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Kids should sail because it’s fun, not because it’s homework

2015 February 1

When steam came to transport, commercial sailing was decimated, and what was left was the recreational kind. I’m hoping the second coming of steam won’t be as bad for sailing. 

What I’m referring to is actually the program known as STEAM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math, and it’s an education concept that I think is promising. The idea is that by focusing on these areas schools might appropriately educate American students to compete on the global stage with skills to invent or solve problems. Seems like a good idea. 

But when it comes to sailing, STEAM (and the arts-free STEM concept) has me worried. 

If you haven’t heard, US Sailing is going all-in on STEM, though from what I can tell, it has selected the art-free flavor (more on that later). The plan is to integrate school subjects with sailing lessons in a program that some claim will revolutionize the teaching of sailing and attract gobs more kids to it. Sailing centers and clubs around the country are jumping on the bandwagon. Sailing coaches and club directors are pitching school boards to deliver kids to the docks, where sailing instructors will do the teaching. Imagine, one day, the guy who codes your kid’s shoot-em-up computer game will have been trained on an Optimist pram. Tillers may soon have joysticks. 

I can’t imagine a quicker way of making sailing—which I think ranks right up there with the most fun things ever—less fun than polluting it with algebra. I hated algebra and, in fact, failed it three times. 

The STEM-invades-your-favorite-hobby fad falls somewhere between institutional apathy and outright propaganda. To embrace it, we either need to agree that the only way to fund our programs is to turn them into makers of workers, or we have to believe that the way to make workers is to pretend that work is play. It’s what happens when a culture decides that kids need not learn by discovery, but should learn what we want them to and when, because it will be better for their resume. It’s what happens when we forget the joy of living is in the grand ways we spend our leisure time, like sailing. It means the great American invention of “work to play” no longer applies. 

And like most fads, STEM can be explained in dollars, loaded with the political myopia that informs most education reform and many organized youth activity trends. The fact is, STEM-oriented sailing isn’t a product of a teacher seeing sailing as an ideal teaching tool, as you might hope. In fact, it’s unclear how a teacher fits in at all. Instead, STEM starts with the business lobby directing government spending away from education and towards the corporation. With public education dollars as the carrier of an agenda, industry groups have been invited to compete for a piece of the pie. Today, you can find STEM in baking, snow boarding, model trains and motorcycle repair. (It’s no small irony that philosopher Robert M. Pirsig wrote about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance just for the heck of it.) For any organization willing to file a grant request, STEM is a way of keeping a program alive while tapping stretched education funds backed by taxpayer subsidy. 

Sound convoluted? Unsustainable? It is. There is a better way. 

This fall I spoke at the Canadian Atlantic Sailing Conference, a meeting designed to help sailing programmers and volunteers share ideas. The event was sponsored by Sail Nova Scotia, funded by none other than the Canadian Ministry of Sport, with the notion that people who go outside and play are happier. The ministry, and its local specialists (there are offices of tennis, running, skiing, sailing and more) cooperate with parks, schools and clubs toward a simple goal “to encourage, promote and develop fitness and amateur sport.” No strings attached. 

In fact, most places where sailing remains a vibrant recreational activity—Canada, France, Australia, New Zealand and all of Scandinavia—are places where pure outdoor recreation is publicly supported, just for the good of it. Why? Because like public parks, recreation is good for everyone, and supporting it directly, without attaching any one specific agenda, is the right thing to do. These are also places with stellar education performance and great Olympic sailing legacies, though sailing is not a school subject, nor vise versa. 

However, it’s important to recognize that sailing has always been tightly interwoven with science, technology, engineering, math and art (especially art), and always will be. A primary joy of sailing is in discovering these connections, and this may be the most powerful way of learning. Granted, some may need a nudge to look in the right place. 

Our best teachers are specialists who, no matter their focus, cooperate with other specialists to help us to link actions with answers and causes with effects. They do this by creating an environment in which we can explore, experiment, discover and observe. When there are connections, they help us see and interpret them. When there are not, they don’t force the issue and invent them. 

STEAM or STEM isn’t a curricula. It’s an environment packed with mentors who collaborate. Mentors don’t need lobbyists to tell them how or what to teach. They need free space and sufficient funding without strings, and to be connected, themselves, with other mentors. A curriculum is something you sell. An environment is something you build. 

So before we complicate things, let’s recall that when kids feel the motion and sound of water, see the beauty in sail shape, tackle their fears, team with crewmates on a flawless jibe, or laugh out loud simply because they are having so much fun, then we are truly teaching sailing, along with all of its benefits.