Are We Sending Students the Wrong Message?

Reports have surfaced recently that some universities are disbanding “outdoor clubs” that have been going on for nearly a century. Why?

They are too unsafe.

For a century, these student-led outdoor clubs have enabled college students to get outside for hiking, biking, fishing and climbing. Today, however, all of these activities just seem…well, too risky.

University officials from one of the schools, Penn State University, told the club representatives it could re-organize if it focused more on safety. The Outing Club is one of three that will be disbanded from next semester’s activities, along with scuba diving and caving. They, too, were deemed unsafe.

What’s the Larger Narrative?

I love the people at Penn State University. I am friends with many from their staff and believe they lead students well there on campus. I have no doubt the officials who made the decision felt they had good reason for doing so, after reviewing a risk assessment. What I am concerned about is the larger narrative we’re creating when we disband clubs like this.

Are we now prioritizing “safety” above the gritty stuff that helps kids grow up?

The students are reacting to this decision, too. One wrote in saying, “Club Sports is treating students like children who cannot be trusted to even leave campus for a moment.” Another alum wrote in and said, “Leading and participating in student-led PSOC trips was one of the most valuable experiences of my time at Penn State, and the fact that students were given the responsibility made all the difference.”

University officials said their reason was student behavior on the trips, such as drinking alcohol. In response, however, Christina Platt, the incoming president of the Outing Club, said there were no alcohol related incidents or injuries that she is aware of on any of their trips.

The bottom line? It’s safer to make college a haven instead of a launching pad.

What Would Make a College Do This?

1. They actually believe the risk is too dangerous. They have rejected the entire notion of college being a preparation for adulthood and tough times.

2. They assume parents are potentially going to file lawsuits if their son or daughter is harmed while outdoors.

I recognize litigation is a gigantic issue today. Parents can be prone to sue an institution if something goes awry for their child at college. As far as I’m concerned, this is a tragic shift for us. Certainly, adult leaders must cultivate environments where students can learn and grow—but sometimes that requires risky contexts. Grant Schofield, Professor of Public Health at Auckland University of Technology and director of the university’s Human Potential Centre (HPC), said, “The great paradox of sheltering is that it’s more dangerous in the long run. Society’s obsession with protecting kids ignores the benefits of risk-taking. Children develop the frontal lobe of their brain when taking risks, meaning they work through consequences. You can’t teach them that. They have to learn risk on their own terms. It doesn’t develop by watching TV. They have to take a risk.”

If that’s true, we sure don’t act like it as we teach and parent our kids.

We are slowly removing the elements that mature them:

  • Practical experiences
  • Uncomfortable adult contexts
  • Environments where they learn to take risks
  • Activity that produces responsible decision-making

I’ve said this numerous times: One of the reasons so many graduates are unready for life is because we’ve done a much better job protecting them than preparing them.

Consider the messages we may unwittingly be sending the next generation:

When We… We May Send the Message…
1. Obsess over safety 1. Don’t take any risks.
2. Show impatience over tedious realities 2. Life should be quick and easy.
3. Negotiate with educators/coaches 3. Push for your own rights and benefits.
4. Let them off the hook when careless 4. It’s OK to escape responsibilities.
5. Become angry when life is hard 5. We are entitled to ease and comfort.

Educators and parents need to meet at the beginning of each school year and look at the data. Then, both parties must agree that growth and maturation (in all areas) are the goal, which means both the school and the home will help students take appropriate risks and be allowed to fail along the way as they learn.

In just two short days, a petition to restore the Outing Club has received over 2,200 signatures from students and alumni at PSU. It seems they understand my point.

Are We Sending Students the Wrong Message?