Penn State University’s Outing Club can no longer organize student-led hiking and camping trips, which the club has done for 98 years. This decision is not about the inherent risk of hiking. It is about letting students be independent adults.
At first, the university explained that the outing, scuba, and caving clubs are “losing recognition due to an unacceptable amount of risk to student members that is associated with their activities,” as a university spokesperson put it.
International mockery helped the Outing Club regain recognition as a student organization, but it will not be allowed to organize trips. It can bring speakers to campus and hold meetings, but going hiking together on club-organized outings is no longer acceptable.
A university spokesperson suggested to the Centre Daily Times that alcohol use was a factor in the decision, though Outing Club says there is no alcohol use on its trips. The real reason was surely contained the sentence before the mention of alcohol use:
In addition to the inherent risks found in many of these student activities that occur without fully trained guides or leaders, the behaviors of some students on unsupervised trips have become a concern. These concerns have, at times, included the misuse of alcohol in the context of already risky activities. This mix is obviously dangerous.
The phrase “without fully trained guides or leaders” is the giveaway. Earlier reports also stated that the university was concerned that students would be in the woods without cellphone service or quick access to emergency services.
In other words, students would spend brief periods of time as fully independent adults. They would be entirely on their own, with no guide, no supervisor, and no tether to civil society. This cannot be allowed.
In other words, students would spend brief periods of time as fully independent adults. This cannot be allowed.
Walking in the woods is not an especially dangerous activity. According to data compiled by the National Safety Council, the odds of dying from “exposure to forces of nature” in 2016 were 1 in 233,000. The odds of dying from a bite or impact with a mammal other than a dog was 1 in 3,893,000. The odds of death from contact with venomous animals or plants was 1 in 3,199,000. By contrast, the odds of death from a fall were 1 in 9,300 and the odds of death from drug poisoning were 1 in 5,900. The university deemed Penn State’s boxing club safe, even though the odds of death from boxing are many times higher than the odds of death from hiking.
Avid hikers know that the most dangerous part of any hiking trip is the drive there and back. The odds of death from a motor-vehicle accident in 2016 were 1 in 8,013, which is 29 times the odds of death by “exposure to forces of nature.”
So the risk of the activity itself clearly wasn’t the issue. The disallowed activities are less dangerous than many other allowed activities. The difference is that the disallowed activities give students the freedom to act as fully independent adults.
Students in the Outing Club shoulder the responsibility of their own survival without the guidance and supervision of university officials, without the backup of EMTs waiting around the corner. If only for a brief, beautiful weekend escape, they make themselves fully independent.
Such fleeting ventures into adulthood cannot be allowed. There are too many risks, not for the students but for the educational institutions that have been redesigned as safe spaces where childishness is to be nurtured, protected, and defended.
Young adults are not to be encouraged to experiment with actual independence. They might get a taste for it. And then what?