My introduction to Experiential Learning and the Human Potential Movement was unexpected. I walked into it the Saturday morning I showed up for the weekend workshop sponsored by the Board of Education to help in the fight against drug abuse at my school. At the end of the first day, I was somewhat bemused by what had happened, which seemed to have had nothing to do with drug abuse prevention. I was somewhat disappointed, as I was quite goal oriented, but decided to return for the Sunday session. I really don’t remember what happened the second day, but when that session was over, I was higher than a kite, higher than I had ever been on the best mesqualine, but it was a strange kind of high.
I came out of the building, and began to walk along East 34th Street. Along the way I met a man lugging two heavy-looking suitcases, and I offered to help him. He agreed, and I carried one of his suitcases all the way from East 34th to the 42nd Street Bus Terminal. In retrospect, I was surprised he allowed me to help him. After I had left him, still feeling quite strange, I walked down to Washington Square and then to Figaro, wondering about what had happened to me. I just felt wonderful.
When I got home, I realized that what had just happened to me was a really great alternative to drug abuse, and that if I could recruit kids to sit around and do some of the things I had done over the weekend, the exercises and the talk, I might be able to wean them from the drug habit.
I also realized that the group experience was itself dangerous and addictive, that I didn’t want to become one of those people who just followed groups to get a buzz. I’m not much of a joiner or fad follower. Never-the-less, I just had to find out what had happened to me. Obviously I had been manipulated in a powerful way, and I was now interested in how this had been done. In addition, when I returned to school on Monday, I immediately started working on creating an alternative to the drug culture in the school through small group interaction.
At the beginning of this piece I mentioned the Human Potential Movement, and while doing so, I realized that most young people reading this today probably have no idea what that was about. So, let me give a little background.
In 1946 the Navy Department and the National Education Association got together to initiate a program to make more effective leaders. Heading this project was the social psychologist Kurt Lewin, who scheduled a series of workshops at a school in Bethel, Maine. In 1947 he noticed that in the evenings discussions that were taking place among participants in the workshops about what had happened during the day, who had said what to whom and about what, and that these discussions were more interesting than the workshops themselves. He reorganized the workshops to focus on the process taking place during the discussions and on the interactions between participants. Out of this modest beginning grew NTL (the National Training Labs) and Esalen, and the Human Potential Movement. However, more about all that later.
My anti-drug program at Inwood Junior High School, while no magic bullet, was far superior to anything happening in New York at the time, and I have at least one cherished press clipping taking note of it, especially when it was compared to what was not happening at the local high school.