Updated: Jun 24, 2021
For many years, long before I arrived and to this day, the sixth graders at Forsyth School, where I was the Head from 2007 – 2017, map the world from memory in the final weeks of their career at the school. Starting with a blank piece of poster board, students plot the lines of longitude and latitude, free-hand the contours of the continents, then draw national boundaries and identify the nations of the world. Some students choose the Mercator projection, some include capitols, rivers, mountains and other significant geographical features. It is the culmination of a very purposeful, challenging study of geography that begins in PreK. Almost invariably, alumni will tell you that it is the most difficult thing they did at Forsyth, even though (or, perhaps, because) the project is ungraded, and each student sets his own goals.
The memory map and other similarly challenging activities at Forsyth (the school has a ropes course in the rafters of the gymnasium) were well known in the community, and it will come as no surprise that particularly stellar examples of student world maps were on display in the admissions office. Occasionally, a prospective parent would probe the relevance of the mapping activity, usually along these lines: what place does rote memory have in a time when Alexa has all the answers? wouldn’t the stock GPS functionality of most digital devices accurately guide one to any place on the globe? In short, who needs a map anymore?
When I was in the room for these visits with prospective parents, this question always occasioned a look of mild panic on the Admission Director’s face, because my answer to it invariably lurched off the clearly defined trail (kids learn to see the impact of geography on history; they learn to break down a seemingly overwhelming project into small pieces) into the literary forest of my educational philosophy. To wit: I think maps, the big accordion kind that are a pain in the neck to re-fold, are more important than ever, because getting from one place to another is only one use for a map, and far from the most important use, which is exploration, which is a fancy word for getting purposefully lost, which is exactly what a good education should provide. An education should be a map, a series of frameworks of thought, from the time-tested to the experimental, that the student is taught to use to explore the physical world, her own mind, the minds of others. This philosophy of education makes me a died-in-the-wool liberal arts advocate, and I embrace that label without reservation.
I’m also convinced that this vision of education is more relevant than ever in a time when the human experience is increasingly defined by loneliness and tribalism. A liberal arts education is a powerful antidote to the diminished vision of personhood that our digital experiences insidiously teach us to accept, and to our political climate in which affinity groups too often share little beyond a hatred of the other affinity groups. A child who learns through exploration builds the unique blend of humility and confidence that makes her the kind of citizen that Jefferson defines in the Declaration of Independence, one who consents to be governed, but who is not disposed to suffer, and will alter or abolish a government that has breached the social contract. A child who learns through exploration seeks the truth but is humble enough to continue examining and probing that truth forever. A child who learns through exploration discovers the exponential power in assembling a corps of discovery, generating meaningful relationships with team members and enjoying the rewards of shared work.
An education through exploration inspires critical thought, analysis, courage, confidence, humility. It will—to return to my literary forest—reward the explorer who discovers errors or plots new features or ventures well beyond the edges of the map, and who eventually discerns that a map is itself a kind of illusion, a hopeful human attempt to describe something that is gloriously ineffable.