Reactions to Attacks, from an Outdoor Education Class

by James Neill

September 17, 2001


Editor's Note: Two days after last week's terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania, James Neill's class of 20 outdoor education students at the University of New Hampshire sat on the grass, under the trees, on the Durham, NH, campus. Neill, who just arrived in the U.S. from Australia four weeks ago, and is UNH's newest Outdoor Education faculty member, asked his students whether they felt too saturated by the events and conversations in other classes to deal with their feelings related to the airline attacks, or whether they wanted to "have a go."

"It was the right move," says Neill, noting that the students chose to discuss what was happening. "Our challenge was not only to do that, but also to move towards considering possible connections and solutions through an experiential approach to education, particularly in the outdoors."

Here, in Neill's own words, is what transpired.

"The first student who spoke observed that we were in a transformational moment of history, and that this was like experiential education in which we try to create transformational learning opportunities. This brief, eloquent statement set the tone for the sober, yet insightful and willing discussion.

"Several comments were then made by students who had read Mile's article in the "Theory of Experiential Education" on the healing power of the wilderness and they commented on the madness that occurs in cities.

"Then a more patriotic student made some strong points about the need to protect the freedom of America. Suddenly, the conversation careered towards a bi-polarized situation where the patriotic student was isolated and feeling vulnerable because most of the vocal students had a less retaliatory outlook. I teetered on entering the conversation, and risked letting it continue, hopeful the group could respond appropriately.

"The patriotic student spoke very well about his views and was tolerant of others' viewpoints; in turn others acknowledged his points somewhat, although continued to restate their own. I came out in support of the patriotic student who was now becoming unsure of himself and complimented him on his willingness and bravery in expressing and sharing his viewpoints. I said it was very important that this could be a time and place where everyone had a chance to understand their own viewpoints and those of others.

"There was a tangible relief and the conversation turned to the new challenge I offered - what positive outcomes had there been so far of the incident.

"Looking for positives was a difficult question. One student said he had never heard his dad cry before and that this was important for him. Other students said they had a deepened sense of empathy for other countries in which terrorism is a much more common event. Others were still searching for answers.

"There were deep, long periods of silence. The church bells rung for what seemed liked ages. Our minds were filled with the grim images and I realized afterwards that we had only just started picking up bits of rubble from these students' emotional lives. A lot more than the World Trade Center came down in a tumble. I could sense a lot of deep stuff, with little voices calling out from within the complex emotions of each person.

"Then I realized I had the best ever teachable moment for describing the historical roots of modern day outdoor education, and I shared with the students the story of Kurt Hahn's response to the Nazi party, his exile in Britain, his innovative responses to the social problems of his day and to the needs of the Blue Funnel Shipping Line to improve the survival rate of their young merchant seamen, which lead to the first Outward Bound course in 1941. I mentioned several offshoot programs, such as Play for Peace (, and new style experiential education schools in Eastern Europe (in terms of how they are responding to the needs of society). More importantly, I invited the students who will be future professionals in the field to consider how they could respond as leaders and designers of experiential and outdoor education programs.

"I've never had such a captivated audience in which to relay this history and the challenges our profession faces. It reached several of them, although I felt many were still too shell-shocked to be able to move so rapidly towards such a call to moral arms.

"I handed out the reading for our next class which, remarkably, I had decided at the start of semester would be William James' "The Moral Equivalent of War."

"James had made a speech at the beginning of the 20th century, based on his observations of the Boer War, in which he said there were many positive personal and community benefits in a country's response to war. So, James demanded that our leaders seek to create a 'moral equivalent' of war. James' arguments were used by Kurt Hahn in designing Outward Bound, as well by creators of peace corps and green corps organizations. In the next class, I said we would examine the relevance of William James' arguments in terms of the current situation.

"Several students commented afterwards that it had been the best class they'd had since the events. I credit this more to the subject we are examining than anything else, although I also knew the class called on every ounce of facilitation skills to move gently and respectfully with students' feelings and to start weaving new threads of hope. We ended class holding hands in a circle of silence."

James Neill recently arrived from Australia, and is a new faculty member in the University of New Hampshire's Outdoor Education program (Durham, NH). Neill can be reached via e-mail at or by calling (603)862-3047.

Reprinted with permission from The Outdoor Network. Please check their web site at for additional information concerning their newsletters, publications and services.


Originally published in the 2001 Fall issue of The CampLine.