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DEC. 11, 2013

Ender vs. OA

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I will probably not go see Ender’s Game, the new science-fiction movie about a young general fighting against invading aliens, but I was inspired by its debut to re-read the original book. One of my childhood favorites, I was entranced once more with the fascinating coming-of-age story. Ender is torn from his family, sent off to Battle School, and is put in charge of managing a small army of child-soldiers in a series of games that loosely resemble null-gravity laser tag. Despite having the rules of the games turned against him, Ender is brilliantly successful as a commander and is put in charge of a video-game army. After fighting a series of demanding virtual battles, Ender is told that he was commanding a real army by proxy and that he has incidentally wiped out the alien race.

Ender’s Game is in many respects a study in pedagogy, especially as it relates to creating inspiring leaders and effective teams. I could not help but notice how the Battle School has similar aims to leadership and teamwork as The Outdoor Academy, though with entirely converse morals and techniques. For example, Ender is being groomed to be a commander, so his teachers make sure to praise him in front of his other teammates while criticizing his peers. As a result, Ender becomes a social pariah, and he must win admiration and respect through pure prowess. His commanders use this strategy to make him calculating and independent. Conversely, we believe that the success of any leader must be in relationship to the rest of the community, so we ask that our students become intentional about how their particular leadership style impacts the group. As a result, OA students trend towards empathy and away from hegemony.

Perhaps most remarkable is the Battle School’s use of virtual reality to train its students. The “games” that Ender plays are useful for teaching military strategy, but they have little to do with the horror of real battlefields. The Battle School continues to uphold the farce of virtual reality warfare when Ender commands a real army by telling him that his battles are a simulation. As a result, Ender is absolutely ruthless and ultimately slaughters an entire sentient species. In later books, Ender finds himself haunted with guilt for a xenocide he did not intent to commit. It is a powerful lesson, and offers eerie parallels to contemporary ethical questions being raised about the use of armed drones. Will military commanders continue to practice ethical warfare if they are removed from the actual battlefield? Should artificial intelligence programmers be sure to create “ethical” war machines? I offer these conundrums in relation to the model of experiential education used by OA. Whenever possible, we confront students with the reality of what they are studying. Because their hands are wrist-deep in the dirt, they know the grit and smell of that dirt, and the bitterness and sweetness of what grows from it. And, because we chiefly study how to live well in community, students are confronted with the bitterness and sweetness that grows from their actions as well.

As virtual reality and simulation increasingly inhabit our realities, it will be important to recognize when they are used to conceal conflict. Our students cannot hide behind facebook posts and tweets. Their words and actions have immense power, and they see for themselves the hurt or healing they enact. Just as Ender was only able to act ruthlessly because his actions were concealed from him by virtual reality, our students are able to act compassionately because their actions are stripped down to what is absolutely real.