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Descending from the Ivory Tower: Perin Ellsworth-Heller ’17 at Thoreau College

Introduction to a Transformative Experience 

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.

Before the Prelude 

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

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.

After the Prelude (a.k.a. the Present Day)

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!

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<p>I am a fourth year Philosophy major at Antioch. Before landing in the idyllic village of Yellow Springs, I grew up in Keene, New Hampshire, attending a Waldorf school from kindergarten through high school. Since a young age, I have always wanted to become a teacher, and so the question of education has weighed heavily on my mind. The contrast between the radical Waldorf education system and Antioch's take on the liberal arts has instilled in me a passion for finding new and better ways of educating humanity, from the youngest children, to the oldest aging souls. </p> <p>Since a large part of human striving comes down to questions, here are a few of mine. How do we teach and learn essential skills while not becoming wholly consumed by the thought traditions of our culture? What would an education for the whole human being look like? How can we use learning as a catalyst for empathy and kindness, to heal the ailments of our world? What does it mean to be free, in the most radical sense? </p> <p>When I'm not thinking about wholistic education and what it means to live a meaningful life, I enjoy spending my time taking long walks, drinking tea, having great conversations with my wonderful friends at Antioch, and playing violin for contra dances around Ohio!</p>

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