Doing Folk Education: Thoreau College

Inspiration, pedagogy, and the art of teaching

This new series by Chris Spicer is an effort to explore two aspects of folk education practice. The first is raised by the question, from what (or who or where) do you draw inspiration? The other concerns the “how” of your teaching and learning – what does it look like? We’ll feature one folk school in each newsletter, hoping the ongoing exploration will nurture a dialogue within our network as more and more groups are developing their programs. We welcome your inquiries and suggestions – to Chris at 1christopherspice@gmail.com

Thoreau College, Veroqua, WI
with Jacob Hundt, founder, director
www.thoreaucollege.org

Thoreau College is working to pioneer a new model of higher education that integrates rather than dissects, awakens rather than explains. Our programs blend the scientific with the qualitative, the contemplative with the practical, the needs of the self with the needs of the community.  Thoreau College’s flagship Semester Program brings 8 to 12 students together each fall in rural southwestern Wisconsin to explore the existential questions of our time through a curriculum that melds intellectual pursuits, practical labor, immersive wilderness expeditions, community self-governance, inner development, and artistic practice.

When discussing one of the primary founding inspirations of Thoreau College (TC), Jacob Hundt sums up one of LL.Nunn’s basic philosophies: Our purpose is not to teach people to become ranchers (even while they might learn that along the way). Our purpose is to develop leaders of society by “shoveling manure.”  I hear echoes of N.F.S. Grundtvig, who was a continent and several generations away. This is learning from the ground.

Nunn started Deep Springs College in the remote hills of Northern California in 1917. Jacob attended almost one hundred years later as a young adult and has brought Nunn’s primary educational concepts to the founding of TC. There are 3. First is a work component, rooted in the farming/ranching environment of the California hills. Second is an interdisciplinary and dialogue approach to academic learning that we know from modern day “great books” programs. Third, is a prominent commitment to community self-governance whereby all stakeholders are involved in developing the learning program as well as overseeing the rules, guidelines and management of community life. All told, Thoreau College is based in the “practical pedagogy,” well time-tested at Deep Springs among many other 20th century alternative, progressive schools.

A second and closely aligned foundational inspiration of Thoreau College is the teachings and philosophy of Rudolph Steiner, whose Waldorf School movement is more commonly known to today’s educational world. Steiner’s philosophy was rooted in a holistic framework, which supported development of the whole human – the thinking, feeling, willing, spiritual and acting learner. At the heart of his philosophy was a focus on life education, through science and the natural world, toward a spiritual renewal.

And of course the college is named after Henry David Thoreau himself – honoring not only his more well known reverence of the natural world, but as well, his less celebrated ideas about education. From his expertise and reverence for the outdoor life, Thoreau advocated action in the world, for example making links between farming and the betterment of community life and it’s respectful place in the natural world. Jacob particularly is inspired by his concept of “self culture,” demonstrated by those committed to their own self-development. This important component of the 19th century transcendental movement, planted what might be interpreted as a “selfish” endeavor into the communitarian-minded concept of service and progressive ideas. In other words, “personal growth” requires working one’s connection to society and the collective growth.

Here’s how these foundations thread together in TC’s mission statement:

“The mission of Thoreau College is not to enshrine the ideas, approaches, or work of any individual, living or dead. Our mission is to create an open space where our students, and the qualities of heart and mind and inspiration living in them, can show up, can be seen, challenged and nurtured, can take root and grow. Thus, you could say, it is ultimately our students, current and future, and their unique gifts which are the highest source of inspiration for Thoreau College.”

How did Jacob’s vision get connected to the folk school movement? As it happened, across town in this rural southwest corner of Wisconsin, in the early 2000s, there was a concurrent movement afoot more directly inspired by N.F.S. Grundtvig. In 2006, Driftless Folk School was founded and Jacob quickly found resonance between his educational ideas and the folk school concepts that Driftless was bringing to life in the name of folk school. He lists these basics:

• education for life, particularly as fed by the interactiveness of living language.
• the holistic nature of learning with head, heart, and hands.
• a cultural/communitarian context for learners coming to deepen a sense of identity and value in their own life.

The name “folk school,” for Jacob, created problems: “The name ‘folk school’ does not work well in this North America culture. On the other hand, there really is no perfect name in our English language.”

Long-story short, his team decided they would commit to reclaiming the word “college.” For starters, they envisioned their learning environment as a place for “colleague-ship.” It’s a collaborative learning venture. Jacob talks eloquently about their mission to cultivate teaching as an “art form” – striving to nurture a “mood of reverence” toward waking up to our human gifts and how they can contribute to the well-being of our natural environment and society.

At TC, this teaching art demonstrates some inspiring complexity that goes beyond the basic folk school idea of teacher-student equity. A leader has a critical task to structure such learning and act as a critical guide. Such a teaching creates a slower, reflective environment, asking, in the midst of hands-on experiences, such probing questions as: “Do you notice any connection between what we’re exploring today and a similar probe yesterday?”; “How do you feel about what you’re noticing right now?”; “What are you surprised about?”  It is being more focused to the “learning moment,” and present to any underlying awareness and interpretation.

More broadly, such teaching is about being responsive to contemporary needs and form of young adult learning, connected to this moment in history, revealing the new perspectives and voices that need to be part of cutting edge conversations. The theme of the fall 2020 Semester Program is Coming Alive to Nature, which will strive to thread together intimate phenomenological studies of plants, landscapes, visual experiences, and thinking itself, as well as through the art of storytelling.

In the largest sense, learning at Thoreau College seeks to reclaim our role in community and the natural world, quests that are not so vibrant in today’s more materialistic and polarized society. Perhaps this quest is summarized in two central questions that Jacob kept returning  to in our conversation: How Shall I Live? and What is education for a free people live? They are vibrant questions for any learning community and TC is yet a new pioneer in creating the vital learning environment that still today seems to best survive on the fringes of our educational structures.