Our students love the tattered books that inhabit their shelves because they know how the tattering occurred…those books were their constant companions for months at a time, and the wisdom and stories they contain have invaded every corner of the imagination. We court books like a lover courts his mistress, falling in love with them even to the point of allowing them to govern our thoughts and actions.
But there is something more primary than a book that also needs to invade our imaginations. The Wilderness, or “God’s first book,” is the first subject of our students’ study; they immerse themselves in it and learn its lessons both through hard knocks and through silent contemplation of its beauty. The Wilderness is both unforgiving and untamed, which forms prudence and courage, and it is the vessel that contains, undiluted, God’s created beauty. It is, therefore, the perfect first teacher for those who seek virtue, wisdom, and God.
Beginning with a three-week freshman backpacking trip before classes begin, every student spends at least ten weeks in the wilderness and all students take an academic course in horsemanship. This unique combination of outdoor education has five key goals.
Spiritual Transformation: Throughout the Bible, God used the solitude, silence, beauty, and challenges of the wilderness to bring about spiritual transformation. Psalm 19 (quoted above) celebrates the way God reveals Himself: first in creation (verses 1-6) and second in the Holy Scriptures (verses 7-14). WCC students study and encounter God in both cultivating a deep sense of wonder. They experience what Pope St. John Paul II described in his general audience of January 26, 2000, “Nature therefore becomes a Gospel that speaks to us of God: ‘For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator’ [Wisdom 13:5].”
Character Formation: Whenever students venture into the wilderness, the conditions require that they live outside of comfort zones. There’s no place to hide and few diversions. Students come face-to-face with reality in ways that some have never experienced. The outdoors forces them to acquire new skills, overcome trials and challenges, exercise self-discipline, and conquer their weaknesses and fears. Each of these demands contributes to greater dependence on God, interdependence with others, and strengthening of the classical and theological virtues.
Leadership Development: WCC students learn leadership by leading. While books about leadership are useful, there is nothing like the experience of receiving a map and a compass while being told, “Here’s tonight’s camp site. Get us there. We’re following you.” In the wilderness, they learn not just leadership techniques, but right attitudes and behaviors with an emphasis on integrity and communication skills. Instructors help students identify their gifts, talents, strengths, and weaknesses as they guide them toward greater confidence and competence as leaders.
Authentic Friendship: “First of all,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas in De Regno, “among all worldly things there is nothing which seems worthy to be preferred to friendship.” Beginning with the intense community they develop in the wilderness, WCC students learn to minister to one another, receive from one another, encourage one another, pray with and for one another, and hold one other accountable. And those friendships, forged in the outdoors and carried onto campus and beyond, in part explain the strong and enduring sense of community that marks our college, our students, and our alumni.
Skill Acquisition: Students grow in confidence, virtue, and ability in part by mastering technical skills and techniques for living in the wilderness. These include backpacking, climbing, mountaineering, food preparation, map and compass skills, route finding, campsite selection, and Leave No Trace principles, leadership, “followership,” and the stewardship of creation. The practical learning students do in the wilderness translates directly to greater learning skills in the classroom and beyond.