Thinking about the broader concept of odysseys needed by an increasing number of adolescents accelerated because of an impassioned phone call from my 21-year old son Sam. Fresh from a university-sponsored trek through Death Valley and in cell phone range on a reprovisioning stop, he almost breathlessly recounted what appeared to be a transforming experience for him. Our co-pilgrimage [me, my wife Janis and Sam], officially starting when he walked away from a traditional high school at 15, generated some gray hair and sleepless nights for us. At times these six years mimicked the anxious times when our eldest wandered the alleys of large Iraqi cities lugging an M-16. Other than crediting almost ceaseless prayer in the years prior, what happened to Sam in Death Valley that created this conversation?
I questioned him closely and tried to determine what was meaningful for him. The amplified bullet points below emerged:
- A seamless experience – learning occurred all hours, through meals, constantly challenging.
- Intensive – distractions were removed by a remote location.
- Contextualized – daily activities folded into content and illustrated it.
- Physical – sweat and exhaustion tend to focus the mind wonderfully… endorphin-enhanced learning.
- Coaching & mentoring – faculty in relationship, operating in non or counter-intuitive, non-traditional environments; (co-generated research complements this).
- Reflection – processing knowledge in non-traditional frameworks reinforces learning. The scholarship of co-discovery connected with the requirement to teach is fundamental.
- Rigor & discipline – ongoing process of surviving and stretching to reach daunting goals tied to acquiring tools for self-management.
- Responsibility – actual roles leading followers.
- A crucible or defining experience – episodes that shake our beliefs and challenge our mortality, that embody significant risk, that serve as rites of passage, that lead to adulthood.
I mentioned this quick summary previously in a blog. A revisit is in order, because this possible profile for “quest-driven leadership formation” or even “odyssey learning” creates intriguing challenges for us educators. The course description for the Sierra experience might be written more circumspectly if I were the author. Never promise more than you can deliver has worked well for old and battered professors through the ages. But Sam’s phone call sounded like the course had delivered.
While Sam breathed the pure air of the high Sierras, someone in his group mentioned Prescott College to him. [By the way, this is not a puff piece for Prescott – at the same time, it will be clear that my introduction to Prescott was a happy one. Furthermore, I am an educational cynic. Enough decades wrestling various academic plows through rocky soil makes me question claims and promises.] Many small liberal arts colleges especially now occupy difficult places, so I have found that diminished expectations are a good starting point for thinking about the flourishing of non-Ivy liberal arts institutions. [see other blogs on the meaningful Outside]. So when we dutifully fired up the rental car for a six-hour slog to Arizona, I was excited for Sam but dubious that gold would be found at the base of this particular rainbow.
The usual nice admissions people greeted us, the viewbook was proffered and the campus tour set out down a dusty path on a hot Arizona summer day. My epiphany began when we visited the “warehouse”, a cavernous space filled with backpacking equipment, kayaks, dutch ovens, immersion suits, skis and even a spacious and climate-controlled food locker for extended wilderness provisioning. Outside, a large parking lot hosted a stable of logoed passenger vans, which spilled over to street parking. I blurted, “what’s with all the vans?” [Please note that other online sources indicated only five or six hundred students studied at the residential campus. Usually little colleges don’t put scarce cash into kayaks and vans.] Our guide related that most of the time students just wandered off with their instructor in a van to learn at some off-campus place, because traditional classrooms could get boring. [We eventually did find some small, efficient classrooms, a rather spectacular library building constructed almost entirely of recycled materials, and a beautiful stone-paneled washroom worthy of a five-star hotel.]
The trek continued to another parking lot which featured a chain-link cage stashed with various bicycle parts. So again, I asked the obvious question… and the answer was that a required senior project energized one student to collect bicycle parts from around town, put together a training program for other students in bike building and maintenance, stimulate each to build one, and then use it to commute. The student graduated and moved on but the cage continues with volunteers.
For the immediate future, Sam starts at Prescott in a few weeks and we are hopeful.
But from the longer view, the innovator in me wonders how many of these approaches to educating students in the “odyssey years” do we understand? Certainly this model will not solve every undergraduate learning challenge teachers and administrators face, but something appears to be working at Prescott. Programs like this are labor-intensive, requiring faculty who serve as much for love as for money. How can we keep them happy?
Everyone seems to understand the mission – the business of the college – quite clearly. The tagline, “for the liberal arts, the environment and social justice” is evolving. [“social justice” does not appear on earlier versions, but it works.] There is a “there” here. The curriculum reflects it and apparently so do the results.
The customer is clear – one staff member said, upon being introduced to Sam, “you look just like the rest of our students!” Several of the students we talked to appeared to be in their late twenties or early thirties. Two specifically echoed, “I tried other places and they didn’t work for me.” This is obviously a place for some people that may not work for other people.
And, the value proposition fits the mission and the customer. For certain students, a full sensory experience for learning may be necessary, in non-traditional settings, using alternative measures of performance and assessment through small group relationships, which allows for broad self-direction. If Prescott is producing liberally-educated people who are contributing to their communities and the world, then something must be working.
A key question remaining is how can this be made sustainable while remaining credible?
 The evolution of the college has not been without obstacles. See S.N. Henrie, Uncommon education. 2008. [Tucson, AZ: Wheatmark]. At one point regional accreditation was lost but then later regained.