Sitting alone at the top of a mountain pass, overlooking aeons of time – the stillness of sedimentary folds crowns a myriad green valleys, descending and cutting through like deep moats, millions of years wide. You walked uphill with every step over 8 hours.
First you were at the foot with a newly packed bag. Then the treeline opened up to a world of glaciers and jagged peaks. Alpine meadows embraced you with a chorus of flowers, the springs were more cold, more pure than you have ever experienced. Now, perched on a pile of rocks at 3000 meters, everything is still, and you are fully alive.
It’s the perfect school. Make a fire, have a Socratic seminar, work with your hands. Be fully human. It’s what Epictetus, Rousseau, Marx, and Dewey all had in mind.
After working in Georgia for three years, these kinds of education, a combination of Socratic logic and the practical judgment of outdoor survival, are coming closer together than ever before.
At QSI Tbilisi, I’ve planned camping trips for 100 people, slept in neolithic caves, and hiked over mountain passes before. But this summer, I was privileged to freelance guide a group of 15 Israeli teenagers up to Udziro Lake, Racha. Thanks to my Marine friend Luke Davis and his adventure company Caucasus Nomad (now up for grabs that he joined the diplomatic corps), I had the chance to be paid to do what I love. The Guardian recently ran a piece on hiking in Georgia , and trekking services of Caucasus Nomad was the first mention!
I hiked up to Udziro twice – once to scout, along with long-time Georgia hiker and polyglot translator Richard DeLong, and the next with teenagers, two as young as 11. What I learned from the experience is that teens (both in Socratic discussions and trekking) underestimate their abilities and are capable of much more than they imagine. They just need to know someone has been there before. And they have. Half way up, the 11 year old was crying. Yet eventually, he was the first to the top, and the first to descend.
But situational awareness is earned, and never taken for granted. Those who have been faced with the wild, and the prospect of being lost, gain a better sense of orienteering over time. Some, like my friends Luke and Richard, just remember every geographical detail, and the location of every mountain spring.
Yet those who take for granted others’ abilities as being equal to theirs, are poor teachers indeed. Not to mention those who have too high a view of their own abilities. The curse of knowledge is fatal inside the classroom, and out. Guiding is different than trekking with your friends, and requires a mix of patience and determination – patience in the face of the inevitable quitter, and determination to see the ability of the student flourish despite their desire for mundane and familiar safety.
The groups first exploratory hike in Racha was 1.5 hrs long, and some were picked up by a Jeep (Notsara ridge). But rain was in the forecast, so we pushed Udziro lake to the next day instead of further warm up hikes. The ascent to 3000 meters was half the pace of my scouting mission, and we still had to carry the slowest’s bag. Yet they hiked 8 hours uphill with camping gear, and were rewarded with a magnificent view of the Caucasus – with Mt. Elbrus visible, the highest peak in Europe.
“What’s that white stuff,” they said, as we passed a patch of snow. They had never before seen it, and thought it was a calcium deposit.
I have never had any accidents as a guide. But I have certainly learned what to stay away from, that situational leadership is not a spectator sport, and that scouting what lays ahead is crucial – both in Socratic seminar, and trails (or lack thereof). I will never forget the 15 year old Israeli asking me half way up the 1500m ascent, “when does it get easy?” “It doesn’t,” I replied. The descent the next day was hard for him, because he had cut his foot jumping into Udziro lake at the summit. Near the end of the 5 hr descent, he had forgotten the glorious views. “Why is this my first hike!”
The next days we spent rafting the Rioni river, and exploring Prometheus and Tsutskhvati caves.
In the ancient house of neolithic hunter in Tsutskhvati Cave, we discussed the meaning of life over a fire. “I often have questions and want to have discussions with people, but my friends aren’t the same, so we don’t,” he said. We talked about worrying and what we worry about, and what was in our control and not.
Knowing what is in your control, making a decision, and acting. That is the key.
I am glad for the opportunity I had to learn from Luke Davis of Caucasus Nomad, and Richard DeLong. Here’s to putting that experience to work in the future, and marrying outdoor education with Socratic seminars. Richard is thinking about a Georgian/Russian summer camp. I guess the next step in this adventure is to learn Russian.
“I became convinced that my new program should not be about preparing students for university but preparing them for the challenges of living. Souls were more important than grades, skills, and academic degrees. Such a project, I felt, should intimately involve the ancient Greeks and classical notions of a liberal education.
But how to begin? The obstacles seemed formidable. For one thing, with the exception of Herodotus’s Histories and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War,which I had read in graduate school, I knew nothing about Greek literature. I was busy raising a family, working as an international-affairs analyst for a cable news TV channel and a radio station in Lisbon, and teaching geopolitics and geostrategy at the Catholic University of Portugal. Unlike the U.S., Portugal had no tradition of liberal education. It was widely believed that Greek classics weren’t suited for high school students—they were too young, the books were too difficult, and besides, kids didn’t read books any more. What relevance could such works have for modern-day teenagers living on an island of about 56,000 people in the middle of the Atlantic?
I jumped in, anyway, and early in 2005, my first class began reading the Oresteia, Aeschylus’s trilogy about the curse on the House of Atreus and Athens’s transition from retributive justice to the rule of law. My instincts were confirmed: the students reacted as I had in Lisbon. They were shocked by the characters of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, unsure about who was right, what should be done, and how (and by whom) justice should be administered. Soon afterward, we encountered the mighty Homer—in Frederico Lourenço’s vivid translation, published by the late André Jorge of Cotovia in 2005—and we never looked back.
The program has been an amazing adventure. I made many mistakes but kept experimenting, determined to learn how an initiative like this could work in Angra do Heroísmo. The students helped me every step of the way. It was their idea to rename the Republic of Letters simply the Republic, a word that better reflects what happens in our weekly two-hour seminars, monthly walks in the hills, three formal dinners, and annual public reading of the Iliad or the Odyssey. Our Republic is divided into four classes—Barbarians (ninth grade), Helots (tenth grade), Argonauts (11th grade), and Hoplites (12th grade)—with reading lists for each year. Students come from all walks of life. The overwhelming majority wind up earning science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees at university. Some will study humanities. A few are artists.
As diverse as they are in background and outlook, though, the students respond to these ancient texts. They may cry with Andromache and Hecuba saying good-bye to little Astyanax in Troy, laugh with Aristophanes, or become furious with Agamemnon and Helen—or be shocked by Achilles, Medea, and the Bacchae, amazed by Nausikaa’s intelligence and Brasidas’s boldness in Thrace, made melancholy by what Thucydides writes about war, disturbed by Alcibiades’ betrayals and unbridled ambition, or engaged with Socrates in a lively conversation in Athens. I have yet to meet one who is indifferent. The ancient Greeks make you think. Sooner or later, they disturb you deeply, compelling you to confront life’s most profound questions.
The program is demanding intellectually and physically. I’m not particularly interested in grades. What matters in our four-year odyssey are the willingness to learn and discuss in seminars, the ability to adapt at the top of a hill on cold, rainy, muddy nights when everyone is exhausted, and the poise to make a speech or recite a poem at a formal dinner. In our Republic, education is about thinking and learning with some of the greatest poems, plays, and books ever written. It is also about who we are, the joy of companionship, the lives we would like to live, and the choices we will make.
If anyone is willing to commit to this kind of project in the Caucasus – let’s get in touch!