Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Who Is Qualified to Teach Wilderness Skills?

The topic of who should be allowed to teach wilderness skills has given fertile grounds for disagreement for years. In many respects it touches on the subject of who should be considered a wilderness expert. The views range widely. In this post I want to express my view on the subject, and to differentiate between several points which I think effect the debate.


On one side of the spectrum we have the view supported by people like Cody Lundin. This position takes the stand that wilderness skills are a very important subject matter, placing people’s lives at risk, and as such should only be taught by people with extensive skills on the subject, specifically those who live the lifestyle and skills that they teach. This view comes down very hard on YouTube instructors with a store attached to their channel or blog, is extremely critical of people who practice and teach their skills in “the backyard”, and those who overall lack actual field experience. A good summary of this position can be seen in a post by Cody Lundin titled Choosing a Credible Survival Instructor: How to find the "real deal" in a trainer in whom you will trust your life. Many who take this approach, although not all, believe that there should be a formal accrediting organization which will provide certificates to those who are qualified, much like we have for doctors and lawyers. The rational is that these skills are a matter of life and death, and should not be allowed to be taken lightly. 

On the other end of the spectrum we have the view that anyone who is willing to teach, and to whom people are willing to listen, should be allowed to teach. We see that a lot. A person will create a moderately popular YouTube channel, a blog, or a forum trend, and before you know it they are forming a school and offering lessons. Many of those people get recruited for television survival show, which further boosts their popularity, leading to even more schools. Some of these people actually see themselves as qualified to teach wilderness skills, and while they agree with the above group that these skills are a matter of life and death, they think they are up to the task. Others simply see the skills as recreation, and have no issue teaching them as a hobby even if they do not see themselves as particularly skilled. I imagine that the most recent crop of survival shows like Alone will give is a few more of these wilderness schools in the very near future.

So, who should be allowed to teach wilderness skills? While I don’t think we can reach a consensus, I do think that making some distinctions can be helpful in thinking about the subject, or at least that’s how my thought process works.

Amateurs vs. Professionals

The first distinction I make is between amateur and professional “teachers”. By that I mean, the difference between those who offer information for free (meaning not just a specific piece of information, but that they generally make no money from the activity), and those who are paid to do it. I personally have vastly different standards for each group.

When it comes to amateurs, in this group I include people with YouTube channels, blogs, people who post on forums, etc. They are not paid to produce the information, and have no expectation of making money form it. For them this is a hobby. They do it because they enjoy it, and like to share what they have learned with others. Some of these people are very skilled and offer great information, others offer horrible and misleading information. While this “amateur hour” results in a lot of bad information being pumped out onto the internet, you get what you pay for; and in this case the information is free. It’s up to the reader to decide if the information they are viewing is useful to them or not, and take it with a grain of salt.

When it comes to professionals, the issue can be much different. It is no longer a situation where online friends are exchanging information. Here we now have a person who is selling a product, i.e. a set of wilderness skills. In this group I am including people with schools, TV shows, paid subscription YouTube channels, people who are paid to publish information, who provide information linked to stores etc. The expectations placed on such professionals are typically much higher, not only because they are paid for the product, but also because they portray a degree of expertise in the process of selling their product. They are selling themselves as a teacher by expressly stating or implying that they are skilled in the craft of wilderness living or survival. You do get what you pay for, and since here you are paying actual money, there should be a corresponding quality to the product. Sadly, it seems that there are just as many people who have no idea what they are doing among professional instructors as there are from amateur ones.

Wilderness vs. Individual Skill Experts

So, does that mean that we should require qualifications for professional teachers? Well, I think we need to make some further distinctions within the field of professional instructors before we can look at that question. One such distinction is that between “wilderness experts” and “individual skill experts”.

The dilemma behind this distinction of professional instructors is that there are many people who have never spent a single night out in the woods, who are none the less very skilled at particular tasks. While I may not believe that someone who doesn’t have extensive experience in the actual wilderness is in any way qualified to teach something like wilderness survival, I may certainly want to learn specific skills from them with the understanding that their use of the skills in the actual wilderness is very limited.

A good example of such an instructor might be someone who teaches flint knapping or friction fire lighting. There are people out there who are amazing at flint knapping, but have never spent any time in the woods. Does that mean they shouldn’t teach the skills? Of course not. As long as they are upfront about the fact that they have little experience applying this skill while in the wilderness, learning from them might very well be the best option. While the information may have to be tweaked when it is finally used in the wilderness, it is none the less very valuable. For me this is an individual skill expert.

Such experts are to be distinguished from people who are general wilderness experts. For a wilderness expert, having a set of skills that has been tried and tested in the actual wilderness is key to the product they are trying to sell i.e. wilderness survival, wilderness living, etc.   

Wilderness Skills vs. General Business Skills

Another distinction that can be made when it comes to professional instructors is requirements when it comes to the skills they are actually teaching, as opposed to skills that they need to have to safely operate the business. So, for example, while there may be no need for specific qualifications to teach wilderness survival, we may want to require qualifications that relate to the safety of the customers such as having someone on staff who is trained in CPR, having certain facilities, etc. A person my be qualified to teach wilderness skills, but completely lack the capacity to do it safely as a business.

Moral vs. Formal Restrictions on Teaching

The last distinction when talking about this topic is whether the answer to who should be allowed to teach should be just a moral imperative for the instructors, or whether it should be codified and enforced by some type of agency. Should the answer be more of a personal thing, or an enforcement mechanism?

A person may have no problem coming up with qualifications for who should be allowed to teach as a professional instructor, but may not believe that there should be a governing body that enforces such standards.

So, who is qualified to teach wilderness skills?

I personally fall into the camp of people who think that anyone should be allowed to teach. While there is certainly a down side in the amount of low quality information that is released through the process, I believe that decentralization of information is a good thing because it allows for faster evolution and testing of ideas and prevents stagnation. I will hold professionals to a higher standard, and be more willing to point out poor quality information they release, but I don’t think that teaching should be limited or centralized.

I have no problem with anyone, from the amateur to the professional teaching, whether that be overall wilderness skills or individual skills. My only standard when looking at instructors is whether there is truth in advertising. As long as there is no misrepresentation about who the instructor is or what they are teaching, I believe the consumer should make the determination of whether the information is valuable. I personally think value is contained in the piece of information itself, not the instructor. As such, even someone who has done very little in the field can be able to relate very valuable information from which we can learn. As long as the person is not selling more than what they actually have to offer, it doesn’t matter to me who they are or what their background is. 

So, you will ask, how do we guarantee truth in advertising? After all, the person who doesn’t know anything and is trying to learn will have a hard time spotting the qualified person from the one who simply has the best sales pitch? Should we have a governing body to issue such certifications or rankings? Well, I personally do not believe in such governing bodies. In a field as vague as “wilderness skills” I think the concept is stacked to generate abuse. Who will be on this governing body? If it is going to be a group of current experts, how do we make sure they are not acting in their own financial interest, that they are not expressing personal biases, or reacting against new techniques that were not around in their time? How are we going to keep wilderness skill politics out of the wilderness skills? We could have a very basic standards, like some current guide certifications, such as number of days per year spent in the woods, etc, but where does that leave the guy who is an expert at flint knapping but has never been in the woods? Would that make him not qualified? Anyway, I see a governing body issuing certifications as creating more problems than it solves, so I am not a fan.

Well, then, what do we do? How do we make sure people don’t flock to unqualified people with a good marketing strategy? Sadly, I don’t think we can ever guarantee that. Good salesmen have always managed to gain followers of their product. Snake oil peddling is nothing new. The only thing I believe we can and should do is be vocal about quack statements that we see being put out there, no matter who makes them. In these days of fast traveling, decentralized information, and idea or theory, whether it be good or bad can spread like wild fire in no time. We all see it over and over again, new people who lack the experience to know better, regurgitating poorly thought out information over and over until it is takes as truth. The reason this happens is that people who do know better are either too lazy or want to avoid confrontation, so they say nothing. As a result, it can take years for a stupid idea to run its course, or for an unqualified instructor to get a bad reputation.

I understand the urge to avoid conflict. It’s unpleasant, and when you speak up against someone who has already marketed himself to a bunch of people, who have bought into the image or idea he is selling, you can expect repeated attacks. However, if we don’t do that, we are allowing for unqualified instructors to continue to attracts students who don’t know any better, and for poor quality information to become gospel.   

These are just my thoughts along with some differentiations I thought might be useful. What do you guys think? Do you have any better ideas?  

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