Learning with your feet

 William Fahey is President of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, USA. 

Reflexion originally publish at the Saint Austin Review (https://staustinreview.org/)

The weather of New England can be cruel in springtime, with nature’s elusive dance between a showy spring and a prudish tum back to a puritanical frost, but, as in summer, the walking is almost always good. It is good because the land reflects that primal desire of man to explore the landscape, trace waterways, and weave along ancient footpaths. Most towns and villages in New England boast hundreds of miles of trails which move through conservation land, wilderness preserves, human settlements, farms and forests. Outside of a handful of cities, New England remains a map fashioned by the beaten track. 

To the vexation of visitors, Boston remains incomprehensible by car because it largely defies the anti-human scale and devilish grid that the auto conjures up and which marks much of the West and Midwest. The old common law about rights of way still animates much of the New England countryside affording in a small space an infinite number of journeys. As Belloc once wrote at the head of an anthology on the subject, when walking “you are doing something native to yourself’. Landscapes fix upon the memory and the sense of place is held much more dearly when views have been framed and approached on foot and over time. Reality is manifest on foot. 

The whirl of car travel and the homogenized vision of a route traversed at 60 mph is no more memorable than the GPS images which flicker and fade. In education, there is something analogous to the replacement of footpaths and tradition by highways and municipal codes. Highways are well-engineered for vehicles, consistent, systematic, predictable.· Travel is dominated increasingly by the ideology of redundant signage which marks, and marks, and marks the highway. Even minor roads are increasingly choked with signs and safety device to ensure that the vehicle moves from “A” to “B” down through “D” until arriving at “F”. 

All this movement is to be done safely without requiring thought or encouraging reflection of the mind moving his body through space. If anything, the human forgets his body as his vehicle safely rushes along. So too in education. The option of online education, in the Age of Covid, became something required of almost all-and because required, heavily regulated and over-planned. Here, as with the modem highway, the concern is for systematic movement towards a safe and predicted conclusion. The human qualities of digression and reflection, the very simple acts that recognize the bond between person and person, teacher and student, are quantified, neatly wrapped into timed “zoom” meetings, and stripped of all the memorable danger and pleasure of real human fellowship. One of the earliest and greatest schools in our western civilization was the Peripatetic School of Aristotle. 

Photo from unsplash

The name comes from the Greek verb peripateein- to walk or ramble about. Aristotle, not being an Athenian, could not own property as Plato had with his Academy. Instead, Aristotle met with students near the Lyceum-a grove and a gymnasium in an area dedicated to Apollo ofLycia. The students of Aristotle and his successors were known from classical times as peripetetic: ramblers or walkers. 

Why this is so is not entirely clear, but the emphasis on outdoor movement and exploration (as opposed to chambered lectures), on thinking while pacing and observing ( as opposed to being told about abstractions) was a mark of the followers of Aristotle. His own foundational orientation towards biology and natural history, or his emphasis on change, motion, a “prime mover”, etc., are all a piece with an approach to learning that blended walking, the outdoors, conversation, a resolution to observe and carefully describe nature. This, I suspect, is not the vision of school and education that many readers have in their mind’s eye. What of desks and classrooms? Regulated bells, precisely arranged linoleum tile, the hum of florescent lights, the scrupulous note-taking of chalkboard dictums? These safe, homogenized mills were late in the age of our educational history. 

Certainly, the flashy grand standing of Peter Lombard (fl. twelfth century) began the tum of western education towards something large-scale and, for the learner, impersonal. But it required a Prussian push from the Enlightenment into the dark heart of the nineteenth century for the slow, ambling, realism of the Peripatetic and Benedictine traditions to be systematically exiled into far provinces. Go back and read over the dialogues of Cicero or of the Cistercian writer St. Aelred of Rievaulx-there you will see that learning occurred in gardens and while on country rambles, not in tidy rows of uniformity.

It is strange that most people think of modem America as an outdoorsy and fit culture. Over the past fifteen years, according to the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of fifteen- to twenty-four-year-olds who do any form of physical activity hovers around 25%; increasingly, that activity is indoors and, on average, for less than two hours a day. This may seem reasonable until we recall that “screen time”, the amount of time a young adult spends in front of a digital screen each day, is approximately 8-12 hours, with 3-5 hours of that the watching of movies and television programs. 

Photo from Unsplash

The strange movement of school children into controlled online learning over the past fifteen months is not, I would suggest, the intrusion of COVID into an otherwise healthy way of life. It is rather the solution to a problem of how specialized power could breach the barriers of the household and enclose it within the safe ambit of control. Those barriers had been long weakened by parents who themselves embrace and indulge a digital dream life. Fear not! The human response is at hand, or rather … at foot. A sound mind, heart, and soul exist with specificity in a particular person and in a particular place. Time to walk back into reality.

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