It was great to see Wisdom Ranch School so grown up after my last visit several years ago. The place "felt" the same in many ways: relaxed, informal, boyish- the kind of school Huck Finn could have chosen had he the chance. This isn't to say that time at the Ranch is like floating down a river. The school is well-developed and the administrators, teachers and staff are smart, committed, experienced and serious about reaching each boy personally and intellectually. How often do you see Hamlet
successfully taught in a yurt on an Idaho cattle ranch to teenage boys, most of whom have become actively allergic to school and learning?
As I adjusted my internal gyroscope to the sudden transition to ranch place and time from the "rat race" pace of my work, I noted how simply the expanse and scale of this secluded community ten miles down a dirt road outside of Arco was phenomenological. As I allowed myself to feel how different this must be for boys who have become so estranged from feeling good about their accomplishments and their relationships, I fell into preachy thoughts about the ills of a technologically-oriented, capitalistic society as it relates to the challenges of growing up whole, clear, confident and settled. Let's just say that for most boys, experience over time at the ranch provides natural rhythms and structure, helps patiently develop responsibility and accountability for their community and for the ranch itself, and encourages solid and engaging academics in which each boy takes a central role in his learning guided by purposeful and caring and connected adult mentors.
Let's not forget this is a ranch. The notion of a "ranch" in our work usually either speaks to a rugged, behaviorally-oriented setting or a pleasant campus with a Western feel and experiential options. Each of these settings serves a good purpose for the right child. Wisdom Ranch raises 250 head of cattle for market, and each year the boys play a vital role in the care of the herd, including all-night watches during the birthing season, raising winter feed for the cows, irrigating fields, participating in the annual cattle drive to distant pastures, care and feeding of the horses and even operating heavy equipment.
When I was greeted by the three principal founders of WRS- Monte MacConnell, John Tucker and Tom Harvey- who have been here since its humble beginnings seven years ago, we looked across to the east and observed a number of boys on horseback moving part of the herd up into a fold in the hills. When I inquired if this was a special activity, from Monte's easy manner, it was clear that this was simply part of ranch life.
There are other opportunities to work with one's hands, whether that means performing individual senior "projects," building things out of wood or metal, working on ranch vehicles, or taking and developing photos in the school's darkroom. Some boys on occasion will play sports for the local high school, and there are boundless opportunities for regular outdoor recreation from skiing and snowboarding, to fishing and camping, to snowmobiling, riding horses and even golf, though I doubt this takes place on the nearby lunar landscape of Craters of the Moon National Monument.
Wisdom Ranch is an educational setting in the fullest sense of the term. In this way it is "therapeutic," though the approach is natural, relationship-based, experiential and cognitive--not clinical. Students receive lots of feedback and support but they are not coddled. A boy may be struggling, sensitive, immature or simply lost and looking for deeper connection with himself and his world and--if he is open to the experience of living in a rustic community that is active and educational--there is the probability that he may just find it here.
Parker Palmer, the renowned Quaker educational philosopher, writes eloquently about the need first to conceive of schools in terms of community and relationship and speaks about a kind of "malaise" that has affected our educational institutions. Here, he could be talking about the kind of "pain" that seems to overwhelm the kids we work with on many fronts: school, family, community.
I call the pain that permeates education "the pain of disconnection." Everywhere I go, I meet faculty who feel disconnected from their colleagues, from their students and from their own hearts. Most of us go into teaching not for fame and fortune but because of a passion to connect. We feel deep kinship with some subject; we want to bring students into that relationship, to link them with the knowledge that is so life-giving to us; we want to work in community with colleagues who share our values and our vocation. But when institutional conditions create more combat than community, when the life of the mind alienates more than it connects, the heart goes out of things, and there is little left to sustain us.
Here Palmer contemplates what each of us feels at times in our world--a sense of disconnection and lack of life-sustaining purpose.
Great schools feel like communities, not institutions or "programs;" they educate each person within the community to invest in the notion of becoming caring citizens, critical thinkers and lifelong learners and teachers. An authentic community respects and empowers each individual while keeping somehow sacrosanct the notion that the community itself has greater meaning than any one person. Within this careful, almost intuitive balance, a community feels alive and, at its best, inspiring and serves as an antidote for the well-documented isolation and anxiety of contemporary society.
Wisdom Ranch provides such a community. Here, students are respected with expectation, with regard for their self-worth and capabilities, and they are given the caring, natural structure they crave that comes with life on a working ranch staffed by intelligent and progressive educators who balance limits and freedom in a thoughtful way. It would be much easier to manage the place with more rules and systems- much easier on the staff and the kids. But--sophisticated education is hard, messy and patient and requires good judgment and constant communication. I know of no other learning community which blends sophisticated mentoring, coaching and teaching with the real experience of living and working in what's left of the authentic American West.
Peter Sturtevant, 202-333-3530, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.schoolcounseling.com, is an educational consultant practicing in Washington, D.C.