Between the ages of 10 and 13, I attended a magical boarding school in the Adirondack mountains of New York State called the North Country School. Its founder, Walter Clark, was influenced by the philosophy of John Dewey in addition to his own upbringing on a farm in western New York. His school emphasized the three R’s of Ruggedness, Resourcefulness, and Resilience in addition to the academic 3 R’s. He even added a fourth R of Refinement and when he wasn’t wearing work clothes (which was most of the time), he was a dapper dresser with a bow tie and a corsage on the lapel of his jacket.
The students helped out in all phases of life, including kitchen and janitorial chores in addition to a working farm and organic garden that produced most of our food. All work was considered honorable and the staff were treated as equal members of the community. We spent at least two hours outdoors in all weather, including winter mornings that froze the hairs on the inside of my nose. We climbed the high peaks during the weekends and had our own ski hill and maple sugar operation. There was music, theater, arts and crafts. We stayed in houses with a dorm mother and father, like big happy families. Life at North Country School was so rich that the academic program—good as it was—was the least of it.
Walter (adults were called by their first names) avoided the word “progressive” to describe his educational philosophy and even called it a reform of schools that did not pair freedom with an equal measure of responsibility—a fifth R that he could have added to his list. Here is a story that is part of the lore of the school. It was told by Leo, Walter’s wife and a powerful force in her own right.
Early one fall a boy signed up to take care of a horse. Walter drove the farm truck around at barn chores time, the children got into it, and the boy wasn’t there. My table at supper happened to be next to Walter’s, so I overheard their exchange.
The boy came in a little late. Walter said quietly and pleasantly, “You forgot to come down to take care of your horse”.
The boy said, “Oh, so I did.”
“You know, Bill had to do your horse andhis horse, and that was a pretty heavy job for him. So don’t forget again, will you?”
“Oh, I won’t” said the boy, and as he turned away I could see the look crossing his face—“Gee, thatwas easy.”
The next evening we were all sitting down to supper. It was dusk, and the boy came in again. Walter said “You didn’t come down to take care of your horse.”
“Oh, sorry, I forgot again!” said the boy, apologizing with great charm.
Walter’s answer was, “I put a wooden box under the light switch so that you will be able to reach it to turn it off when you’re through. Your horse is waiting and you know where everything is, don’t you?”
The boy was absolutely taken aback. He looked around the table and all the other children just dropped their eyes, and so he knew that there was nothing else to do except to go and do his job.
Walter said cheerfully, “Be sure to turn out the lights!”
That boy never forgot again!
One student recalled what it was like to lie to Walter: “You knew he implicitly trusted you (whether or not he actually knew that you lied). To lie to him was like deliberately trampling justice, faith, and truth underfoot.“
Like so many other children who attended NCS and Camp Treetops, which operates during the summer, I was transformed by my time there. It quite literally turned me into a different, happier, and more productive person than I would have been otherwise. It caused me to choose a profession—evolutionary science—that enabled me to remain close to nature and go around mostly in work clothes. Perhaps it even steered me in the direction of altruism and prosociality as my special topic of interest.
Now, looking back at the age of 69 years, I can see that my profession provides a novel perspective on why my childhood experience was so transformative. The educational philosophy embodied by the school and camp offers a nearly ideal living and growth environment from an evolutionary perspective.
Recently, I had an opportunity to give back to my school by sharing my evolutionary perspective with their current staff. The school and camp had acquired a new piece of land with buildings that they intend to develop into a retreat center called the Round Lake Campus. I stayed at the new center, gave a Friday evening lecture to the school community, and met with a small group of senior staff over the weekend to explore collaborative potential. Perhaps a more explicit understanding of evolutionary principles could make the school and camp work even better. Perhaps the new retreat center could be used as a venue for teaching the principles to other groups.
Here are some highlights from my lecture, which can be viewed in its entirety here.
The importance of evolutionary science as a worldview: A scientific theory tells you what is. A worldview tells you how to act. A worldview can be religious or secular, science-adhering or science-denying. Evolutionary theory, or “This View of Life” as Darwin called it in the final passage of Origin of Species, can result in a powerful science-adhering worldview that informs how we should act to improve wellbeing at all scales, from individuals to the planet [go here for more].
Updating John Dewey: When Walter Clark was influenced by John Dewey, he was already absorbing insights from an evolutionary worldview. Dewey represented the philosophical tradition of Pragmatism, which originated in America during the late 19thcentury by figures such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Sanders Peirce, and William James—a story beautifully told by Louis Menand in his book The Metaphysical Club. The pragmatists realized that if Darwin was correct, then knowledge was inextricably associated with action, as opposed to a free-floating body of information independent of human existence. This informed Dewey’s experimental approach to education [go here for more]. The updated version of Dewey is called Contextual Behavioral Scienceand is richly informed by evolution.
It Takes a Village. For almost all of our history as a species, we existed in small highly cooperative groups. This is the natural human social environment as far as our genetic evolution is concerned and almost all of our psychological and social adaptations function most easily in its presence [go here for more]. Small cooperative groups are becoming an endangered species in modern life, but NCS and Camp Treetops represent the best of what life in small groups has to offer.
Nurturance as a Master Variable: In the sprawling world of the mental and physical health sciences, isolated research communities have developed around every separate problem. This kind of specialization conceals a simple truth that is revealed by an evolutionary worldview: Nurturance is a master variable, especially during child development. Having it results in multiple assets. Not having it results in multiple deficits. If there could be only a single policy prescription, it would be to increase nurturance, for childen and adults alike, which is what NCS and Camp Treetops provides in abundance [go here for more].
Biophilia: All species have evolved preferences for elements of their environment that contribute to their survival and reproduction. For humans, this includes water, trees and plants that afford food and protection, and domestic and wild animals. A growing scientific literature demonstrates that natural settings are required for human physical and mental wellbeing. For example, people recover faster from surgery and experience less pain when their hospital rooms contain plants or have a window looking out onto natural scenery [go here for more]. If the addition of a plant to a bare room has this kind of effect, imagine the benefits of living in the stunning natural environment the Adirondacks!
Evolutionary Mismatch: Adaptations contribute to survival and reproduction only in the context of the environments that gave rise to them. When the environment changes, then adaptations to past environments can tragically misfire. Many examples of evolutionary mismatch exist in modern life, including the stress induced by social isolation and barren surroundings that have already been mentioned. Others involve our diets and levels of physical activity. NCS and Treetops avoid evolutionary mismatches far more than other walks of life, including most other schools and camps [go here for more].
The Importance of Play and Self-motivated Learning: In all cultures, there is a tremendous amount of learned information that must be transmitted across generations. Remarkably, this is accomplished in most traditional cultures without anything resembling formal education. Instead, children go around in mixed aged groups. The older kids want to become adults—after all, it’s the only game in town—and the younger kids want to be like the older kids. Learning takes place largely in the context of self-motivated practice and play. This kind of “natural education” has been largely destroyed by educational practices in so called modern societies—another evolutionary mismatch. Increasingly, the lives of children outside of school have become barren of opportunities for self-motivated practice and play in safe mixed-age settings. While NCS maintains a rigorous academic curriculum, it also provides rich opportunities for “natural education”[go here for more].
The Importance of the Arts: Music, dance, theater, literature, and the visual arts are becoming endangered species at all level of education—from academically oriented K-12 schools to colleges and universities, where so-called STEM education receives the lion’s share of the resources compared to the so-called humanities. An evolutionary worldview provides a new way of thinking about the arts by asking the simple question: Why are they such a fundamental part of what it means to be human? From this vantage, they can be seen as essential for individual wellbeing, the organization of societies, and for the transmission of culture across generations. NSC has distinctively resisted the tendency of so many other schools to treat the arts as superfluous [go here for more].
The Need for Structure: My own work on prosociality can be used to validate and extend Walter’s emphasis on the need for responsibility to go along with freedom. Behaving as a member of a cooperative group is inherently vulnerable to disruptive self-serving behaviors such as free-riding, bullying, and other forms of exploitation. Unless a group is structured to prevent such disruptive behaviors, they will eventually occur and undermine the common good. An evolutionary worldview has a lot to say about what this structure should look like [go here for more]. For example, the group must have a strong sense of identity and purpose, there must be monitoring of agreed-upon behavior, and there must be a graduated response to deviant behavior that starts out friendly and escalates only when necessary. Leo’s story about the boy who neglected his chores provides a textbook example of monitoring and a graduated response to deviant behavior. The boy’s failure to do his job was noticed immediately and Walter’s response began with a friendly reminder. The boy’s second failure resulted in an escalated response that was still friendly but more insistent. That was sufficient to coax the boy into solid citizen mode without requiring further correction.
Over the weekend, I took a deeper dive into these topics with a group of NCS/Treetops senior staff and the director of the new Round Lake Campus Retreat Center. We discussed how NCS/Treetops could become even stronger by learning more about the evolutionary worldview and how the event center could be used to educate other groups.
It’s premature to say that the school, camp, are retreat center are informed by an evolutionary worldview. That is for the future. It’s more accurate to say that they have converged upon many of the best practices that make sense from an evolutionary perspective, at a time when most of the rest of the world has become lost in a maze of evolutionary mismatches. Perhaps that is why they remain a thriving community, fifty-five years after my graduation in 1963. Anyone contemplating a boarding school (grades 4-9) or summer camp (ages 8 -14) for their child should check out NCS and Treetops. Anyone who wishes to take their own deep dive into “This View of Life” in an idyllic natural setting should contact the Round Lake Campus.