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Greatest Good Leadership: Training Students to Be Better Leaders and Citizens

The vast wilderness on the border between the Golden Trout Wilderness and Sequoia National Park becomes a dynamic classroom where everyone learns from nature’s subtle and pervasive wisdom.
Thacher has always developed capable leaders and engaged citizens, but we are moving now to make this work a more explicit part of our program, from admission to graduation. The Greatest Good Leadership Program will infuse Thacher’s values and leadership principles into all dimensions of our program, ensuring opportunities for students to have the coaching, assessments, and opportunities for reflection that are critical to developing as effective leaders. While faculty and administrators work to flesh out the ways that leadership training will become a more explicit part of the Thacher experience, the Muir Wise program at Golden Trout Camp already extends this work into the High Sierra summer by creating opportunities for Thacher students and students from other schools to advance their skills. Cam Spaulding CdeP 1995, who leads the Muir Wise program, offered this account of his work with students last summer.

Back (packing) to the Future

It’s sunrise on a bluebird morning in the middle of June. For most of the state of California it is summer, but in the high country of the Sierra Nevada it is still most assuredly spring. Cornices continue to guard the alpine passes and corn lilies like jade torches emerge from the dead mat of last year’s grass at the creek’s edge. Out on the border between the Golden Trout Wilderness and Sequoia National Park, a small group of curious travelers are sluggishly shaking off the frosty night.

These nine students from five different high schools, along with their three instructors, are in the midst of a three-week odyssey into the heart of the burgeoning mountain summer as part of the Muir Wise Summer Leadership Program. Their quest: to let curiosity and patient observation be their guide as they make their slow and steady way through this vast natural preserve. Their motto: Don’t go far; go deep. As on an expeditionary team, each student is uniquely responsible for a single aspect of the group’s inquiry with an assigned role that acts as a lens through which to plumb the wild depths. There is the Poet, the Historian, the Philosopher, the Artist, the Astronomer, the Naturalist, the Tracker, the Navigator/Medic, and the Skeptic, and each student carries a Kindle loaded with texts unique to his or her role. With ample time to read, write, and draw each day, the students become teachers to each other and this vast wilderness becomes a dynamic classroom where everyone learns from nature’s subtle and incessant wisdom. In between two full weeks of walking and learning, the students participate in a 48-hour solo, where many of them have their most profound and personal experiences.

How is something so seemingly retrograde—walking in the wilderness, studying the world beyond human culture—actually essential to our future, both as individuals and as a species? Any careful study of the world around us reveals a depth of interconnection that begins on a molecular level and extends out to the edges of the phenomenal universe. Somewhere along that continuum we reside, but our cultural habit is to see that universe as “other” and to separate ourselves from it. With that primary division as a premise—thinking of humans as separate from nature—we tend to create more and more systems of difference and thus alienate ourselves from each other and from the essential nature of the universe. When we immerse ourselves in nature we begin to understand better her language, which everywhere tells us a story of unity and continuity. Like learning any other language, with more time spent listening and observing, our comprehension becomes more nuanced and subtle. Three weeks is a great starting point, but most Muir Wise students come to the end of their experience wishing for more.

Nothing could better express the profound influence of a few thoughtful weeks in the wild than this excerpt from a student letter, written at the end of the course to express gratitude to the person who made her experience possible.

These past three weeks have been some of the most amazing I’ve ever experienced. I have learned so much: basic skills such as how to identify plants and animals and read maps, but also I’ve learned a lot about myself, and gained a perspective I’ve never considered on personal matters and the world. Learning to track animal prints has taught me how to identify animals in the area and maybe how they were moving, but also how to be observant, how to understand stories about what that animal had been doing—a window into its life. This concept of understanding an animal’s story has also taught me to be more empathetic, to understand others and their stories. This is just one example of how Muir Wise turned knowledge in the wilderness into wisdom that can be applied to more than just animals.” —Luca Pieretti ’20

* Photos by Cam Spaulding CdeP 1992
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