Experiential Education Can & Should Change the World

Experiential-EducationBy Billy Planer

“If you will it, it is no dream”
Theodore Herzl

Dream baby dream, if you will, a community of people who understand that we are all connected to each other and that my life impacts yours and, in turn, your life impacts mine. We are put on this earth to serve each other. The answer to God’s question posed to Cain is “YES! I am my brother’s keeper.”

The ingredients of a world filled with radical love and amazement are here; it is up to us as Experiential Educators to put those elements in place. Formal education does not have the time or ability to focus on this type of real life education. Deep in my heart, I do believe that experiential education can, should and must change the world.

Keeping the light burning is the job of any experiential educator. The first step is lighting the light of possibilities of a more perfect union and then teaching the students how to keep the light burning. What if every experiential education program could be evaluated by how much the students have grown as human beings, not just by how much fun was had? What if at every youth group event an aspect of the program, even a 10 minute program, was devoted to expanding the students mind? Have your students react to current news, learn something new about a pressing social issue, engage and grapple with a text, song lyric or movie scene that helps them become more connected human beings.

We have to keep the fire burning, as Peter Gabriel wrote, “You can blow out a candle but you can’t blow out a fire. Once the flames begin to catch the wind will blow it higher.” Once the light has been ignited, our programming must expand to the next level and keep it sustained. Let’s not take the easy way out and program for the least common denominator. Let’s keep challenging our students to rise to a level where they grapple with uncomfortable issues and discussions and realize that is okay. Let’s stop allowing the youth of today to be bubble wrapped and insulated from the bumpy realities of the world around them. Let’s create that program that provides a safe space to engage with the discomfort that allows for growth. Challenge minds, challenge ideas, challenge experiences!

Let’s open our hearts and the hearts of others by how we, as experiential educators, treat everyone around us, and how we allow ourselves to be treated. After all, our whole field of work is predicated on the notion that people learn by doing and by watching how we do life. Can I define success for my business not as profit or how full my program is, but by teaching people to view the world and fellow human beings with radical love and amazement? The idea is that this is all connected. The way I treat my employees impacts the way they treat our customers/partners. How we teach and the subject matter we cover combine to serve the higher goal of radical love and amazement. In turn, what would it be like if I was also treated with this kind of love and connection by the schools and groups that hire me? Can the workers at the hotels and restaurants we use also be seen as partners in our educational endeavor? After all, students can’t be learning about civil rights, and be rude to the people who change their linens or bring them their food.

This is not a pipe dream. I am running my nonprofit experiential educational venture with these standards as the benchmarks of success. Profit, happiness, performance and satisfaction have never been better. Yes, profit, passion, commerce and compassion can go hand in hand. This is how we help create the world that Abraham Lincoln spoke about when he referred to appealing to our better angels. Dream baby dream!

Billy Planer has been working in Jewish experiential education for 30 years. He is the Founder and Director of Etgar 36, a program that during the summer takes Jewish teens across America teaching them about history, politics and activism. During the academic year Etgar 36 takes day schools and synagogue groups on Civil Rights journeys.