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Wilderness: A place for ethical inquiry

Key Message

Wilderness affords a timelessness and permanence that can be a model for students. They typically come away from the wilderness trip with a new or at least renewed sense of their own capability and competence.


Fredrickson, L.M., & Johnson, B.L. (2000). Wilderness: A place for ethical inquiry. Proceedings Rocky Mountain Research Service (RMRS), 3, 177-180.


This paper describes an unusual use of wilderness for inquiry: a college course in ethics which includes a 10 day wilderness trip as an integral part of the course. Through a combination of traditional classroom learning and experiential education students are encouraged to develop a new vision of ethics – ethics as a kind of wisdom about how to live a full and richly satisfying life. Students come to rely on the awe inspiring sublimity and beauty found in the San Juan mountains of southwestern Colorado to explore first-hand what it means to live as an ethical community in the wilderness.

The course “Ethics as Wisdom” is offered during summer term at a liberal arts college in northern New York State. The first eight to ten days of the course are taught on campus in a classroom setting. It is highly intensive: We meet six hours each day, and students have reading and writing assignments on top of that. Of course, we don’t try to conduct intensive discussions the entire time. On a typical day, two hours might be devoted to intensive discussion of readings on ethical theory, an hour would go to watching a video, another hour or two would be devoted to discussing the video, and an hour would be devoted to planning our wilderness trip. All of these elements are related, since the video provides content for ethical reflection, and we approach the trip planning as an opportunity to practice foresight and forethought, and to discuss their role in a well lived life.

This is intended primarily to convey a vision of ethics and its importance. The teachers try to shift our students’ viewpoints and to inspire them to begin to search on their own for wisdom about how to live. “On their own” does not mean without guidance from the great store of ethical wisdom to be found in the artists, philosophers and religious thinkers of our world. It means, rather, that they hope that students will be inspired, having understood the importance of ethics, to search in every source, living or dead, to learn better how to live. The teacherss do not try to teach specific rules or guidelines. Students take away very little from their course about how to behave that they did not bring with them. The belief is that learning how to live well, how to contribute to the well-lived life for others, is a life-long project. What they hope is not to telescope that project into a few short weeks, but rather to impress upon the students the dignity and value of undertaking such a project with dedication, attention and energy.


Importance of the Wilderness Setting
“It would be natural – one might even expect – that we would teach environmental ethics using a wilderness trip as a vehicle. And to a small degree we do this. Naturally, we teach students to travel lightly and with minimal impact, and naturally conversation turns at times to the disturbing and ambivalent relationship we moderns have with the natural world.”“This isn’t, however, the main focus of course. Our subject is the more encompassing one, ethics, of which environmental ethics is a part. So the question is, why? What are the qualities of the wild setting that enhance our ability to teach ethics? Why do we think wilderness invites students to explore more deeply than they would in a classroom the way they have, do and shall live their lives? The answer to these questions can be organized under four headings: The Self, Life With Others, The Sublime and Beauty.”

“Students will typically come away from this trip with a new or at least renewed sense of their own capability and competence. These are young people, and for most of them, backpacking up to 14,000 feet is a big adventure. They learn new skills, they tire even their young bodies, and they confront fears and obstacles well beyond those of familiar suburban life. As a result, they come away “high” on themselves, with a sense of their own capability and, we hope, with the thought that they may be able to live their lives a little better, a little differently, than when they entered the course (Bandura, 1977; Ewert, 1983; Gass, 1987; McDonald, 1983; Kaplan and Kaplan, 1983; Schlein, Lais, McAvoy and Schatz, 1990; Young and Crandall, 1984).”“Students misunderstand the nature of ethics and its importance to their lives is that our modern society is so big and so complex. Size and complexity frequently insulate us from the consequences of our actions and from the consequences of others’ actions as well. If we mess up one place, we can move to another. If we mistreat a friend or lover we can always, we think, find a new one. In the wilderness, however, one can’t just move away or move on. Fences have to be mended, or everyone sees the consequences. The whole course lasts only three weeks, and the wilderness trip only eight to ten days, but it is a metaphor, or maybe a laboratory. It gives us a dimension of reality well beyond the classroom setting and a chance to illustrate those classroom lessons (McDonald, 1983; Stringer & McAvoy, 1992; Zook, 1986).”“Students seek an attitude of openness, a readiness to commit – or to recommit – to live consciously, deliberately and conscientiously. And this is a big part of why we seek wilderness. Wilderness affords a timelessness and permanence that can be a model for students.”“Here, then, is the role for beauty in our course. By “beauty,” we mean not only the sensuous beauty of the mountain vistas, the setting sun, the fragrance of the forest and the song of winds and birds. We mean all the simple pleasures, the feelings that life is good, that we associate with a wellplanned trip in wild nature. We mean the grateful ease of rest much needed, the rich taste of food well earned, the peace of a world of gentle sounds and deep silence, the satisfaction of personal limits transcended, hard tasks accomplished. Not least, we mean the quiet calm of a simple, uncluttered and deeply satisfying life of the kind one lives, when skilled, in nature. With the right knowledge and the right companions, with effort and skill and a bit of luck, the sublimity of nature is not the final word on human life, but the environment within which we can and must create our own happiness. By the end of the trip, the beauty, peace and satisfaction of life in the wild resonates within all who participate, and its message is unmistakable.”

“Wilderness also reminds us of how small and fragile, how temporary and tentative our lives are in the scale of nature’s great sweep. In the city and the suburbs, one hardly notices the moon and stars, even with effort. In the wilderness, by contrast, you can’t ignore them, and you can hardly ignore the messages of mystery and grandeur they convey. Life looses its settled nature, and we are called to see it for the great and uncanny mystery that it is. From such understandings can flow a greater depth of living.”“Finally, we find great beauty in wilderness. It is, after all, our home, and it should be no surprise that we can find there the source of all art and music. We find peace and joy as well, in a life stripped down to its essentials so that each moment, each sensation, has the possibility of shining like a jewel.”

“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau said. The hope is that the students in the course will say, “In wildness is the beginning of a new and richer life.”

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  • Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRAA)

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