On rites of passage and walkabouts

I met Peter Barnett, an Australian in his 50s, through Paul Monk, a former intelligence officer in Australia and presently a consultant and polymath, to whom I had, some months back, sent a note of praise about one of his papers on cognitive biases, to which he had replied with thanks, and because of which we had had a conversation over Skype which had led, in turn, to his mentioning offhandedly that his brother-in-law Peter, who at this point would be on his way back from visiting his son who would be finishing up school in California in the spring, would be in town. Care to meet Peter? I said sure.

Yesterday morning, Peter and I walked about Central Park and talked, would you believe it?, about walking about. For many years, Peter has been leading “rites of passage” outdoor educational programs for at risk children then passing into adolescence. He sees all the disenchanted youth, especially the indigenous youth who have turned to drugs, and he wants to guide them away from going under. I spoke of the trellis as the sort of structure that urges the vine toward good growth, as a framework that is neither too constricting (read: old fashioned discipline) nor too hands off (read: laissez-faire education), and as a lattice-work that supports a plant’s coming to full fruition. Peter liked the image so much that he told me a story that one of the elders once told him. He stopped where he was; I stopped where I was; he held up his hands and told me this:

The elder is a teenager, undergoing a rite of passage. He is brought by his elders into the wild and must live by his wits, his skills, and his intelligence. He thinks that he is all alone but he is not, for the elders, all unseen, are always in the background.

When he gets too good at killing animals and becomes hubristic, they pull aside the animals and he is humbled. When he grows despondent and melancholy, they let in small animals that he can hold onto and be held by. For however long the young man can endure without going under, they change the conditions in the hope of strengthening his attributes and cultivating his talents. Some young men will last only a few weeks; others will last for months.  The elder telling the story lasted for 6 months and, in later years, became the elder of his tribe.

The lesson of the story is that wise educators are those who ensure that the one who is on his own is never all alone.

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