Now that the weather apps are slowly showing drops of rain, you have to evade the falling chestnuts in the streets and dig for winter coats, it’s a good moment to reflect on one aspect of this years freedom theme program: the outdoor teaching. We’ve all seen how images of our outdoor classroom, taken by drone, captured the imagination of people from Argentina to Croatia.
However, a conversation that I had with student Estefania Padilla Rodriguez, whilst we were driving to Goes for the freedom program, made me realize that not everyone might know the long history behind our outdoor teaching, and its close connection with Liberal Arts and Sciences.
This history was captured by Sophie Krier, who designed the Metamorphosis Classroom (as it’s officially called) in 2017. It leads back to Greek times, with Aristotle teaching in the park outside Athens, surrounded by plants imported from all over the Macedonian empire. To romanticism, but also people such as Nietzsche, whom – in his Sicilian retreat amongst the lemon trees – noted how “We like to be in nature as it does not judge us”. To earlier pandemics, such as early 20th-century pneumonia outbreaks, which also lead to a call for open-air classrooms.
There is also a close connection between outdoor teaching and “Freeing the mind”, the ultimate objective of a liberal education. Sophie, Anya Luscombe and myself discovered this during a tour of American Liberal Arts colleges. I will never forget the classroom in the middle of a pond at Bard college, surrounded by undulating hills and red, yellow and orange trees in the best Indian summer tradition, with big boulders for the students to sit on.
But whether an outdoor classroom is superbly designed or a simple patch of grass on the bulwarks, the idea is the same. It enforces the liberation, the ‘thinking out of the box’, that our education can bring. It’s also, in my opinion, about the essentials of teaching. People have often remarked how Covid has hurled us into the 21st century, but also brought us back to basics. This also applies to teaching: next to all our digital skills, we are also back to the idea that education calls for no more than a voice that talks, ears that listen, and a willingness to engage. And, I might add, the ability to dive away from chestnuts falling.