Penn State’s student-led Outing Group can no longer go outside because they might get hurt, but some danger is good for us as prep for life’s challenges.
Recently, Penn State University made the startling decision to restrict the activities of its student-run Outing Club. After a two-month long review (in which the Outing Club leaders were not consulted), PSU apparently realized that students could get hurt if they leave the confines of, say, their dorm rooms, and undertake the kinds of backpacking trips and day hikes that the group has enjoyed for its nearly century-long history. University spokespeople cited student safety as their primary concern when making the decision, but what they may not be considering are the unintended consequences to the safety of students who are so intensively babysat. It’s not only for our immune systems, either. After all, some danger is good for us.
PSU’s backpacking rollback drew ire from quarters as ideologically diverse as the libertarian-leaning Reason.com and the more mainstream New York Times. Reason’s scorn fell heavily upon the university’s trepidation at the possibility of students exploring past the boundaries of reliable cell phone service, noting with tongue firmly in cheek that “now that cell phones exist, students are apparently expected to remain glued to them at all times.”
Observing that the Penn State caving and scuba diving clubs were also on the rocks, the NYT’s editorial had a sharper point. Universities once took on a kind of parental authority in student life, a kind of halfway house between childhood and full adult responsibility. Just as many parents, for one reason or another, have given up on raising independent, mature young adults (or at least teenagers who know how to read analog clocks), so too are colleges unburdening themselves of the social responsibility to turn out fully-functioning adults. But what if some danger is good for us, and the failure of parents and institutions to allow students to experience the kind of personal growth that comes from finding one’s way out of – or through – some perilous situations harms our society more than it saves by avoiding the inevitable lawsuits?
Beyond the individual benefits of life experience gained from challenging oneself and overcoming hardship, there is a larger social purpose in learning how to do hard things.
There’s an understandable tendency for parents to want their kids to live better, longer, healthier, more prosperous, easier lives than they did themselves. This attitude isn’t new by any means. John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail about it in 1780. “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study… Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”
What Adams missed is that some danger is good for us, and without it, his grandchildren’s study of music and porcelain might require their descendants to once again study politics and war. We mustn’t forget that history runs in cycles, and that sooner or later, hard times will come again. Regardless of the heights of culture and technology that we achieved courtesy of a one-time glut of resources laid down over unimaginable millenia, today’s young people are likely to begin facing the brunt of effects caused by previous generations’ “improving” lifestyles. Or, at the very least, what happens when their empire reaches its expiration date.
So let the students hike into the mountains where cell towers haven’t sprouted, have accidents in the forests, overcome hardships and dig themselves out together. Let the kindergartners play with knives (once they understand how). Some danger is good for us, because it prepares people for the real world, a place that doesn’t always behave in ways we find convenient. If we don’t, how are we preparing them for anything at all?
Related: Stop the Collapse