Khanna: The Necessity of a Natural Education
Dartmouth should renew its commitment to outdoor education.
This column is featured in the 2020 Winter Carnival special issue.
Over 70 miles from the nearest major city, and half-hidden by the pine forests that surround its borders, Dartmouth College is not a school that you happen upon by chance.
For many Dartmouth students past and present, love for our small school in the middle-of-nowhere-New Hampshire has long been tied to the College’s secluded nature. While the outdoors remain a crucial part of Dartmouth’s identity, the school is not immune to national trends that have, in recent years, seen the decline of American engagement with the natural world. It is therefore crucial that the College’s undergraduate experience teaches students not only how to engage with the outdoors, but also see participation in outdoors spaces in a myriad of ways.
A 2017 study by the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Science found that more than half of adults are now spending less than five hours a week in nature. Increased use of social media, smart phones and a migration away from rural areas were to blame for this decrease in outdoor activity. Moreover, these changing lifestyles are setting a precedent for younger generations — perpetuating a conceptualization that regards the outdoors as an afterthought, rather than an integral part of everyday life.
The question that remains is, what is to be done about the pervasive disregard of the outdoors that has invaded the American psyche? Though the solution to this complex question is inarguably multi-faceted, Dartmouth’s historic connection with the outdoors uniquely positions the College to integrate outdoor programming into all areas of student life.
Though student organizations such as the Dartmouth Outing Club can facilitate some of these opportunities, the College has the singular opportunity to allocate resources to areas of outdoor engagement that the Outing Club doesn’t cover — namely, social, professional and academic programming. This outdoor engagement could include the offering of more interdisciplinary classes focused on the outdoors, offering workshops and leadership seminars in natural spaces, and recommitting the College to supporting events dedicated to being outdoors — such as Winter Carnival, which has been heavily curtailed in recent years.
Integrating natural spaces with student life would provide students who do not traditionally consider themselves to be “outdoorsy” alternative methods of exploring ways in which the outdoor world can fit into their lives. Moreover, by introducing the outdoors into student life in “alternative” ways, the College can help students envision the continuation of outdoor engagement in their frequently urbanized and hectic lives after Dartmouth.
Besides simply facilitating opportunities for students to engage with the outdoors, Dartmouth has the chance to address and begin to break down many of the barriers that all too often keep students out of wilderness spaces, both during their time as undergraduates and afterward. One of the largest obstacles to participation in outdoor recreation for many students is the prohibitive cost. Though many may argue that the College simply “does not have the funds,” Dartmouth should consider reallocating funds from preexisting pots that are allocated to social, academic, professional and residential programming. Actions to increase student engagement with the outdoors does not need to be drastic; one simple step could be reorienting preexisting events to build programming that integrates the natural world.
Some may argue that a commitment to outdoor education detracts from Dartmouth’s goals as an institution of higher learning. To these skeptics, I would invoke Dartmouth’s mission statement as a reminder that the College is not simply responsible for cultivating the intellectual minds, but also seeks to “instill a sense of responsibility [in students] for each other and for the broader world.”
The benefits of an institutional commitment to increased outdoor student engagement is two-fold.
Firstly, students will benefit from the many mental and physical benefits of being outdoors such as improved immune systems, elevated mood, enhanced creativity and mitigated pain.
Second, this step will open up the outdoors as a space for discourse among students who are divided by differing identities, commitments to various campus communities and a host of other barriers.
Thus, the integration of the outdoors into the lives of students will not only help Dartmouth fight national trends that are keeping Americans out of wilderness spaces, but will also ensure the creation of a future in which these spaces serve to help students connect more deeply to each other and the broader world.