A new approach to the education of nature guides

“Our current higher education system is too frequently biased towards training merely to get a job, rather than educating to become a good person and an effective citizen” Danah Zohar

As guide trainers we need to encourage students to think about the broader implications of why and how they are motivated to contribute to society in substantial and ethical ways that add value to our communities.

There is a fundamental distinction between education and mere training or instruction. “Instruction” comes from the Latin word meaning “to put into” or stuffing students full, with facts and values. On the other hand, “education” comes from the Latin word educare, meaning “to draw out”. It acts on the premise that learners have within them a great deal of innate knowledge and potential, and that it is the purpose of educators to draw this out by encouraging the learners to ask good questions and to become critical thinkers.

An education fostered by the principles of spiritual intelligence (Spiritual intelligence is the intelligence by which we build spiritual capital. It is by seeking meaning in our lives and acting in accordance with our deepest values that we can commit ourselves to lives of service based on the capacity that we are best suited to, whatever we choose to do personally or professionally), seeks to capitalise on the excitement and almost insatiable curiosity that students bring to their campus experience. It encourages them to question their own previous assumptions and values and to pen themselves to the wealth of new experience available to them during their time on a guiding course. It opens their minds rather than filling them.

“We are not going to teach you a lot of facts here because they’ll be out of date by the time you graduate. So, what we’re going to teach you to do while you’re here is to think, because that is a skill you can take with you anywhere to assimilate new facts.”

Learners should use their time on courses to learn as much as they can, question as much as they can, create as much as they can, and change as much as they can. This is their time to grow themselves as human being and to ask themselves big questions like “What constitutes a good life?” and “What makes a good human being?” These are deeply spiritual questions, and therefore a spiritual dimension to higher education is essential.

Educators need to encourage this process. They must themselves feel excited by the great adventure that is education and inspire their students with their own passion.

Learners need to understand why they are learning, not just what they are learning. And they need to appreciate that their education as a guide is about far more than simply landing a job after they qualify.

Being able to excite learners and open their minds to new possibilities is a great gift. “A great teacher affects eternity, He can never tell where his influence stops.” – Henry Adams. This is the deep meaning, deep purpose and the deep reward of teaching - that we are affecting eternity. To handle so great a responsibility, guide trainers themselves should have some basic grounding in philosophy and become aware themselves of their own sense of mission.

All guide trainers need to be well-grounded in the fundamental project of education, which is to give learners a foundation to develop their philosophy of life and a broad, considered sense of what it means to be human. This produces learners who become better citizens able to contribute in meaningful ways to building rich and more sustainable communities.

“You have a life, so that the world is a better place after you have lived than before you were born. So, you can make a real difference.” - Danah Zohar

Conventional wisdom holds that all education is good, and the more of it one has the better. The truth is that without significant precautions, education can equip people merely to be more effective ‘vandals’ of the earth. If one listens carefully it may be possible to hear the earth groan every year when another batch of smart qualification holding, but ecologically and spiritually illiterate, Homo sapiens who are eager to succeed are launched into the biosphere.

Looking at the way nature guiding is taught, there is the danger that it emphasizes theories, not values; abstraction rather than consciousness; neat answers instead of questions; and technical efficiency over conscience. Education is no guarantee of decency, prudence or wisdom. More of the same kind of education will only compound the problems. This is not an argument for ignorance but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival – the issues now looming so large before us. It is not education, but education of a certain kind, that will save us.

How are minds to be made ‘safe’ for a planet with a biosphere? As nature guide educators we could load students down with more facts and data having to do with the decline of one thing or another, but, we are obliged to tell the truth as accurately as we see it. But part of the truth cannot be told, it has to be felt. It is within us. It would be odd indeed if several million years of evolution has not equipped us for this moment of truth. We are highly evolved mammals, we are of the earth; our flesh is grass. We live in the cycle of birth and death, growth and decay. Our bodies respond to daily rhythms of light and darkness, to the tug of the moon, and to the change of seasons. The salt content of our blood, our genetic similarity to other forms of life, and our behaviour at every turn give us away. Call it biophilia or the ecological unconscious, the earth is inscribed in us, we are of the earth. We have an affinity to nature.

What do we do about that simple but overwhelming fact? The short answer is to face it, but we are still caught up in denial. The civilization we have built causes the majority of people to spend most of their lives indoors, isolated from nature. Being born and raised bewildered (wilderness-severed) assaults our thinking and our inner nature. We live stress-filled lives full of traffic jams, busyness, noise, artificiality and substitutes for the real thing. Many of our cultures are riddled with stress and stress-related pathologies; additions, broken relationships, violence and greed. More than 70% of medical problems are believed to be stress related. We are estranged from our sources.

“We have an infinite itch, but we do not know where to scratch” – Herman Daly

Were we to confront our creaturehood squarely, how would we propose to educate? The answer is implied in the root of the word education, educe, which as eluded to earlier in this article, means “to draw out”. What needs to be drawn out is our affinity for life. That affinity needs opportunities to grow and flourish, it needs to be validated, it needs to be instructed and disciplined, and it needs to be harnessed to the goal of building humane and sustainable societies. Education that builds on our affinity for life would lead to a kind of awakening of possibilities and potentials that lie largely dormant and unused in the industrial-practical mind. Therefore, the task of education is to help us, as Roszak put it, open our souls (true nature) to love this glorious, luxuriant, animated planet. The good news is that our own nature will help us in this process, if we let it.

How will this awakening occur? Scott Momaday, put it this way:

“Once in his life a man . . . ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listen to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colours of the dawn and dusk”

It is time as nature guide educators to wake up and draw out the affinity that students have for sustainable life.

“Spiritual intelligence and Ecological literacy must be incorporated into any education as they are fundamental to the sustainability of life on this planet” - Grant Hine


Momaday, S. 1993. The way to Rainy Mountain

Orr, D.W. 2004. Earth in Mind

Roszak, T. 1992. Voice of the Earth

Wilson, E.O. 1984 Biophilia

Zohar, D. & Marshall, I. 2004. Spiritual Capital

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