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JUN. 27, 2019

The Betterment of Human Character: Where are We Headed?

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In last week’s blog post, OA History and Natural Sciences teacher Ted Weseman reflected on a Spring Break visit to the United States Naval Academy to see Dr. Roger Herbert, our previous Director of The Outdoor Academy. Roger just completed his first year on the USNA faculty, teaching ethics to all second-year students, and Ted shared a bit of history about Roger’s work to build on OA’s mission of “promoting the betterment of human character.”

With Eagle’s Nest now switched over into Camp mode, I am excited to have some quiet time apart from the hectic day-to-day pace of an OA semester to think big picture, particularly as we approach the school’s 25th anniversary and consider what we want this place to be in the next quarter-century. As I consider new possibilities for our school, our curriculum, and various aspects of our programming, my thoughts frequently return to the ENF mission: “Experiential education for young people, promoting the natural world and the betterment of human character.” Much like it did for Roger, that “betterment of human character” bit really jumps out at me. When I was interviewing for the Director position at OA, Roger told me that he and the faculty sincerely believe that “OA is changing the world, 25 or so students at a time.” It is both exciting and daunting to think of our school’s purpose in such lofty terms, but Roger’s sentiments were not hyperbole, and it is my great privilege to take up the mantle of my predecessors’ efforts on such challenging but necessary work.

So, where does one begin when trying to use school to better human character? As Ted wrote, Roger brought his academic interest and expertise in ethics and leadership to OA in the form of an ethics seminar. We are continuing to offer these lessons, with OA Medical Coordinator/Independent Studies Coordinator David Morgan taking up instructional duties for the seminars. They have also influenced our Residential Life curriculum with language and ideas, and Dean of Students Susan Daily plans workshops and lessons on healthy relationships, diversity, and group decision-making with an eye toward helping our students develop as moral individuals. On more than one occasion, I have asked a student sitting in my office to consider the ethical ramifications of their choices in our community, and our students take this seriously. We see them hold each other and themselves to a high standard of behavior.

We have also executed our broad-reaching Betterment of Human Character Survey, which saw hundreds of responses from across the Eagle’s Nest community of Camp folks, Hante folks, OA folks, parents of alums, and staff. We were thrilled to see our programs get high marks for infusing our offerings with lessons in kindness, gratitude, love, teamwork, appreciation for diversity, and appreciation of beauty. We are doing a bit more analysis to see how these results play out by program, and our next step will be for each Eagle’s Nest program to use what we have learned to draft character education statements. These statements will serve as a reminder to our faculty, staff, and leadership of what’s truly important in constructing a summer of fun and friendship or a challenging semester of school. They will also be aspirational, pushing us to continually think about how we can more fully leverage an Eagle’s Nest experience for the purpose of bettering character.

To support our continued efforts to amplify character as a core of what we do, I see great potential in the initial findings from The University of Utah’s multiyear research project about the efficacy of the semester school model. Professor Jim Silbthorp and his team are still in the process of wrapping up data collection and analysis, but they are initially finding that schools like OA and our peers around the country create a space that accelerates the process of adolescent identity formulation and consolidation by a year to two years as compared to students who do not attend a semester school. In short, students at OA are figuring out who they are, what they value, and what they might like to do with their lives. We have created a powerful space here at OA, and filling that space with the types of curricula, activities, and experiences that we believe will advance our mission is our focus moving forward.   

One area in which the entire foundation is putting energy and resources is in our efforts to be a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive a community. With the help of a cross-cultural agility consultant, Niambi Jaha-Echols, our entire organization is taking a careful look inward and outward to think about whose voices are missing from Hart Road and how we can make this a place that gives all of our students and campers the opportunity to learn from each other’s differences. I also see great potential in connecting our community in authentic and meaningful ways with our neighbors here in the Little River valley and Transylvania County. We have the opportunity to learn with and from people in this little corner of Southern Appalachia and, in the process, make a positive impact on our broader Western North Carolina community. Indeed, I believe that one of the areas in which educators have the greatest potential to better human character is to help students develop the skills and the desire to connect across differences and to empathize with those whose lived experiences might not look the same.

Be on the lookout for a guest blog post from Niambi about her work with Eagle’s Nest and The Outdoor Academy in the near future!

By Glenn DeLaney