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SEP. 2, 2015

A Bear Ate My Homework

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Roger Herbert, OA Director

During a day hike up Johns Rock last Saturday, Semester 41 was treated to an encounter with one of the Southern Appalachian’s most fascinating and beautiful inhabitants: a black bear.  For those trained in the fundamentals of bear safety—as all OA students are—bear encounters are exhilarating and memorable.  I will never forget the first time I saw a bear in the wild.

While meeting a black bear on its home turf is typically a delight, I recently learned that last year one of our students had a less than delightful experience.  The story goes like this: during trek, an intellectually curious bear decided to explore the tarp under which the class had stowed its gear.  Finding nothing that resembled food (a result of solid backcountry practices), the bear chose to make off with a small daypack that contained an English paper that one of our student’s had been working on.  The bear, in other words, ate her homework.

Hearing this story, it occurred to me that I must speak to this student before she writes her college essays.  She HAS to include this story.  College admissions committees will “eat it up” (so to speak).

This story also reminded me that the OA experience does so much more to prepare students for college than providing fodder for college essays.  I recently had the privilege of teaching international relations and political theory to undergrads at the University of Virginia.  UVa is one of the nation’s top universities.  Yet even there I observed that many college students never break the high-school habit of passively receiving “knowledge” from their professors.  They are consumers of information rather than producers of knowledge.  This is not the type of student that the best universities are trying to attract.  Nor is this the type of student who flourishes at the college level.

Students who complete a semester at the Outdoor Academy typically leave our school with a different approach to learning.  Katie, our Academic Dean, sets a high bar for OA students and faculty alike.  When students graduate from the OA, they will have learned many things about themselves and the world around them.  Primarily, however, they will have learned, in Katie’s words, “to take ownership of their education.”  They will have discovered that learning has its own rewards and that those rewards have little to do with pleasing teachers or earning external recognition.  Rather than passively absorbing wisdom from the “sage on the stage,” they will have learned to challenge (respectfully) their teachers and their texts, to think critically, and to reach their own conclusions.

A student who takes ownership of her or his education is the student that every college professor and admissions counselor dreams of.

In a couple of years I’ll have the privilege of writing letters of recommendation for Semester 41.  I’m looking forward to explaining to college admissions committees around the country what precisely a semester at the OA means.  Not only will they be admitting students who have summited mountains, paddled challenging rivers, and shared their English papers with black bears, they will be admitting students who have learned—and practiced—the virtue of directing their own education.

Roger Herbert, OA Director