The character builders - Harold Drasdo

Harold Drasdo on "adventure" schemes such as Outward Bound, aimed at young people.

Submitted by Steven. on November 15, 2015

The symposium on adventure playgrounds which formed the seventh issue of anarchy might well have been complemented with a discussion of what is, in one sense, one of the same problem's other faces: education through adventure in open country. For the directions in which this work has been moving should enlist the attention of anarchists. Anyone uninformed in these affairs might assume that what we could call the informal sports – camping, mountaineering, sailing, and their derivatives – that these normally non-competitive activities must be admirably free from the tendencies we make note of in education and in social affairs. Since the war, however, instruction in these skills has become involved with public and private money through the establishment of permanent centres by the Outward Bound Trust, the Central Council for Physical Recreation, several Local Education Authorities, and other interested bodies. And already we can distinguish libertarian and authoritarian attitudes at work.

Of these ventures the Outward Bound Trust is the most publicised and makes claims for its four-week courses different in kind from those made by the other centres. It has indirect liaisons with the Services and the Churches. A glance at any literature about the work of the Trust will help to identify its position provisionally. The vocabulary is characteristic: relating to its aims – spiritual awareness, leadership, loyalty, character training, self-discipline, clean living; to its methods – competition, supreme exertion, shock treatment, honours and merit badges. It doesn't seem essential to outline the whole mystique of Outward Bound here but you can see immediately that there must be points for discussion in this idea. Taking it for granted that were we to resolve the more obvious of the semantic problems in the stated aims – matters of definition in such abstractions as "character", for instance – we might still find grounds for hostility, it seems necessary to suggest briefly what values the activities themselves, from any viewpoint, might be agreed to have.

To begin with, we must remind ourselves that most of the adolescents attending these courses are unacquainted with the natural world to an extent difficult for us to grasp. There are factors that have operated towards and against this but for proof talk to a representative group of them for about ten minutes. It isn't necessary to raise a complicated theory of value in order to insist that simple sense-experience, in and for itself, is good. And at this lowest level there is the sheer visual shock of this new world, its colours and space, whether you care to describe it in aesthetic or physiological terms; the feel of rock, snow, heather; the silences and sounds; the new information for every mode of sense perception. For some reason this never seems to be emphasised despite the fact that we admit the discoveries of the senses to be the basis of knowledge. And in synthesis, the earth, after all, is our planet and its landscapes, experienced directly, can arouse sensations only remotely stirred by second-hand parade upon the screen. Of course, some of this applies to older people too. Any week-end you can see families getting out of their cars for a roadside picnic with the trepidation of the first astronauts disembarking on a new star: suspiciously on the watch for dangerous rain, untrustworthy animals, the risk of getting dirty.
Then there are the skills acquired. It is a surprise to many to find how peculiarly natural such an activity as canoeing, for example, feels even today. In the same way, the apparently specialised equipment of the mountaineer – ice-axe, rope, climbing boots, piton hammer – is often felt to have an almost instant familiarity; perhaps because these articles are really only types of the basic instruments of man's emergence. For whatever reason, and scores could be advanced, it is observable fact that these skills satisfy richly, that in some way the body recognises them. To many youngsters they are ecstatically exciting. Indeed, with increasing frequency and with justice the question is raised: why is so much money and effort spent on teaching children games which the majority never practise after leaving school? It can't be supported with the reasons used to justify algebra or Greek.. On the other hand, if an interest is awakened these informal sports can be, and often are, followed as participant, not spectator, until late in life; because, sooner or later, it becomes apparent that satisfaction in these sports has small reference to any external standard but relates rather to an internal balancing of ability and desire. Also, aside from pleasure and apart from fitness, there are indisputable benefits to the general health, sometimes visible at the end of a week.

Then there is the social aspect. There can be no easier way of demonstrating the necessity for co-operation than by an expedition in rough country, a microcosm in which the consequences of actions are seen immediately and without complication. Indeed, simplified to a level appropriate to any age-group and mentality, we can show as if with the force of an experiment: we must love one another or die. If wisely arranged, the communal life of the centre can support this lesson strongly.

Ought not these possibilities to be enough in themselves? Many of us would maintain that with some obvious resultants they are more than enough. But at this point we must dissociate ourselves from the theorists of Outward Bound. For what is the connection between these benefits and the promises not to swear, not to smoke, not drink? What has "clean living" got to do with this? Why should it be thought necessary to teach co-operation competitively? Why the cult of leadership, the sermons and homilies, the heavy expense of spirit? Clearly, because we are in Montgomeryland, the Trust is training Christian soldiers, and, to a larger or smaller extent, is simply using the sea and mountains instrumentally. It is using these activities, like it or not, in a way analogous to that in which Germany used them: to fit the child to the State. A different idea of the State, a different ideal for the citizen, but beneath it the same principle.

It appears that, aside from any disagreement about what defines character, we can now make two major criticisms of the work of the Trust. Firstly, owing to the stress on extreme fitness, competition, the "conquering of self", and so forth, it seems that in many activities the youngsters are pressed far past the point of enjoyment. Anyone who has talked to a number of unaccompanied Outward Bound parties on the fells will agree that, even allowing for temporary despondencies forgotten in retrospect and for the astonishing resilience of youngsters. a proportion of the boys is disenchanted forever with these pastimes. What proportion this may be it would be very difficult to determine but (of the "conscripts" from industry, at any rate) some estimates put it at a majority. And if you believe that the activities are good in themselves and not simply as means there is an unanswerable failure here. Secondly, for normal adolescents even these neutral pastimes may be given distasteful and irrelevant associations by the clumsily overt emphasis on "character" and example. Youngsters tend to judge a sport by its practitioners and the way they talk. In mitigation of these criticisms it is important to add that when one is in unspoiled country a sense of freedom is often conspicuously present and a resistance to authority and its precepts may be encouraged by contrast; if the trainees are sent out unchaperoned, Nature subverts the intentions of the character builders at every step. Nonetheless, it seems certain that the basic merits of the activities are in many cases, if not negated, at least severely limited by this general approach.

Whilst none of the other experiments has been based on professedly libertarian principles. some of them do stand at a noticeable remove from the authoritarianism of Outward Bound. The Derbyshire Education Committee's centre at Buxton, which has been running for more than ten years now, is amongst these. Its establishment was to the credit of the Director of Education for Derbyshire, Jack Longland, whose influence in this field has been very considerable and entirely to the good. He has, it is true, inevitably become involved in Outward Bound affairs but has, at the same time, firmly rejected facile theories of character-transference – the playing fields of Eton stuff. He has drawn attention to the loose identification of "character" and "morals". And he has exercised a nice restraint, suggesting gently that the whole concept of character is a more elusive and complex subject than the more exuberant of the outdoor educationists seem to assume. The following notes, however, don't pretend to represent official policy but simply a few aspects of the working rules evolved at White Hall.

The consideration which underlies all others is safety. It might not seem necessary to state this but it's worth mentioning since some of the ends and means we criticise operate against it. Where others' lives are concerned no-one has the right even to think about so-called "calculated" risks. This said, the obvious first principle is that the youngsters and adults who visit the centre should enjoy themselves. The obvious test is whether they want to come again or not. The aim is the stimulation of a permanent interest in any of the activities. We are persuaded that we have been very successful with this approach and this success must largely result from the general absence of pressure. In detail, there is almost always complete freedom of choice as to which of the specialised activities – rock-climbing, canoeing, caving, and so on – are taken and if anyone wishes he can just go fell-walking instead. We do not assume that everyone must like these pastimes. No-one is pressed to do anything he finds difficult or alarming. There is no element of competition and, accordingly, there is no obstacle to the co-educational course which is common. Potential leaders are not sought and relations between instructors and pupils are nearly informal. Indeed, the atmosphere at the centre has always been so friendly that there has been no difficulty in securing the assistance of as many unpaid volunteer instructors as has been thought useful every weekend since the centre was opened. Some of these instructors first came to the centre as novices. The cost of running this kind of service is not exorbitant in comparison with the sums spent on large playing fields for formal games and athletics. Many of us feel that such centres present the ideal forms of physical education and that where geographically possible – almost everywhere – whatever sorts of natural facilities are available ought to be used.

In conclusion, we must revert to the question of character and morals. It would require a long essay to separate and define these concepts adequately enough for useful discussion. Briefly, however, of this whole complex of attitudes some aspects we might dismiss as comparatively trivial affairs of habit or manners. Some of the religious and sexual content, as propounded in this context, we might wish to reject entirely. Some abstract qualities such as loyalty and self-confidence we might feel disinclined to class as virtues. But some sort of nucleus is left behind and towards the development of this we can offer certain non-verbal lessons, related to the benefits mentioned earlier, which assuredly are a part of the experiental basis of any higher qualities. In particular, it may reasonably be claimed that such slight tastes of loneliness, hunger, or apparent hazard as may occur incidentally in these activities serve to make evident the primary values of company, food, security. And, above all, if it is possible for the youngster to visit the same centre at different seasons there is the nourishment of release and continuity and certainty that the natural world can give; with, in completion, the very important sense of process and impermanence that underlies it, a tragic sense, perhaps, but one of the foundations of humanism and real education.

HAROLD DRASDO is a Nottingham teacher who spent two years as an instructor at the White Hall Open Country Pursuits Centre. Well-known in the mountaineering world, he is the author of an official guide to rock-climbing in the Lake District.