What does a higher education that has descended from the ivory tower of academia, into the real world, look like? This is what I set out to find in traveling from my home at Antioch in sleepy Yellow Springs, Ohio to the gently contoured, water sculpted hills and rallies of the Driftless region of Wisconsin.
My co-op is a bit unusual in that over the course of the three months I have filled the role of both a student, and employee of the startup, Thoreau College, in Viroqua Wisconsin. Let me explain a bit further. Thoreau College is a startup institution inspired structurally by the models employed by “micro-colleges” like Watson University and Deep Springs College. Pedagogically Thoreau is inspired by the great books model most commonly exemplified by Shimer College and St. Johns’s College (where our illustrious former Antioch President Mark Roosevelt currently serves) and the philosophies of Rudolf Steiner and (you guessed it) Henry David Thoreau, the American Sage. Thoreau College’s current motto is “Liberal Arts for the Whole Human Being”. In other words, the Thoreau College project is a radical, experimental startup college like no other! This is an education which, if it reaches it’s lofty goals, I could fully and proudly support – Rudolf’s Steiner’s Anthroposophy lends a heart and purpose often lacking in American higher education, and Henry David Thoreau’s strong distrust of authority and love of the land bring the necessary tools for free thinking in a world of (dare I say it) media fueled sheep-dom.
To be perfectly clear, this co-op has been one of the most transformational experiences in my recent history, so packing it all into a brief blog post seems to be quite a tall order. Nonetheless, it seems best to sort my experience into three sections – arrival, Prelude, and the current period, post Prelude.
To provide some background, the Thoreau College Summer 2016 Prelude is a kind of prototyping intensive – a meeting of minds designed to test some of the basic pedagogical principles guiding the college’s creation. In the words of the Thoreau College website, the Prelude is an opportunity to “Join [together] as we build the prototype for a transformational model of liberal arts for the whole human being. Gather with other pioneering people seeking a new standard for the future of higher education…”. The prelude was designed to to bring together friends of the project in a living, learning experience of community building. The prelude was a three week long, almost entirely technology free intensive, running from July 18th until August 5th.
I arrived two weeks before the Prelude began, to help with preparations and do work on the project. I drove into Viroqua with the onset of one of the largest thunderstorms in my recent memory and was heralded with a tornado warning on my phone – the whole experience was wonderfully dramatic. It’s also worth noting at this point that I had the good fortune of arriving in town at the same time as another young man of about my age who had recently graduated from Maharishi School of Management, a school with some startling similarities to Antioch. We had both made arrangements to lend our hands wherever they were needed in the weeks leading up to the Prelude, so the next morning, when the sun rose up in the sky, the two of us headed off to the Driftless Folkschool campus to aid in the construction of the building that would be the kitchen space during the first week of the Prelude. The work was hard and satisfying and cleared my head – the fresh air and work do wonders for my mind. The two weeks that followed consisted of similar labors, from the moving of heavy equipment, to the weeding of flower beds, to creation of a welcome packet for Prelude participants, I worked for and with many of Thoreau College’s closest local partners. The work was satisfying and layed the groundwork for a wonderful Prelude experience.
The Prelude began with a week in the woods at the Driftless Folkschool campus where we had constructed the kitchen building two weeks before. The first week was focused on the human relationship to nature and each day in the week went something like this: rise in the morning around 6:30 to make and eat breakfast, go out into the forests and fields for the morning to observe herbs, flowers, and human nature, eat lunch at 12:00, study the “The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World Conception” (a remarkable philosophical text written by Rudolf Steiner that I am rather shocked isn’t more widely accepted in academia), and finally with the heat of the afternoon clear trees and vines to make a hiking trail on the Folkschool campus. Each day was packed, and without the distractions of technology (something I think Antioch would do well to reduce it’s reliance on), the learning came fast and fully – I now have an assortment of common herbs to draw on in case of various ailments, a basic understanding of trail construction, and a much needed counter-kantian epistemology in my back pocket!
The second week focused on the ongoing process of human learning and development (in learning and life) and non-violent communication. In many ways this week was a reminder that compassion and patience are in fact still better remedies to most of the worlds ailments than watch-dog mentality and harsh admonishments. The week re-affirmed my belief that compassion and empathy are among our most important (and least cultivated) human faculties.
The third week of the prelude was focused more on celebrating the greater Viroqua area and the many peoples who call it home, and also envisioning the future of the Thoreau College – it was simple, not over planned and as a result remarkably meaningful and productive.
Though this wonderful co-op marches on, and I have much work and learning still to take up, I think I can begin to answer my heart question. This much I have seen – an education that couples the intellectual with the physical is many times more effective – since life doesn’t happen solely in our minds the physical compliments the mental and vice versa. And the more freely an idea or educational experience is taken up (see opposite of general education guidelines), the more meaningful and useful the experience is for everyone involved – education at the college level should be about freedom more than anything else. And finally, what we are commonly taught is just the tip of the ice-berg, to fully delve into the pursuit of Truth, we must look further than the common American curriculums. The world itself is a book to be read, if we only take the time to read.
As far as what I’ve learned about start-up organizations is concerned, I think I can safely say that with a focus on partnerships alongside donors, and an appreciation for place/location/spirit of the land, wonderful things can truly be accomplished. From what I can tell, the healthy startup is the start-up that makes sure to know it’s location, inside and out, at every level possible. Thoreau College has clear struggles just like any other organization, but it has that rare glow of health and kindness about it, a glow only achieved through empathy and wisdom. It has been an honor working for the Thoreau College project thus far, and I thoroughly (no pun intended) look forward to my remaining weeks with this wonderful, fledgeling organization!
For my second Antioch co-op experience I have had the privilege to work at two incredible educational institutions: Cambridge Friends School (CFS) and Paraclete Academy, an after school tutoring and enrichment program. Both organizations are located in the heart of the, currently ice encapsulated city of Boston and while the two schools are as different as night and day, they have each provided ample fuel to inspire and transform my educational philosophy, even as the winter weather has chilled me to the bone.
Upon arriving at Paraclete a few months ago, the first thing I noticed was the atmosphere of the place. Paraclete is located in a beautiful, old, re-purposed convent in the South end of the city, and the building is bursting with a distinct, wonderful character. In fact I think this initial feeling I had about the school has proved to be at the heart of what makes it such a wonderful program. Every weekday about fifty students from local schools come to the Paraclete and stay until around 8:00 in the evening. A small group of teachers work with the students during this time, teaching extra enrichment classes such as cooking, cultures of the world, and robotics, and also ensuring that the students finish and, more importantly, understand the homework from their primary schools. The concept is excellent, especially given the severe lack of personal attention given to students in most non-radical schools around the country, but what really makes the Paraclete shine for me is the space it creates for this wonderful group of children to come to. In my various musings on education it has always seemed that school should not only be a place for learning and personal growth; it should also hold the students in a safe and encouraging space, and Paraclete does just this. Students need security and consistency to give their learning structure and meaning. I think that the Paraclete’s unparalleled warmth and caring is something I won’t soon forget, and in just these short months this small school in an old convent has come to feel like a home for me as well. This gift of safety and structure that the Paraclete brings to students is invaluable!
Cambridge Friends has been a different matter, but again the nature of the wonderful program was palpable as soon as I began my first day. While Paraclete struck me with a sense of place, my supervisors at CFS immediately turned me loose to explore and visit classes; I was encouraged to assess for myself how I could best be of service, while also learning as much as possible from my time at the school. Of course, I quickly settled in and began finding projects to work on, and over my co-op have realized that this slightly less planned beginning to my internship actually embodies one of the beautiful, core principles of the Maker Movement as implemented at Cambridge Friends – the idea of self-direction leading to innovation. Working with my two supervisors at CFS, Cindy Mapes and Fonda Chin, I have come to see the huge impact that self-directed learning and design thinking can have on a student’s learning process. From watching beautiful, relaxed music classes with five and six years olds, to seeing a group of 8th graders design phenomenal memorials to the suffragette movement, to pulling music and Makerspace together and leading second grade classes in building their own versions of African mbiras (thumb pianos), my time at CFS has been a thoroughly joyful experience, filled to the brim with learning moments and innovation.
But wait, there’s more, because slowly, over the course of the co-op, I have come to a realization that I think stems directly from a hidden seed of wisdom that each of my employing organizations has hit in their own way; an idea that has taken a long time for me to put my finger on. It seems that often, when discussing education, parents might talk about wanting their children to be successful, school administrators say they want their charges to be competitive in an academically rigorous environment, and teachers fervently hope to prepare their students for life in the ever- changing world. I would hold however, that all of these things stem from an essential root, the essential fact that we all want children to be happy when they grow up. It is interesting to me that this essential truth is so easily eclipsed by the things which are meant to help achieve it. Academic success, career success, and global fluency are all ultimately meaningless if coming generations cannot, in one way or another, enjoy their victories. I think seeing the spirit of freedom and innovative thinking that CFS brings to academic work, and the wonderful sense of place that Paraclete gives its students, has shown me what the world of education is in danger of losing – the ingredients for happiness. I am, for the moment at least, convinced that above all, the goal of education is to enable us to live these lives we have been given in the happiest and most fulfilling ways possible! I am so incredibly thankful to both the Paraclete and Cambridge Friends School for giving me the wonderful opportunity to work for them, and grow as a person within their communities. This co-op has truly been a blessing!