Why the U.S. Congress Should Go To NOLS
Imagine a group of people tasked to accomplish important things, but who do not share much in common. The people in this group tend to take one of two sides when controversy comes up. Common ground is not common.
Imagine that this group of people finally recognizes that continuing with status quo methods is not effective. Terms like “leadership” and “judgment” and “consensus” are bandied about. Nudged, perhaps, by multiple communities affected by this group’s habitual gridlock, it realizes that it is time to find a better way.
Imagine that this group discovers a place that can help, a school well-versed in educating others how to overcome the adversities of malfunction and disruption, and to tolerate the differences of others. Imagine that the members of this group at last embrace the need to learn (or maybe re-learn, for they haven’t always been so crusty) the discourse and civility and skills and dialogue that are part of knowing how to get along.
Imagine they agree to a course of study where they get to go into the wilderness and stay there long enough to tune in and remember things that they possibly learned as children but have forgotten: the sights and sounds and healing forces of the natural world, the authority of weather and uneven terrain, the shock and relief of jumping into a mountain lake after a hot day of hiking. The comfort of sitting around fire at night, a dense carpet of stars overhead. The moon rising. The thrill of hearing the coyotes greet it.
They learn how to live with each other day after day as they gain the skills to thrive in this unusual place: learning to cook meals, pitch tents, carry the weight of their lives on their backs, gain the top of a pass, or even a mountaintop.
They learn, along the way, how to get along—for in such a place, the group is actually a temporary tribe, dependent on each member. Everyone develops the skills of both leadership and followership. The group agrees on a culture of tolerance and support in this positive learning environment. They learn to regard one other differently, and as the course makes its way from its daily lessons and returns to the far more challenging terrain of daily life, the students return to home base with a new-found set of skills and respect for the differences among them.
There is a school, not widely known even though it’s been around for 50+ years, where these skills are taught, and where students of all ages routinely go home transformed. I got to write its history last year*, and during the writing, had to maintain a certain degree of journalistic objectivity. Now that I’m free of those constraints, I say: the instructors at NOLS can, and routinely do, teach judgment, leadership, tolerance for adversity and other skills essential in this increasingly hostile world. With tact and impressive skill, NOLS instructors help students respect the values and beliefs of all the members of the expedition. They promote positive attitudes, and help students become motivated to work hard with people who very often are quite different from them. Students learn how to care about the others—all of them—and to make the welfare of the group equal to their own. A profound understanding evolves in which students understand that an expedition succeeds when all its members are successful. (See nols.edu)
For our nation, the coming four years seem like a daunting mountain, rising menacingly and filled with any number of hazards. As a nation, we are on a collective expedition which currently lacks grounding in the core principles that are foundational to NOLS students on field courses. Wouldn’t it be something for members of the U.S. Congress to acquire a NOLS education? It’s not too late. The shuttle astronaut teams went into space armed with NOLS educations; the Naval Academy midshipmen routinely test their lessons in military leadership on 30-day NOLS courses. One of the core principles all NOLS students learn is a phenomenon the founder dubbed “expedition behavior.” Good EB alone would doubtless alter the tenor of our government for the better.
Imagine the U.S. Congress being guided by the precepts they’d learn at NOLS. Imagine.
[*The book? Take a look!: “A Worthy Expedition: The History of NOLS”]