In Pursuit of a Strenuous Life

On April 10th, 1899, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. gave a speech in which he reflected upon what he believed to be the ideal American lifestyle:

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

Although he presented it as a distillation of characteristics that made America a world power, his speech on the Strenuous Life holds a deeper significance.  It carries with it a recommendation for each and every person to change the way they view adversity.  In moments of difficulty, we are all given a choice; to return to our comfort zone, or to expand it.  His recommendation is that we see challenges for what they really are: the most powerful opportunities for growth available to us as human beings.

Teddy Roosevelt was a living manifestation of his Strenuous Life.  Born with severe asthma and a predisposition to physical fatigue, he chose to mitigate his symptoms through rigorous exercise and regular exposure to the natural world.  He resigned from his prestigious post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to volunteer for combat during the Spanish-American War.  While serving as Governor of New York, he invited sparring partners to box with him on a weekly basis.  Besides boxing, he enjoyed rowing, tennis, jujitsu, and was even known to skinny dip in the Potomac River in the dead of winter.  In addition to being the 26th President of the United States, he was a well-respected naval historian, widely read author, prolific naturalist, and amateur cowboy.

While his speech is now 118 years old, it holds special significance today because of the issues it addresses.  Teddy Roosevelt, a self-made man and avid proponent of natural protection, gave his speech in Chicago on the cusp of a worldwide paradigm shift towards large-scale industrial mass production.  At the time, it was a warning against convenience and comfort undermining strength of character in our society.  He believed toil and hardship were the keys to strengthening not just our bodies, but also our individual and societal sense of morality.  His worry was that without them, Americans would lose sight of what was truly important.  He worried that as the world strove to streamline production we would forget what it means to take pride in a hard day’s work.

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For teachers, the Strenuous Life is a constant reminder against complacency.  Because our jobs are so essential to the fabric of our communities, we should never simply strive to meet the minimum requirements of a days work.  We have an obligation to the students and families we work with to constantly push the envelope towards better teaching practices, a more intimate understanding of the educational theories we ascribe to, and more evocative provocations with each passing day.  We owe it to ourselves to spend every day doing what our students do, namely growing by means of investigation and discovery.  My grandfather used to say, “A day gone by without learning something is a day wasted,” and I think his adage is doubly true for us as educators working in the Reggio Way.

Because communities are comprised of  individuals, I also firmly believe that we should take active measures to strengthen our physical, mental, and moral selves as we are able during our free time.  Activities as simple as playing a sport, writing short stories and novels, woodworking, and painting can provide a means by which we can both entertain ourselves and hone a skill through intense practice and dedication of purpose.  Personally, I spend a large part of my spare time cooking and wood-crafting, both of which have had a profound impact on the wealth of knowledge and expertise I am able to bring into the classroom.  Any occupation that requires study, practice, or toil carries with it an inherent worth because it allows us to deconstruct the artificial distinction between teacher and student.  Mastery of anything warrants an intense sense of pride that each and every person should have the privilege of feeling precisely because it deepens our connection to one another.

As an educator working in a primarily natural environment, the lessons of a Strenuous Life are more practical.  The cultivation of hardiness and independence in our students is an essential ingredient in their growth into responsible, capable, and respectful adults.  But it also directly benefits my teaching practice.  For both students and teachers, being in nature is not easy.  The environment itself is more physically and emotionally taxing than a more traditional indoor learning environment.  Intense heat, intense cold, excessive bugs, sudden thunderstorms, and mud are just a few things that can seriously disrupt the flow of learning if considered in the wrong frame of reference.  We go out of our way to express a mindset indicative of the one laid out by Teddy Roosevelt when presented with situations of adversity, and over time some of our students have started to pick up on it.  Students who feel a sense of excitement in the face of danger or difficulty need less coaxing, less comfort, and less direct intervention when it isn’t required.  It allows students to learn more organic lessons of social-emotional education from their environmental influences, which allows teachers to have more time to focus on other aspects of their safety and education.

For the students themselves, the Strenuous Life is invaluable.  It encourages them to relish difficult experiences and take more risks.  Instead of primarily expressing interest in the familiar, they can start to seek out new and unfamiliar activities without apprehension.  By testing the limits of their comfort zone, each student can progress towards developing an understanding of their physical and mental limitations. Some of our students engage in activities like tree climbing or balancing not because they are interested in them as such, but more to discover if they can do them competently.  After all, it is difficult to grow if you do not know where you already stand.

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With our help, students can also more capably move past incidence of pain and injury.  Often times, the tears of a skinned knee aren’t exclusively from the physical sensation of the knee itself; some students react more to the emotional aspect of what it means to be injured.  Experiencing pain is the process of being subjected to outside forces we have no control over, including everything from gravel to a shovel to the fist of another student. While we as educators have to tread lightly so as not to encourage the suppression of emotion or belittle the feelings of our students, it can sometimes be extremely productive to describe injury as a means to an end.  Students who view momentary pain as a stepping stone for eventual hardiness are more likely to both recover quickly and internalize the lessons learned from the injury.  They are also more likely to use this mindset as a way to help peers who find themselves in similar situations down the line.

The greatest lesson the Strenuous Life can impart on young minds is that, especially in a safe learning environment filled with people you trust, there is nothing to fear.  No matter how daunting or dangerous the circumstances seem, there is always a hidden opportunity for us to emerge stronger, smarter, and more empathetic.  Particularly out in the wilds, children need to know that they are their own greatest asset for the acquisition of knowledge and the development of outstanding moral fiber.  Children need to know that strength of character is something that is cultivated only by turning inward.  They need to know that even when the whole world seems impossible, they can always emerge victorious if they give it their all.

In the words of Roosevelt:

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

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