A Wilderness As a Classroom
Education is usually seen as existing only in a classroom with a teacher or professor and a set lesson plan. However, Into the Wild by Jon Krakaeur showcases how Chris McCandless believed education does not exist solely in a classroom; McCandless believed education could be found through living and experiencing life. A classroom can only teach so much, and this sort of teaching is typically only memorization. Students learn material that is quickly forgotten once the last question of the course is answered. For people to truly learn, they must go through life and live and experience the world for what it is, whether that is warm and exciting or cold and bleak. Education, in its most honest form, exists primarily in our life experiences and in the world around us.
Although school and academics are very important, teaching is often done inadequately, as shown in “The Banking Concept of Education” by Paulo Freire. This text by Freire focuses on how teachers often only “deposit” knowledge into the minds of the learner, but this knowledge is never used beyond the classroom or forces the learner to take a critical look at the realities of life. Freire writes, “Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat” (Freire 319). When “the banking concept” is used in a classroom, students do not ever use their deposited knowledge to think critically about the world around them. Thereby, the students are never transformed or liberated. This type of education does not prepare students for reality, because all they have been doing is memorization. In order to be successful with their education, students must be forced to think critically about the world they live, or they will leave school no better than when they first entered. This type of critical thinking typically comes with experiencing life and seeing life for how it honestly is. Into the Wild is the story of how Chris McCandless experienced life this way, and he was described as a critical thinker. When Jon Krakaeur was investigating Chris’s death, Krakaeur met a man named Wayne Westberg who described Chris as someone who “tried too hard to make sense of the world, to figure out why people were bad to each other so often” (Krakauer 18). McCandless attended school and did very well, and this set a basis for his ability to think critically. However, McCandless’ desire to think critically and find answers in the world came from his experiences and what shaped him, whether that was his relationship with his father or inability to be satisfied with relationships. This type of desire cannot be taught be schools. Chris was constantly searching for this sense of satisfaction, and this desire molded by his experiences is what led to Chris being a critical thinker, not his formal education. As shown in, “The Banking Concept”, to truly learn is to question, to be creative, to be transformed, and to be liberated. Chris met all of these qualifications, but it was not entirely because of where he went to school or how well he did in school. Instead, Chris found transformation and liberation while traveling and learning from those he met along the way, as well as himself. A formal education helped set the basis for Chris to become a critical thinker, but his experiences are what led him to pursue a life of critical thinking. All Chris later found himself needing after college was a few supplies, some caring strangers, and the will to survive.
Obviously, Chris McCandless was a man of nature. In Rousseau’s Emile, Rousseau describes two types of education: domestic education and the education of nature. Simply put, domestic education is what man learns under the influence of society, and the education of nature is what man learns through pursuing his/her own passions and interests unaffected by the influence of society. In the education of nature, education is meant to flow freely and naturally, untouched by corruption. McCandless, “allowing his life to be shaped by circumstance” (Krakauer 29), sought out the education of nature. Along with his rice, rifle, and Tolstoy, McCandless carried with him books about the plants he could and could not eat and the knowledge he picked up from hunters and locals on his way to Alaska. Chris learned how to navigate through waters, how to hunt, how to traverse various types of land, and most importantly, how to truly live and be satisfied with life. Chris was motived by and learned from his passions, which is what Rousseau described to be an education of nature. Rousseau writes, “Men want nothing as nature made it, not even man. For them, man must be trained like a school horse. Man must be fashioned in keeping with their fashion like a tree in their garden” (Rousseau 57). Rousseau is explaining that man wants so badly to confine its existence and create set ways of living, which limits the nature of man to be passionate and adventurous.
Clearly, McCandless saw this and was repulsed by the idea that living and learning was supposed to be so strict, especially when he faired so much better in nature without these confinements. In his letter to Ron Franz, McCandless wrote,
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism…The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” (Krakauer 57)
As Rousseau explained, the best type of education is a result of allowing man to pursue his interests and what comes naturally to him. McCandless, in the last part of his life, pursued this passion for adventure that comes naturally to man instead of conforming to the influences of society. As a result, Chris lived and learned more than most ever could, especially compared to those who sit in a classroom barely listening, memorizing, and reciting.
Although McCandless pursued a life in the wild, detached from “plastic people” and intimacy, his life was not always like this. It is not as though Chris was unsuccessful in a formal academic setting and was forced to live on the road as a “bum”. Krakauer wrote, “In May 1990, Chris graduated from Emory University in Atlanta, where he’d been a columnist for, and editor of, the student newspaper, The Emory Wheel, and had distinguished himself as a history and anthropology major with a 3.72 grade-point average. He was offered membership in Phi Beta Kappa but declined, insisting that titles and honors are irrelevant” (Krakauer 20). Obviously a success, but obviously unsatisfied, Chris turned to a life of adventure and an unsure future. This decision can be traced back to a number of factors, such as his relationship with his father, his infatuation with Jack London and Tolstoy, or simply his personality. However, his decision had nothing to do with lack of choice. In a conversation with Ron Franz where Franz was trying to convince him to “make something of his life”, McCandless said, “You don’t need to worry about me. I have a college education. I’m not destitute. I’m living like this by choice” (Krakauer 51). McCandless was explaining to Franz how he was aware of the risks and implications, but his choice to pursue a nomadic life was well thought out and not impulsive. Chris was searching for something he could not find in his life at home or in college, explaining “I have always been unsatisfied with life as most people live it. Always I want to live more intensely and richly” (Krakauer 91). In another letter to Franz, Chris wrote “You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living” (Krakauer 57). In this letter, Chris is explaining how he does not need companionship to be happy; Chris was purely happy living on his own in nature. During the first two decades or so of his, Chris realized what both Freire and Rousseau had explained. Freire wrote about how education was often just memorization and recital that never left the student liberated or transformed. Rousseau explained how the best type of education, the education of nature, required the pursuit of what came naturally and what was untouched by the hands of man. Chris’s realization of what it meant to live and to learn ultimately led him to spending the rest of his life as a nomad, searching for satisfaction and wanting to learn. As a result, Chris was enlightened, was transformed, and was liberated through his time on the road.
Although Chris’s adventure had a fatal and depressing ending, his knowledge and beliefs were not invalidated because of this unfortunate ending. Anyone could accidentally eat mold and die as a result; his death does not change anything. McCandless wrote, “It is the experiences, the memories, the great triumphant joy of living to the fullest extent in which real meaning is found” (Krakauer 37). For Chris, meaning did not reside in his time spent in college as an anthropology and history major with a 3.7 grade-point-average. Instead, Chris found meaning in his experiences, both good and bad, during his time in the “wild”. This philosophy held so fervently by Chris was further validated by the works of Freire and Rousseau, who both gave us a better glimpse into what Chris McCandless was probably thinking and feeling throughout the years he spent hitchhiking, working odd jobs, being stubborn, and living a life detached from the rest of civilization through the explanation of “The Banking Concept” and the difference between domesticated education and the education of nature. Chris McCandless’ lack of belief in formal education was not that of a crazed, uneducated man. His lack of belief in formal education was molded by his experiences, which is ultimately where most of his wisdom and knowledge came from.