Are The Mountains Still Speaking For Themselves?
Thomas James' (1980) classic article "Can The Mountains Speak for Themselves?" articulated a defining tension in outdoor education - when should an instructor facilitate an experience and when should an instructor simple let the experience be? James eloquently describes the debate between the stoic, traditional, mountaineering-type "rock-jocks" from the early days of Outward Bound and the more recent influx of softer-thinking, verbal, new-age-type "touchy-feelies". James puts forward incisive descriptions of the potential strengths and potential limitations of both positions.
In the 1960's, Rusty Baillie, at the Colorado Outward Bound School, coined the term "Can the Mountains Speak for Themselves". James' classic paper in 1980, of the same name, stands as a landmark in Outward Bound and outdoor education philosophical literature. James observed that the early Outward Bound programs tended to be run as a series of engaging activities which, through their careful design and sequencing, had the desired effects of enhancing participants' personal capabilities and general wherewithal.
Thomas James commented that Outward
Bound instructors in the early days tended to be competent and
comfortable guides in the outdoors. This was necessary in the beginning
of new schools, especially as new area and programs were being explored
and developed. As the educational success of Outward Bound's methods
became better known, and as the program developed and matured, James
observed the influx of instructors who were attracted more strongly by the
educational possibilities as opposed to the outdoor life per se.
This second generation of Outward Bound instructors felt it important that
Outward Bound programs also facilitate the psychological experience via
processes such as group discussions, diary-writing, individual counseling,
and so on.
“Mountains” versus “Facilitation” is a necessary and healthy tension. No school should try to solve the issue - it is there as a source of debate and challenge in the search for effective programs. The issue can be part of initial training. I have instructors read James’ paper and identify strengths and weaknesses associated with '"letting an experience speak for itself" and "facilitating". I then have them design their own model for resolving the issue. These exercises can be used as an important self-reflection tasks for better understanding one’s personal preferences when approaching the design and instruction of Outward Bound programs.
James, T. (1980/2000). Can The Mountains Speak for Themselves? Scisco Conscientia, 3. This is the original paper, with permission from Thomas James. [html]
One effective way of helping trainees, staff, undergraduate students, or conference participants engage in the defining tension of mountains vs. facilitation is to conduct a workshop. Basically the 60-90 minute workshop engages participants experientially in the issues by having them identifying their own instructional preference, discussing their preferences with others, and then working in small groups to develop a new model of the issue.