop-quizzes, and standardized tests. We overload our students with data and information- and consequently they do not gain the crucial traits needed in a democracy- knowledge and wisdom;

5.   Finally, orchestrating learning environments that invite students to make meaning of their learning through deliberate reflection and consequent action- returning to an understanding that knowledge has moral consequences- that we should not learn just for learning sake but to do something with that knowledge to make the world a better place.

But, before we get ahead of ourselves I would like to caution us in assuming that the field of experiential education does all of these things, that it places experience at the center of the educational endeavor. In fact, as Alvin will show us, we may be far more fragile and incomplete than we think.

Alvin’s Story: Part 2

After Alvin left I got back into the busyness of camp and preparing for the next session. Anyone who has worked at camp knows that, while the kids affect you and you love them, they also come and go. And despite the promises of writing and calling and remaining lifelong friends, things fade over time. With a new set of campers came a new set of challenges and kids who needed support and love. While I certainly hadn’t forgotten about Alvin I was somewhat surprised, four days into the next session, when the office paged me and said I had a call from Alvin. I went up and picked up the phone. It was Alvin alright- we traded inside jokes and pleasantries but I also detected an edge to his voice. When I asked how he was doing, he opened up. He couldn’t find anyone to talk to about his camp experience back at home. He missed the camp and the group and asked if he could come back. I told him it was against camp policy to come on to grounds if you were not a camper in that session. And besides, how was he going to get up here? He said he understood. He told me that he loved me and I said I did back- but there was a different emotion in his voice than mine. His was the voice of a kid hanging on to a thin thread of a lifeline. Mine was that of a camp counselor just doing my job. A few days later I got a message from the office that Alvin had called again. During some free time I called him back and, with tears in his voice, he said he was in real trouble. He needed to come back. He didn’t have any friends and things were rough at home. I told him all the things we were trained to say about taking ownership for your situation and thinking positively about what you can control. But it was clear that it wasn’t what he needed. I remember that we ended that phone call awkwardly. As I walked away from the office, Alvin’s “favorite teach” began to have his doubts about what camp had really done for him (or to him?).


Alvin has led me to see several ways in which our field is fragile right now. As I alluded to earlier, we are living in the midst of perhaps the most aggressive school reform movement in our nation’s history. Schools, historically the responsibility of localities and the state, are increasingly under the control of the federal government through the landmark No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (even as the federal government kicks in only around 7% of overall school funding). What I call the “three A’s” of this reform movement dominant school activity and the rationale for curriculum and content: Achievement, Assessment, and Accountability. It becomes difficult for those who disagree with the current state of affairs to voice disagreement- who, in their right mind is against “achievement” or “assessment” or “accountability” after all? Of course, no one. But what many disagree with is how these things are defined under NCLB. Achievement becomes tightly defined around content standards that hyper-focus on math and literacy skills. Just last month, a non-partisan report released by the Center for Educational Policy stated that this achievement focus has led to the reduction in curriculum across the board including music, the arts, and physical education. The study found that 71 percent of the nation’s 15,000 school districts had reduced the hours spent on other subjects to focus on reading and math skills.

Of course, along with achievement must come assessment. We are all familiar with the ways in which standardized testing has dominated the educational landscape. Most reasonable folks see a reason for testing, but as Deb Meier states, we are testing our kids to death. Again, there is a difference between data, information, knowledge and wisdom. We are at the point now where testing has been conflated with learning. If test scores in a given school jump 7%, then, by golly, those kids are learning! But again, excellent teachers know that a test is but a snapshot of where a child is in their learning. It’s like trying to place your position on a map using only one bearing- it gives you information but doesn’t tell the whole picture.

And finally, we must hold children, teachers, and schools accountable to these assessments. This accountability culture comes from the corporate world where phrases like “measurable results,” “return on investment,” and “performance driven” help make employees and companies more competitive. But, many question analogies that equate schools with businesses. A colleague of mine who teaches in a public school in Dayton told me how her school motto- which is plastered everywhere in the form of posters, buttons, and stickers- is “every second counts.” What message do we send about learning and education when we communicate to children that every second counts? That they are to be counted and accounted for? Kurt Hahn famously emphasized that we are all crew, not passengers. But the accountability culture in schools today takes it to the extreme, removing the social aspects of being in it together, a crew, while placing sole responsibility on the individual student to perform, on cue. Every second counts.

This is the context that our field currently operates within, for better or for worse. How do we respond? Experiential education has certainly not been unaffected by these trends. Our field is much more standardized today than in the times when our motto was “let the mountains speak for themselves.” We have certifications and accreditations, training protocols, and industry standards. Most would argue that these have been welcome innovations. Experiential education has also achieved a stronger foothold in schools. From the early days of Project Adventure, we have become much more legitimized beyond even physical education curriculum to the myriad ways experience benefits classroom learning- from service learning, to environmental education and leadership development. Again, these are positive steps for a field that has begun to mature. And yet…

At what point does cooperation become co-optation? That is to say, as experiential education steps further and further into the mainstream, is there a danger than it can be changed from its potentially transformative roots to a standardized, homogenized, and potential lifeless pedagogy? I see two specific processes that our field is vulnerable to: 1.) What sociologist George Ritzer called McDonaldization, and 2.) What social theorist Henry Giroux called Disnification. By McDonaldization, Ritzer meant the process by which systems become increasingly standardized through the elements of replicability, efficiency, and control. This is, of course, what the success of McDonald’s has taught the world. Your Big Mac sandwich should taste the same wherever you purchase it (replicability); the amount of time it takes from ordering to eating should be minimized to every extent possible (efficiency); and, variation amongst transactions between employees and customers should be controlled through a high degree of scripting (do you want fries with that?). 

There is some evidence that this is happening in our field. As schools grow increasingly fixated on specific content, achievement, and test scores, “seat time” is placed at a premium. That means that, when experiential education is utilized (if at all) it tends to be highly scripted, for short durations, and with minimal reflective components. For example, while ropes course programs are used more now than ever, I would wager that the average amount of time on courses has gone down (a great potential area for research for anyone out there looking for one). “Canned” programs from service learning trips, to guaranteed summit bids, to environmental education centers have blossomed as educators, administrators, and schools use experiential education as a sort of spice and or candy sprinkling on top of their “meat and potato’s” traditional curriculum.

The other process experiential education is vulnerable to is Disnification. By this term, Henry Giroux meant the ways in which experiences are equated with entertainment and commodified- becoming part of a system where things become valued only for their ability to be “consumed.” I am reminded, after 9-11, of the act of patriotism that was asked of us by our President. It was not to buy war bonds, it was not to start a victory garden, it was not to volunteer- it was to use your tax cut and go out and buy new goods- refrigerators, dvd’s, and the like. In my program, I frequently get calls for “a little teambuilding” or “high ropes” for schools in the area who would like to do it for 3 hours, once per year as a nice day off of school. Artificial climbing walls are now frequently set up in malls, cruise ships, and amusement parks, all to allow for maximum efficiency (many now are set-up without the need for a belayer) and turnover. Once you’ve “done” the wall, its time to move on to something else. In fact, my colleague and I joke that we are not far off from the brave new world of AFM’s – automated facilitator machines where, like ATM’s, you walk up, insert your card, and then choose options for your ropes course experience… What have we lost when the wonderfully rich metaphors of our field become commodified and disnified? When activities don’t even require a belayer anymore? When kids show up to do a program with us saying, “oh, rappelling? I already did that- do you have a bungy jump?”  When there is no time to do anything more than a few activities for a couple of hours? This is what some have called “edutainment.” Experiential education is much more than a series of activities. In Dewey’s vision (and many others) it was not meant to be a technique isolated from larger democratic aims. Dewey himself wrote, “what avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win the ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul; loses his appreciation of things worthwhile; loses the desire to apply what he has learned…?”(49).

I guess I mean to say that I believe our field is very fragile to these processes at the present moment.  In the treatment field they often say that first comes awareness that you have a problem. I think we have a problem.

Now, I am about half-way through and I’d like to invite us into some reflection. So, please turn to a neighbor or two and discuss what you have heard thus far. What ways do you see experiential education as fragile?


In addition to being fragile, I believe our project in experiential education is incomplete.  And, in many ways, it is our incompleteness that has made us fragile to the processes just described. The two go hand-in-hand. I also see two main ways we are incomplete- we are too narrow in our theoretical scope (essentially, in the way we define experiential education) and 2.) we have not looked closely enough at the ways in which our pedagogy speaks to issues of social justice (about the environment and about the disenfranchised). This is what I have taken to call the “roots and fruits” dilemma. I’ll talk about each in turn.

Our roots are too shallow. In some ways, it seems our field is like the fellow who has spent a little too much time alone in the wilderness who, upon re-entry, seems uneasy, incapable of translating the power of his experience to others, and perhaps would just prefer to return to his isolated world rather than engage with difference. We need to get out of the wilderness in a few specific ways. One is by diversifying our intellectual ancestors and the how we think about what experiential education is and is not. Most people think of John Dewey, Kurt Hahn, maybe Paul Petzhodlt, and perhaps, in the more modern context, David Kolb and his learning cycle. This is a fine list. But it is also a list, with respect, of dead, white men. There are others who have written about the role of experience in education that we do not hear from nor do we expose our students to. These are silenced voices that can enrich and expand the ways we think about our field. These voices also bring us “in from the outside” by engaging us with other theorists and practicioners who write about issues in schooling and education. People like Paolo Freire, Patricia Hill Collins, Amy Gutman, Nel Noddings, Deb Meier, Parker Palmer, Robert Fried, and, one of my favorites, Dorothy Lee. Haven’t heard of her? It’s no surprise. I have never heard her referenced in any context within the field of experiential education. Here is what Lee has to say about the danger of hyper-focusing on literacy at the expense of placing experience at the center of the curricular endeavor:

“Are we paying a heavy price for literacy? Are we giving up our heritage of wonder, of curiousity, of questing, of plunging into chaos and creating life out of it? Are we giving up our sense of mystery, the excitement of being lost in ambiguity and building a world out of it? Have we given up this heritage for the sake of literacy, which gives us a label instead of experience.”

Lee wrote that in 1976. What a remarkable and powerful voice, almost entirely overlooked by our field.

One other voice that is under-developed in our field is that of brain-based learning. I was so heartened to see Renata Caine keynote the AEE international conference this year in Tucson. We are learning so much about how the brain learns and much of it supports and re-affirms placing experience at the center of the curriculum. Noted researcher Eric Jensen provides one example of the potential of this connection. In his book, Brain Based Learning, Jensen lists the five elements of enriched learning environments (challenge, novelty, feedback, choice, and time)… sound familiar? He goes on to suggest how teachers can use this in the classroom:

“Create a multi-sensory environment…Increase social interaction and group work. Move to novel locations frequently…Provide quality, not just quantity time…Provide positive feedback; and celebrate accomplishments with fun…and most of all, offer students choices so that their learning is meaningful”

I can’t imagine a stronger affirmation of what we do. So often in our field we rely on anecdotal evidence to back-up our educational approaches. But, in the current reform climate, such rationale is simply not acceptable. Practicioners and theorists must become much more comfortable with quantitative methodologies and research strategies as well as searching beyond our field for support and evidence. The brain-based learning field is one such potential ally.

Besides shallow and narrow roots, our other area of incompleteness is under-developed fruits. That is to say, what is the purpose of experiential education? What does it bring forth to the world? Individual transformation is heavily emphasized in our field but at the expense of closely examining how our pedagogy impacts groups of people. Think of the term “hoods in the woods.” We toss that term around with some regularity. Now, really think about that term… is that really what we want to be communicating to the disenfranchised about who we are, what we do, and what we value? I would hope that we can eradicate such overt racism from our field. But there is something deeper here than surface attempts at diversity and multiculturalism. It goes to the very core of what we do. I believe, as a field, we have grown to under-emphasize the moral consequences of knowledge. Many in education critique knowledge for knowledge sake. I would posit that a similar critique could be leveled at experiential education: activity for activity sake. The important question is:  activity to what further use or purpose? How do our curriculum designs make the world a better, more equitable, more sustainable place? For example, do our service learning programs truly ask students to question and critique a society where such profound inequality exists? Do our outdoor programs facilitate critical dialogue about issues of sustainability and industrialism beyond simply teaching about LNT? And, when we facilitate programs for the disenfranchised, how much say do these culture groups have in the co-creation of the program and curriculum?

And this is a tough one. During talks like this one I inevitably get asked about what we should do to “solve the diversity problem.” Mostly this involves questions of getting our participation numbers up. My response is this: before we think about getting numbers up, we need to think about who is creating the curriculum and for whom. Most of the curriculum in experiential education is created by well-off white folks to be delivered to either A.) other well-off white folk, or B.) not well-off “at-risk” folk. Like in so many areas of our society, unless we see real representation at the highest levels in terms of gender, race, class and other marginalized identities, we will not move very far beyond this passive deliverer:receiver construct even if the actual methodology is experiential. Experience in education does not just exist within the activity, but it is in the active construction of the learning experience itself. This is so important to me that I will say it again: experience in education does not just exist within the activity, but it is in the active construction of the learning experience itself. To illustrate this, I would like to return to Alvin- my student camper who has remained my teacher to this day.

Alvin’s Story: Part 3

About a month after the second call from Alvin that ended awkwardly, I got another message from the office. It was Alvin again and he wanted me to call him back. I’d like to think that I simply forgot or that I got too busy with the next session of camp, but I know better. I never called him back. I didn’t want to because I knew I didn’t have anything else to say- there was nothing in my training, in my background, or in my manual that told me how to deal with the kind of pain and hurt that Alvin was going through. This is part of what WEB Dubois called racial two-ness. Existing in-between worlds- part of both but unable to identify exclusively with either. Richard Rodriguez, in his powerful memoir on bilingual education Hunger of Memory, describes the dilemma this way:

“From the story of the scholarship boy there is no specific pedagogy to glean. There is, however, a much larger lesson. His story makes clear that education is a long, unglamorous, even demeaning process- a nurturing never natural to the person one was before one entered a classroom… [the scholarship boy] both wants to go back and yet thinks he has gone beyond his class, feels weighted with knowledge of his own …situation.”

I have never forgotten about Alvin though I do not know what has happened to him. He was not well served by our so-called transformative experiential education. He spent just enough time with us to open up and reveal the vulnerabilities of a young man needing love, and then he was released, fragile and incomplete, into a world no longer one that he knew how to navigate. And for that, Alvin, I want to say something out-loud, in public, that I have yearned to say for so long… I am sorry. I am sorry I did not call you back. I am sorry you were not given more support. I am sorry that our program and your experience failed both you and us. And, every chance that I get, I will think about ways to do better.


Alvin’s story puts into perspective many of the elements that I believe make our field fragile and incomplete at the present moment. Parker Palmer, a noted writer on the role of teaching, discusses an old Hasidic tale in his book The Courage To Teach. He writes:

I once heard this Hasidic tale: “We need a coat with two pockets. In one pocket there is dust, and in the other pocket there is gold. We need a coat with two pockets to remind us of who we are. Knowing, teaching, and learning under the grace of great things will come from teachers who own such a coat and who wear it to class every day.”

I believe that the field of experiential education is also like a coat with two pockets. I have spent the time here this evening speaking about the pocket full of dust, but it is critically important that we also celebrate our pocket full of gold. We need to remind ourselves that we are defined by BOTH the dust and the gold.  It is not enough to rest on our real or imagined laurels, nor is it permissible to simply criticize the ways we don’t match up with our ideals and values. An exclusive emphasis on one or the other yields either a mindless optimism or a defeatist cynicism. A vital democratic project thrives on neither of these extremes.  An Arizona rancher once told me and a group of students learning about Western water issues that, “we need to find ways to re-discover the radical center” in problem solving. A place where we can hold these challenges and opportunities in tension with one another without letting either one go. Two pockets.

If you are waiting for the five-point plan to make experiential education solid and complete, I am afraid I will disappoint. The theme of this conference is “Bringing It Home.” What I hope we can all bring home is the sense that we will forever exist in that place of being both fragile and incomplete- just as Cornell West described the larger democratic project. We should be aware of this fact, ever vigilant, but also full of hope and celebrating the tensions that arise from this place. From time to time, Alvin reminds me that it doesn’t always work. That sometimes we fail. But I also know that I am committed to this field because of students like Alvin. The fact that we don’t have all the answers should not be lamented. It should be celebrated. After all, isn’t this what we remind our participants as they contemplate a complex problem solving initiative? Or a scary climb? Or a challenging addiction? Cruxes make our lives meaningful.

I’d like to conclude tonight with the words of two great poets- each of whom speak to this issue of not knowing- and, being OK with not knowing. First is a poem called “The Real Work” by Wendell Berry.

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do
We have come to our real work
And that when we no longer know which way to go
We have come to our real journey. |
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

And the last word must go to great poet Maria Ranier Rilke in his letters to a young poet. His words speak my mind better than I ever could.

“Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves… Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Thank you for allowing me to live my questions with you tonight.

Jay Roberts
Assistant Prof, Education
Director, Wilderness Programs
Earlham College

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