Marolt: Learning in the natural laboratory that led to everything else | AspenTimes.com

Marolt: Learning in the natural laboratory that led to everything else

Roger Marolt
Roger This

It’s about the time you think you have the market cornered on being unique you find out that you are not alone. About 50 years ago, some people who were paying attention came up with the idea that kids should be exposed to a wilderness experience some time in their lives and the sooner this happened the better because, as they knew from experience, the older you get the more stuff you have going on and the wilderness experience begins to look more and more like the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland that you can squeeze into the schedule one Sunday afternoon when the cousins come to visit.

These progressive people were mostly teachers. They put together a plan where kids would head out into the forest for a week to sleep, eat, observe and have some fun at it, and they sold it as educational. They might have carried some litmus paper and taken a few water samples to enforce that notion, but the main idea was to just let kids experience something other than the comforts of their modern homes and see that they could live without television. Fortunately the parents bought it, and at one point about 90 percent of the local schoolkids participated in the widely popular program.

Here’s the thing, though: I’m not talking about the Aspen School District Outdoor Education program, although it, too, was put together about a half century ago by forward-thinking teachers, and what I said about the other program that I am actually talking about here also can be said about our cherished local program. If anything, our program is more expansive and includes experiential trips from fifth grade through senior year of high school.

The program I’m talking about is in Oregon, and the similarities to our schools’ outdoor education curriculum, including its inception date, make you wonder if one of these programs inspired the other or if there really are parallel universes. I don’t know.

At any rate, I bring up the Oregon program because that state’s ballot this fall includes a question about whether or not the citizens want to expand the outdoor education program to include 100 percent participation of sixth-graders. What most kids and their parents are eager volunteer participants in now would become a mandatory part of the statewide educational curriculum.

Not surprisingly, there are opponents to this proposal. The strongest arguments against it appear to be, one, that a week living in a tent somehow can turn an otherwise normal, red-blooded kid into a liberal and, two, the state lottery funds targeted to expand the program could better be used to entice more business expansion in the state; two very nonsensical Trumpesque notions, if you ask me. You can blame it on my own participation in the Aspen outdoor education program from an impressionable age on.

I think it’s weird that enjoying parts of the Earth that have not been smudged heavily with man’s fingerprints is labeled “liberal.” Is it that standing in awe in front of sunsets and mountain lakes makes one see social issues more progressively and reject the idea of trickle-down economics, or that witnessing the fragility of macrobiotic soil makes you leery of the encroachment of big business on the land? Never mind; this is probably true.

The other thing I don’t understand, or more honestly I think is pure phooey, about the argument against outdoor education is that it is less a priority than expanding business. The way I see it is that God made the natural world and we made businesses. He made us, so there is a connection. But, doesn’t it seem more copacetic that the natural world should inspire the decisions we make in running our businesses than the other way around?

It will be interesting to watch what happens with the vote in Oregon. If history is any indicator, what we do here and what they do there with this component of our children’s educations may have some bearing on each other. The fact that outdoor education in Aspen has pretty much become embraced for all of our students from middle school through high school every year without a formal vote of our citizens is testament to how our town sees this as important as 100 percent participation in math and reading. What I hope doesn’t happen, should the vote in Oregon go against expanding the long-standing program there, is that it gives anyone around here the wrong idea.

Roger Marolt can’t remember much about eighth grade, but his memories of outdoor education that year are clear as the ice was in the jog and dip stream. Email at roger@maroltllp.com.


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