Askr: A Proposal for the Future of Learning Content

I am writing this four-part essay for a number of reasons. Foremost in my mind is a series of conversations with Pittsburgh students I had as part of a fellowship with the Sprout Fund’s Remake Learning initiative. Students yearn for the ability to take charge of their own education. There is an urgent need for an expansive platform that lets students visualize and engage with the entire scope of their life’s learning: archives for the past, resources for the present, and planning for the future.

In my work at the Saxifrage School, we are doing everything we can to develop models that refocus on the strengths of in-person, expert-taught learning. As we have worked to lower costs,re-think campus communities, and reconcile disciplines, we have been frustrated by the difficult nature of online content. This essay is a thought experiment on how to meet the needs we see for our work and the needs of the students we have spoken with. It is also a serious proposal.

In Part I “Beyond the MOOC, Beyond the Library” I want to define the limits of online learning so that we can play to the strengths of new technology as we work to create the digital learning platforms of the future.

In Part II “The New Library” I will introduce a concept for a new online learning platform that, in many ways, is the evolution of the ideal library.

In Part III “The Trees and Branches” I will describe a lot of the detail behind this “Askr” project. For me, a lot of the excitement behind a project like this lie in these technical capabilities.

In Part IV “Addressing Limits with Integration” I will discuss the role of embodied learning experiences in collaboration with a platform like “Askr”. Here we come full circle and see the roles and opportunities for schools, librarians, and teachers when we recognize the limits and strengths of digital and embodied learning.

Feedback can be directed to tim@saxifrageschool.org

Part I: Beyond the MOOC , Beyond the Library

A few months ago, Anya Kamenetz asked the right question: “Can We Move Beyond the MOOC to Reclaim Open Learning?” Continuing to invest so exclusively in current MOOC platforms is short-sighted. The MOOC, despite its claims of disruptive innovation, is handicapped by the baggage of the traditional course format. In many ways, it just offers a lonelier version of the regimented, lecture-and-test model. By holding fast to the Course, the MOOC idea does not utilize the incredible potential the web has to assemble a diverse, scaleable, sortable library of learning content. In moving beyond the MOOC, we will begin to recognize both the potential and the limitations of online learning. When we do this, we will build a much greater online learning tool: an expansive and curated knowledge map. Just as the libraries of the past found their mission in organizing,preserving, and sharing knowledge, so will the open education platforms of the future do the same.

The Limits

To start, I must be clear: I do not want to critique the MOOC as much as I want to define the limits of its potential so that we can rightly value its place in the work of higher education reform. The news cycles have already spun past the “MOOCs will save us all!” phase to the “MOOCs are Dead” phase. I want to write about neither of those. Instead, I hope to discuss, first, what online learning cannot do well and then propose a way in which the energy behind online learning resources could focus on a more productive, long-term open education project. A project that begins by recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of online platforms and moves beyond problems in higher education to consider the problem of higher education.

Currently, MOOCs are seeing understandable attrition rates north of 90%. Using rhetoric like “drop-out” and “enrollment” to discuss these figures assumes they ought to be proper “courses” in the first place: most students in MOOCs are not looking to take an entire course. Instead of shrugging off the 90% of lost students as “just people checking it out”, what if we developed higher education content that aimed to serve and engage that 90%. This supermajority of learners (especially those with short online attention spans) is made up of people looking to learn something, just often not the entire course.

The MOOC assumes the right-sized package to transfer knowledge is in 6-12 week schedules. If we are going to put forth so much effort to capture the expertise of our nation’s best educators, we need to do so in a way in which we can catalog and share that coursed content. The value of this perspective is understood and perfectly exemplified in the work of the Khan Academy. By offering content only within a single course, it limits that content from being utilized individually or as part of another, different course. What if the MOOC professor had 2 excellent lectures that should be captured for posterity, but the rest of their course was mediocre? Even the most MOOC-friendly reviewer admits to utilizing just portions of the overall content.

The Short List of The Limits of Online Learning

Beyond the unfortunate adherence to the traditional Course rhetoric and structure, the MOOC faces the limitations of online learning. There are certain elements of education where the web really excels: content storage and querying, collaboration, and progress-tracking. Below is a list of areas where the web does not excel. There are partial exceptions to these limitations, but, generally speaking, these hold true. (An example of one such exception: when students learn to build the web from web developers on the web.) Again, remember that the hope here is to clarify exactly what “online” is great at and what embodied learning is great at. There are enough people espousing the benefits of the online, so here is a brief list of its limits. These limits, of course, point to the qualities of embodied learning.

  1. Mentors. Often we have a problem we just cannot get, or are in tears wallowing in our lack of confidence. We need encouragement, criticism, a tempered vision, and inspiration.As the writer/farmer Wendell Berry speaks of his mentor Wallace Stegner:
“He had a way of emitting a kind of aura about himself and if you got into that and you weren’t working as hard as you could, you got embarrassed. You knew he was working as hard as he could.”

Many students talk seriously about their “professor crushes” as people who completely changed the course of their intellectual development. Our ignorance and lack of discipline is challenged in these relationships. We need expert mentors to put us in our place, make us re-write that essay a third time, and give us a vision for what mastery looks like. Those of us who need mentors rarely seek them out (which the internet would require).

The best mentors are given to us by force, proximity, or happy accident. The separateness provided by the medium makes it far too easy to ignore. The same anonymity that lets us berate one another as we play online games, or post ridiculous comments, limits the effectiveness of e-mentorship. In talking of “mentoring”, I define it not just as career-advice-giving or a wiser discussion partner, or critic-from-afar, but as something more whole. The word itself is, in fact, the name of one of Odysseus’ closest friends, to which he entrusted the upbringing of his son. While off fighting the Trojan war (and struggling to return home) he trusted Mentor to father his son. To Mentor is to foster our wards not just in knowledge and skill but in courage and conviction. This requires deep trust and deep care that is impossible without a literal closeness. It requires that we look into each other’s eyes; that we look into each other’s souls. I recognize that this depth of relation is rare for most of us, including myself, but its potential is not to be ignored.

While the web can serve as a communication medium for mentoring, it is not a total solution. Online relationships can provide things that are mentor-ish and are better than no mentoring, but it is not the ideal. Again, the point I hope to dig at is not what can be done with technology, but what ought to be done. Especially in our citied-world, let us use online tools to humanize the mentoring experience by easily fostering connections between local mentors/mentees. In-person relationships provide a level of connection, fun, and accountability that is unmatched. We, as a people, require relationships that are “not merely texted, but storied” (to use Keith Martel’s phrase); relationships that occur genuinely without the express purpose of “mentoring”. To spur us to care for that which is not already personal, requires that we are, to use Berry’s words again “motivated by affection”, an affection that requires a relationship in place. The success of mentoring is not based on the act of knowledge transfer, but on a relationship of care.

2. Without Students. As someone who has taken online courses both now and in the dark ages of 1996 (Windows NetMeeting anyone?) I can speak to the difficulty of building an academic community on the web. For those who have tried to have conversations on the web, I remind you of the cynical but all-too-true adage: don’t read the comments. As hard as it is to foster good academic community in person, it is even harder to have a serious, consistently relational learning community online. The good online communities that do exist primarily consist, I would argue, of the already-inspired.

I must commend the value of twitter for shrinking the world in a way that lets us follow, or even engage, in the discussions of experts around the world. However, it’s a lot easier to find friends (or find true love, or find a co-founder) with your study partners, than with an anonymous MOOC forum poster or anonymous re-tweeter. The powerful acts of in-person friendship, accountability, and collaboration are not to be underestimated. People want to learn and build the world together.

3. Without Place. Beyond a lack of connection to people, online learning has no meaningful context. As Bunker Roy discusses in his work on the Barefoot Colleges, there is great importance in offering teaching in skills that are relevant to an exact place and the needs and aptitudes of its people. He powerfully states that “you are certified by the community you serve” and that, too often, he has seen that those who earn certified degrees use them to leave their homes and seek personal fortune, rather than investing in the fortune of their community.

Not only does a lack of place and context limit the relevance of learning, it hinders this idea of, what Wes Jackson calls, “education for homecoming.” The grand universal solutions offered by massive online learning fail to grasp the varied nature of local ecologies and cultures and is, inherently, anti-native in its approach. Jackson goes on:

“Our task is to build cultural fortresses to protect our emerging nativeness. They must be strong enough to hold at bay the powers of consumerism, the powers of greed and envy and pride. One of the most effective ways for this to come about would be for our universities to assume the awesome responsibility to both validate and educate those who want to be homecomers — not necessarily to go home but to go someplace and dig in and begin the long search and experiment to become native.”

4. Without Application. This point, like the others, is very much related to the one before. The lack of place seriously limits the potential application or value of one’s work in an online education. With the exception of web development (learning on the web, in this case, is native to a sort of place) MOOCs fail to delve into meaningful project-based learning. The recent Mapping/GIS course, for instance, merely let you play with pre-existing maps, not make a map of your own places. As much as traditional classes ask students to engage in token creation (the quintessential essay written, graded, and then immediately forgotten), the online course feels even more like pretending. Or, as Thoreau says, “merely studying” and “playing at life” when we yearn to “live earnestly”.

For many of us, our learning styles require this sort of application for effective instruction. For all of us, it is necessary that we make something that someone cares to have made.

5. Without Inspiration. Without mentors, without friends, without places, and without application, why do we even want to learn? Our vision, as students, for the point and purpose of our work becomes incredibly abstract, even debilitating. Again, online learning can be well-suited to the already-inspired, but it is detrimental for a student who struggled in high school and has yet to find agency or passion for school. During the recent Pittsburgh Forum hosted by the Saxifrage School, our guest Sean Purcell helped us get to the heart of our question for the weekend by asking us to describe our most powerful learning experiences. All of the stories had to do with specific places, events, and people, not with content or a “schooled” experience, let alone content enframed (to use Heidigger’s word) in an online learning platform. The discussion then centered on Albert Borgmann’s concept of “focal experiences” from his book Technology and the Character of the Modern LifeHere, Borgmann digs into the word “focus” which, in latin, referred to the hearth, “a gathering and radiating force” which was “the center of warmth, light, and daily practice.”

These elements of life—the mentors, the friends, the places, the projects, and the habits that surround them—provide us with focused purpose and memorable learning experiences that not only instruct, but transform us. Criticism, of course, is also a form of inspiration.We find inspiration in camaraderie, in challenges before us, in unburying our lives, and in digging into a project that addresses problems in our own community. Learning is best when it gets away from that which feels like a copy of a copy of a copy due to multiple acts of enframing or abstracting.

The Library

All technology has the capacity to create, destroy, or waste a lot of people’s time, often all three at once. In developing the next generation of educational tools online, we must be careful to not misspend effort. Recognizing its limits, there are some truly excellent things about the MOOC, but there is a more important project awaiting our effort: the future of the library.

Libraries continue their slow decline as they struggle to maintain relevance as slow providers of old mediums in a world of fast and free content. While continuing to draw crowds and serve the community with the addition of free internet, creative student programs, and video game stations (!?), libraries today rarely have a chance to actively fulfill their historical purpose. This purpose is an ancient one involving monks struggling to preserve ancient manuscripts in the dark ages (like the wonderful story captured in The Secret of Kells). The early librarians were truly the preservers of knowledge. They kept us from losing or forgetting texts and, just as importantly, curated content.

Many librarians call for a restoration of this noble purpose of the library, but, without radical re-invention, it seems unlikely. There is a sense of obstinence when Patricia Schroeder, President of the
Association of American Publishers, defensively refers to the rise of the web as the “Internet rage”, but she has a point:

“Those who declared librarians obsolete when the Internet
rage first appeared are now red-faced. We need them more than ever. The Internet is full of ‘stuff’ but its value and readability is often questionable. ‘Stuff’ doesn’t give you a competitive edge, high-quality related information does.”

The internet, for as grand as it has become, is still terrible at curation, especially when it comes to educational content. When I ask Google, “How to write a poem”, two top choices include somewhat comical offerings from wikihow and Oprah. Are they really the best we have to offer? The last word on the subject?

Google’s Director of Technology, Craig Silverstein admits these limitations:

“My guess is about 300 years until computers are as good as, say, your local reference library in doing search, but we can make slow and steady progress, and maybe one day we’ll get there.”

We need today’s librarians not to work as functional administrators of content, but as creative curators who define what is best and help to define and sort the complex relationships of resources. They have to do the powerful acts that Google cannot (and will never fully be able to do?). Just as the dark age monks before them, we desperately need librarians to protect, curate and hold aloft worthwhile knowledge. In the face of the barbarian hoards they were necessary because of the dearth of texts. Today it is the opposite. We need librarians as lighthouses amidst the floods of available information.

Now, in speaking of librarians, I mean the word in broader terms. The folks at the Khan Academy, for instance, are currently some of the world’s best librarians. Not only are they creating a lot of excellent content, but they are presenting it and sharing it in a way that is inviting and powerful. John Resig, who runs the CS department at Khan Academy, is an exemplary librarian in many respects. In addition to the CS Program, he is the creator of the JQuery library, and is behind the world’s largest repository of Japanese Woodblock Prints. In each of these areas, he is finding or creating content, sorting it, deciding what is worth knowing and holding it up for us to engage with. In this broad sense, so many of us function as librarians, as “custodians of learning”.

I bring up the Khan Academy, not only because they exemplify this broader, noble definition of library-work, but also because they are leading us in the right direction. The Khan Academy is a library of thousands of open, multimedia educational resources that is not only created, curated, and shared, but also, in some areas, ordered by difficulty and relationship. Much like the Dewey Decimal System, the Khan Academy is beginning (as teachers have done in their syllabuses for decades) to sort and assign educational resources according to a number of complex variables.

This is where the amazing capabilities of the web come in to play. Not only can it offer content that is, at once, multimedia, responsive, and interactive, it can also provide content that is easily updated, reviewed, and sorted to exist in multiple places at once while offering perspective and motivation to students by visualizing and awarding their progress.

If we can properly recognize the strengths and limits of online learning and move beyond the MOOC, there is an exciting future ahead. If we can rightly value the MOOC, the effort of expert teachers, MOOC supporters, and open education advocates could be redirected towards building the ultimate open educational resource library.


School. Life.

In my letter to this year’s Pittsburgh Forum participants I included this snippet from Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin hating school is nothing new. Kids have been hating school since time immemorial. Summer break has always been a time for celebration and classes are always something we’re trying to pass. Now, certainly, some people really do like school. It is universally agreed this is the case. Researchers imply it when they try to ask “Why Don’t Students Like School?” As our school lives are stretched further and further in both directions and drop-out rates get worse, we desperately need to ask these big questions. If we are to attend schools from ages 3 - 26 we must know why.

My contention is that the big, philosophical questions about the purpose of school and the problem of motivation need to go back one step further. Instead of just asking “Why School?” or “Why Don’t Students Like School?”, we should begin with the question of life itself. Or, at least, the question of life’s relation to school. We spend 23 years of time, money, and effort on our school life yet, for so many, it is seen as something to pass; it is seen as just a period of preparation, of study. Of course, when we are 17 and we are in school, it is much more than that, because we are so very much alive.

In my recent discussions with high school students they recognize the murky purpose of their schooled-life, but—almost in spite of it, or to spite it—they create a separate life for themselves, a zealous undercurrent that is almost impossible to understand unless you are in it yourself. They are intensely alive, perhaps more than they ever will be again and school is not an realistic outlet for their energy.

We put students in a confounding position where they must trudge towards a goal in the murky post-school future while they are also digging ecstatically into themselves. Their reason for living their school-life is so distant it feels completely irreconcilable with how alive they feel. Surely, it often seems, their furious brio is wasted on a pop quiz in math class.

In my personal experience, what I am getting at is well captured in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Chbosky’s ending gets at the heart of it (watch it!): To be young is to live in the moment. As Chbosky writes, “But right now these moments are not stories. This is happening, I am here… in this moment I swear, we are infinite.” Because school rarely lives in the moment, but looks towards a hazy future, students often look elsewhere for their sense of purpose. In fact, one could argue, that our schooled lives foster a cultural attitude that constantly disconnects our actions from our goals. We go to school to prepare for life and work; we work to earn money so we don’t have to work. 

The infinite potential of youth is, understandably, often lived out vicariously through video games and epic stories. Especially ones where youth have great power and great purpose; see Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. As much potential as these have to inspire, they are equally able to distract and train us to not expect magic in the real world. What better way to feel infinite, than to be a Hero and defeat evil? Just look at all you can accomplish if you forsake the real world.

How do we reconcile the prescribed nature of school with the vigor of youth? Kids want to build the world, and to make things awesome. How do we let them? Unfortunately, the conversation still often describes school as a prison or a nightmare. As part of a fellowship with the Sprout Fund’s Remake Learning initiative, I recently facilitated a workshop with high schoolers. Their wholly un-prompted responses echoed those dire sentiments. When drawing a representation of their schools, they referenced nightmares, death, going to sleep, and getting shot in the head. It is anything but funny. I’ll spare you the image where they drew their dreams being burned in a large fire…

Thankfully, the day did not end there. Students also offered insight on the high school of their dreams. They called it “Building Real Life High” or B.R.L. High School, where they depicted, among other things, teachers and students sitting around small tables together holding discussion in a looser environment. There was an overwhelming perspective that school is letting them down and a desire to see it better allow them to build the world now

One student, when interviewed by a peer, said that “school is [mostly] pretending, when I’m inside the building I don’t feel like I’m doing anything productive in real life. It’s mostly like I’m stuck in this weird tiny world where everything that’s happening is supposed to be really important but real life is actually bigger everywhere else.”

So, this is the question for this year’s Pittsburgh Forum. Is School, Life? 

In asking this question it’s important not to discount the vibrant lives that students are living; I see their enthusiasm. This energy, however, is exercised too often in the margins of the school community. Students have a sense that life is meaningful and bold despite their schools and they spend a great deal of time and effort try to get away from that “weird tiny world.” We need to consider how we can create schools that are not just great at engaging students with the lives they will live after they graduate. How can we engage students to fully engage and live with a sense of immediate purpose in their current school communities?


Big Ideas Fest Day One

It’s difficult to summarize the first day of #bif2012 . There are scores of different ideas, content, people, and questions coming up …but I’m definitely among the right people here. A lot of excited, caring, super-intelligent people working to serve students.

Consider this a hurried write-up, just to help begin my digestion of all this information.

Something that is becoming quickly obvious is just how many new ideas there are. So many people are pursuing important, large-scale projects that attempt to make sense of the Ed Tech revolution and apply it to long-standing problems. There are a few key project areas that are closely connected:

1. Creating, personalizing and curating Open Online content (both for teachers and students)

2. Tracking and sharing Personal Ed Data (Learning Maps/Archives, Portfolios, Progress Tracking)

3. Assessing outcomes and engagement and proving the value of programs (and conversations on rubrics, metadata, and nation-wide data-synthesizing)

If you haven’t (also a note to self), take some time and research the term “metadata”. It’s meaning is ambiguous depending on context, but it’s an increasingly important concept as we require further levels of abstractions to fully understand the huge complexities required by educational modeling.

In processing the day, it’s becoming obvious that there needs to be a meta-conversation about how to: a. not replicate efforts; b. combine efforts into the best, most interconnected system; c. how to do a. and b.

Everything is moving so quickly, how can we be sure that the right people—on a national scale—are talking so that we can present cohesive, well-resourced initiatives.

I was thrilled to learn more about ISKME’s OER Commons project last night (essentially, Github for teacher-focused Edu.Content, letting educators collaborate on the creation, re-mixing, and sharing of learning units)… I’m rooting for it. In order to be successful, however, it really requires a cultural shift: teachers have to imagine themselves as active participants in this big content-creation community, not just consumers or private creators.

The great thing about the OER Commons is that is can require the educator to share their work and receive constructive feedback. The hope is that the Commons will act to improve excellence, accountability, and constant improvement. In short, it has the capacity to be a capable Professional Development tool, just as it can be a dynamic Open Content library.

Piggy-backing on Content Aggregators (like OER Commons and others), a new BIF-spawned project, “Passion Dragon” is trying to tag and sort that content by specific interests that excite students. Want to learn everything that is thematically tied to Basketball?  …the Passion Dragon project points to one of the issue behind all of this, the meta data.

How do we sort all this content when there are so many lenses to use. Some lenses are relevant for educators (Common Core alignment, assessments, disciplines), some are relevant for informal student browsing (interests, themes), some are great for workforce development (career tracks, industry educational requirements), some are best for independent learners (tags for societies, geographies, syllabus-paths, specialized learning styles). The options go on and on, with even the possibility to sort based on specific learning contexts (informal/formal, student demographics, etc.)

If we had to look at all of this at once, it would be overwhelming, but one can see how it will be useful to sort resources in all these ways. In this way, I think the concept of Lenses begins to make sense, to help us only browse using a certain set of metadata.

So, what’s the metadata? The annoying thing about data, is that it needs to be Universal or its value diminishes quickly. (CEDS, LRMI, Learning Registry Data Design, etc. ?) The Lenses concept is a way to make MetaData options somewhat customizable. Maybe you have one Metadata-Lenses be universally required and other Lenses optional, depending on the creator/consumers needs and the type of Content.

Another exciting realization is the possibilities that open up when the conversation on Resource aggregation and Creation begin to tie into the conversation on Personal Ed Data/Portfolios/Learning Archives). What if we could map all our learning, past, present, and future and everything point on the map is populated with our portfolio content, current work/assignments, and browse-able future content (respectively).

! All for now.


The Nomadic HQ Finale

For the past year or so the Saxifrage School has been operating a nomadic headquarters, roaming around the City in abandoned, borrowed, or not-yet-finished spaces. Before we moved forward, we wanted to know the City better and choose the neighborhood that represented the best fit for our unique idea. We spent 3 or more months each in Millvale, the Lower North Side, and Garfield holding events, going to neighborhood gatherings, and soliciting feedback about our idea.

It was an amazing year full of adventures. We helped build a new library in Millvale, pulled off a series of elaborate 5-course lecture/meals on the North Side, and served over 50 pies to hundreds of guests in our rehabbed Penn Avenue storefront in Garfield.

All told, we held nearly 20 classes, met hundreds of people, and helped to energize and/or rebuild 3 spaces. Throughout all of this, we did our best to record feedback from the community and built up packets of information relevant to our decision. If our campus is going to be the neighborhood, it has to be the right sort of neighborhood.

The general goal in our decision process was to choose the neighborhood that had the best balance between development (resources and partners that will help us) and underdevelopment (under-utilized space we can operate in).

We broke the decision-making process down into four major areas:

1. Resources

Identifying the quality, quantity, and availability of physical campus and academic resources: classroom space, residential space, green space, recreational space, study space, etc.

2. Impact

Identifying how the Saxifrage School will affect short-term and long-term change within our campus’ neighborhood. What will the positive and negative impact of our presence? What concerns or hopes do we have concerning our impact upon this particular area?

3. Partnerships

Identifying the types of relationships we can have with potential partners within the campus neighborhood. What people, groups, and organizations in this neighborhood will help us to found and operate our School? What partnerships are unique to this place?

4. Campus Life

What sort of life can we expect our students and faculty to live in this neighborhood? What are the facts of this place that they will have to interact with on an everyday basis; facts of geography, transit, diversity, crime, environment, topography, accessibility, etc. What other tangible or intangible aspects of this place will affect the quality of life for our School community?


After a year of building our programs, refining our vision, and getting to know neighborhoods we are excited to say that we have chosen a campus neighborhood where we will be focusing our work from here on out. To finalize the process, we held an all-team decision event (jokingly called “DECISION 2012”) at a neutral location, the South Side’s Community Broadcast Center. After eating food and viewing a slideshow from each neighborhood, we hashed out the differences and eventually came to a consensus which was later approved by our Board of Directors. For the forseeable future, the Saxifrage School will be operating in the Garfield/East Liberty/Larimer corridor.

It was a really really difficult decision, with all choices being good ones. We felt like the Garfield/E.Lib/Larimer area had these advantages:

- Start-Up Energy (an intangible dynamic)
- Student Amenities (Target, Groceries, etc. are important for a auto-less population)
- Housing Stock
- Right Scale (many potential partner organizations are of a similar size)
- An important main corridor (good for publicity)
- A more youthful population
- Tech Community
- Best balance of development/underdevelopment


I should close by saying that, although we value the importance of this decision (as reflected by the time we took in making it), our choice will mean very little if we do not to continue building on our work. We now have to become the organization we imagined would prosper so well in this neighborhood. We have some small prototypes under our belts which give up great hope for the future, but there is much work yet to be done.


Problem-Themed Courses

Problems, Harry Potter, Paw-Paws, and Food Trucks.

"I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?"

         - Henry David Thoreau, Walden

In every academic planning conversation at the Saxifrage School we have tried to keep this concept at the forefront: if a school is to be worthwhile, it must not engage its students in the work of pretending. In an effort to not “play house”, pretending, and only engaging with theory while in school we plan to consistently engage our students with real and pressing problems; problems that are readily experienced and addressed within their own neighborhoods.

This problem-posing pedagogy requires, first, that students do the work of identifying a problem and, as Josh McManus recently put it, then fall in love with that problem. A top-down approach, where students are told what the problem is, limits the motivation that comes from identifying it independently. It has to be their problem so that it resonates with their responsibility, passion, and—most importantly—capability.

There are four brilliant things about problems that make them an excellent a theme for a college course:

1. Problems transcend disciplines, forcing us to reconcile theory and practice.

The complexity of problems make them a unifying force for an educative process. If we want to address the problem of, say, kids drinking too much soda pop for school lunches at a specific school, we have to delve into psychology, nutrition, cultural studies, marketing, politics, the ethics of consumer choice, family studies, health, etc. Moreover, if we are truly working on the problem, our work cannot stop with inquiry, but must act and produce some results. A problem-posing pedagogy requires a productive inquiry and allows courses to be themed not around disciplines, but around real problems in the context of our real neighborhoods.

2. Problem-solving is always valuable.

College students are put in the unenviable position of having to spend tens of thousands of dollars for many years while they are simultaneously earning almost nothing. Unfortunately, most students are involved in work that is “just pretending” and is not seen of much worth to the general population. As Thoreau puts it “The consequence is, that while he is reading Adam Smith, Ricardo, and Say, he runs his father in debt irretrievably.” What if, however, in addition to reading deeply and asking questions, students focused their critique on problems and, subsequently, attempted to solve them. Even a failed attempt at problem-solving is a valuable one because, by definition, problems are yet unsolved; each attempt can offer help to the following as we work collectively towards lasting change. Of course, if students are able to solve a problem, even a small one, their solution has value both socially and economically. Even an attempted (but failed) solution makes for impressive resume fodder, but a successful one is an invaluable experience and a potential source of revenue. A problem-posing pedagogy can serve to improve a neighborhood, as well as earn a student valuable experience and some income.

An example: 

"Student Web Developer Clinic for Start-up Ventures"

The Problem: Too many early-stage for- and non-profit ventures lack either the skill or funding to produce a high-quality, informational website to get themselves up and running. This barrier to entry occupied too much of many organization’s already sparse resources. How can these early-stage ventures find a way to get quality web-sites made without spending too much and without burdening the professional community with pro bono requests?

The Solution: Web Dev. and Graphic Design students work in collaborative teams to create quality websites for ventures. Students get paid a small, but meaningful stipend by the organizations and get valuable experience building sites for real clients.

3. Problems are always relevant.

One of the most glaring failures of our nation’s colleges has been their inability to relevantly train students for whatever their post-college work might be. Whether it be deprecated techniques and software platforms, out-dated content, or irrelevant agendas, students often complain that their studies have little or nothing to do with the “real world”. Being good at college, unfortunately, rarely translates to being good at life after graduation. One way to ensure that a student’s work is relevant is to focus it on problems. This is the beautiful thing about problems: they have yet to be solved. Problems, therefore, are always relevant. Additionally, problems are always the focus of the most current and interesting research and practice. Engaging with the conversation surrounding problems is a sure way to become connected to a field’s most relevant issues and capable practitioners.

4. Problems are Motivating

The current drop-out rate statistics tell a difficult story of failure, confusion, and despondency. As we continue to spend our lives in schools, more and more students are wondering “Why?” and seriously lacking motivation. The rates, currently, show that only about 50% of college students graduate within 6 years. Only 50% of all students are graduating and it’s taking them 50% longer to do it! This, of course, is a complex problem, but it is rightly argued that one major contributor is a lack of student motivation and a lost sense of purpose. Why school? The answer, of course, lies in problems; it lies in a School’s ability to equip us with the skills, wisdom, resources, confidence, and relationships weneed to see and solve problems.

The classic example is that of the High School Calculus class when the student asks “Why does this matter? Will I ever use Calculus after High School?” It’s a trite, but important question. The key part of the question though, is the word “after”. Since we are spending so much of our lives in schools, students are becoming restless and the question, instead, should be “Will I use this now?” 

A better, more interesting example, comes from the beloved Harry Potter series. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the—arguably—most important class at Hogwart’s School for Withcraft and Wizardry is upended by everyone’s least favorite teacher, Dolores Umbridge. The Defense Against the Dark Arts class, under Umbridge’s instruction, has her students reading “Dark Arts Defence: Basics for Beginners” so that they understand only its theories in preparation for their examinations. This conflict, I would argue, is one of the major reasons for the popularity of the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling’s story is one where school is meaningful and amazing. The ennui experienced by so many students is brilliantly contrasted by the epic bildungsromanic* education of Harry Potter and his friends. Sure, they have magic and wands, but the important nature of their education is that they are learning how to do things that save the world and the lives of their friends. Moreover, the things they are learning are not for some distant future life “after school”. They are going to be faced with great conflicts that night. As the TV show “Heroes” so tritely/aptly iterates again and again “Save the cheerleader: Save the world.”

Harry Potter Book

*It is fun to note that this word can be used literally here, the german “bildungsroman” translates to “education novel”. In this sense, the Harry Potter series is, perhaps, the quintessential bildungsroman.

In response to Umbridge’s de-problematizing of their coursework, Harry and Friends start a secret classroom behind the walls of Hogwarts. They recognize there are real and serious problems on the horizon (Voldemort, Dementors, etc.) and need to keep learning. This sense of responsibility is one that is difficult to teach but of foremost importance. Responsibility, however, cannot be instilled unless students are engaged with real work addressing real problems. There is no responsibility to be found in pretend situations. This is what Harry is talking about when he warns his fellow students about joining his rogue educational group: “Facing this stuff in real life is not like school. In school, if you make a mistake you can just try again tomorrow, but out there, when you’re a second away from being murdered or watching a friend die right before your eyes… you don’t know what that’s like.” Hermione recognizes “You’re right, Harry, we don’t. That’s why we need your help.”

This education novel (the most popular book series ever with ~450 million copies sold) is the story of our well-schooled generation, in part, because in Harry Potter’s school he is not merely studying, he is living earnestly. He is learning by facing real and immediate problems.


Here’s a postscript with one last example (okay, maybe two). First: Food Trucks.

Currently, the Saxifrage School is engaged in a brief partnership with the newly formed Pittsburgh Mobile Food Coalition: www.pghmobilefood.com. Even though our course offerings are still quite small, we wanted to begin involving ourselves in the sort of pedagogical exercises that we hope will be a significant part of our future. The Pittsburgh food truck issue is just the sort of focused problem that we could imagine our students undertaking in future courses. It is concerned with politics, law, economics, cultural studies, marketing, business, nutrition, food studies, etc. and is happening right now in our neighborhoods. 

So, we are working with the Food Trucks to practice education, promote awareness, lobby city council, and market product in the hopes that the City will improve legislation to encourage the growth of the local food truck industry. As mentioned, real problems are necessarily complex. We were able to provide web development assistance (from our Web Development students) and work to function as their educational partner to put on a couple classes themed around the Food Truck problems. Its not quite a Voldemort-sized problem, but its a great start.

Second: Paw-Paws.

Local hero Andy Moore is attempting to address another problem: the near-extinction of a fruit tree native to our region, the delicious and tropical paw-paw tree. In his work, Andy is writing a book on the Paw-Paw chronicling its history, decline, and recent (albeit still tiny) resurgence. As he records the paw-paw story, he is also acting as an advocate and educator for the growth paw-paw trees and an industry that might re-introduce them to the larger population. Once again, the paw-paw problem is a problem Andy first posed, then fell in love with, and is now seeking to address in all of its exciting complexity. Its valuable ($4,714 pledged on Kickstarter), motivational (everyone gets excited about it, especially when they taste one), relevant (even our most foodie or farmer friends have not tried one before and we could use more local fruit diversity), and very complex (the problem is horticultural, economic, and mysterious).

For more information, the record of his successful kickstarter campaign can be found here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1492998860/pawpaw-the-story-of-americas-forgotten-fruit?ref=card


Practicing Lethargy and the Work/Work Balance

Our team member Tyke Nunez and I were having a chat about his recent trip to Oxford. The conversation fell to discussing people and places that inspire us to work harder and better. This contagious energy is, we thought, somewhat lacking in our favorite city of Pittsburgh. 

Tyke described his friend in Oxford as someone who has great control over both his physical and mental state and is committed to training as a boxer and a philosopher. Tyke is going to take up running. 

We discussed how we are often inconsistent in our physical pursuits, but our present occupations (staring at screens and writing about big ideas) are without vigor. We both realized that, for a decade now, we’ve been trying to fight our body’s disposition to MOVE… we’ve been practicing lethargy and, in some instances, hoping our bodies would learn contentment with sedentariness.

It sounds a bit insane when you name it this way, but—as a society—we have truly come to value one’s capability to sit still. Skill in torpidity has become an asset. Kids who are now labeled as ADHD may have, in a different era, been seen as energetic go-getters who are good workers. Now, they are seen as anxious trouble-makers who can’t sit still.

Strange to say, but I feel as though I have become more ADHD as an adult (probably because I’m forced to sit still more). I can only work so long sitting still staring at text and data. Movement is essential to my well-being: mentally, physically, and emotionally. Long periods at the desk/computer make me anxious, moody, unfocused, sore, and unproductive. A standing desk is a moderate improvement.

People talk the work/life balance, but I’m in need of a better work/work balance. I like work, I don’t feel the need to disintegrate it from my life. I cannot, however, only do one kind of work. Hard labor doing renovation or fabrication work for weeks at a time is exhausting in a fully different way than excess desk-work is. How do we create work-lives where we have roles that allow us both movement and rest, alternating? Work that tires us out and intellectually engages us; work that is part labor and part ideation?

Part of the issue is a homogeneity of workplace expectations and the ever-present disconnect between theory and practice. Even a monotonous data-entry job wouldn’t be so terrible if we worked for 2 hour segments alternating to go chop wood, lay brick, or dig potatoes.

How do we create lives for students and workers in which they do not feel obligated to practice lethargy? In which they can work with their whole person?

While we search for excellence in our work, and the contagious energy of a hard-working community of peers, we need a balance of work. Work that fulfills our sense of purpose while wearing us out for a good night’s rest.


Deep Springs College and the Liberal Arts Ideal

Deep Springs Valley

This was a talk delivered to a small group of people gathered together to think about how to revamp the traditional model of higher education and eat pie. In particular it was intended for those involved in thinking through how to implement the Saxifrage project. I would not have written it quite as I did, had I conceived of it for a broader audience, or thought that it would end up on the Internet. Despite this, I agreed to let it be posted because I thought the larger Saxifrage community might benefit from a glimpse into at least one person’s take on the attempt to re-think the liberal arts model at Deep Springs.


If you’re here its probably because you know me, you are interested in learning a bit more about Deep Springs College, want to eat really good pie, or some combination of these. I will get to Deep Springs and its innovative pedagogical model, but first, since this is a Saxifrage event, I would like to spend a little bit of time answering the questions “To what end do we attend College and, therefore, where does its value lie?” These answers will be some mixture of my own, and those of the founder of Deep Springs, L.L. Nunn.

Since there might be people who don’t know anything about Deep Springs, let me begin by introducing it a bit. It is a two-year institution in the high mountain dessert on the California border with Nevada. It is a working cattle ranch and alfalfa farm. Its student body is limited to twenty-six members and until next year it will have been all male. It is free to attend. The students are the beneficial owners of the college, which means that although there is oversight from the administration and trusties, the students own the land and the facilities during their tenure at the college. Accordingly, the student body’s governance of itself is seen as a crucial element of the education, central to Nunn’s original vision.

Let me start off with a quote from a letter by Nunn to the students of Deep Springs, dated June 1st, 1922, regarding the purpose of the institution:

“You ask me what we are doing at Deep Springs. Burke in the last sentence of his French Revolution refers to himself as one, who “when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reason to that which may preserve its equipoise.” Deep Springs believes and teaches that since Lord Bacon’s time the Anglo Saxon people have been overloading their Ship of State on the side of Science, resulting in the growth of materialism and commercialism and obscuring the ideals which flow from religion, philosophy and ethics. It teaches and believes that science has been made the ignominious slave of commercialism and that commercialism has found most profit in amusing and stupefying the people with every material device and sensual pleasure; that our educational instructions too often prepare their most brilliant students to be the ill-paid hirelings of the avaricious, or, what is worse, participators in the results of an evil system. Deep Springs does not disregard mathematics or the general sciences, or even commercialism or the spread of the use of creature comforts, but, recognizing the overloading of the ship on one side, aims to place the small weight of its influence where it will tend to develop men of fixed purpose and character, who will dedicate themselves to the higher cause of service.”

Here, almost a hundred years ago, Nunn presciently articulates a concern about the forces of commercialism and the value of profit making corrupting the core of our culture, and obscuring the traditional values flowing from the study of religion, philosophy and ethics. Furthermore, he has focused in on our institutions of higher education as the domain in which this battle over what we value as a culture will be fought, and he has identified that the economic value of the products of scientific inquiry have too often brought it and its practitioners into the mercenary service of those whose primary aim is to secure their own wealth.

In the past decade there has been an enormous push towards the commercialization of higher education. Indeed, it is understandable that the big business model of higher education has gained an enormous amount of ground as the price of higher education has skyrocketed, and students can’t justify the extravagance unless they see tangible economic rewards. This is exacerbated by the recent decrease in public funding, since insofar as budget shortfalls have been made up, it is through the individual donorship of wealthy donors, who have made their money through the principles governing good business practice. It is only natural, after all, then, that these donors, once elected to trusteeships, want to bring the same management techniques to the university that have made them wealthy. As has been made clear, however, in the recent debacle at the University of Virginia they often have not given the requisite thought to the differences between a business and an institution of higher education, both in regard to how it should be run and in regard to what its purpose should be.

We live in a society of plenty. In the western world we have achieved a collective means where no one should need to struggle to feed, clothe or house herself. Nonetheless, as a culture we still strive after wealth as though we lived in a time of scarcity. Relatedly, it is often repeated that the Humanities cannot compete economically with the sciences, with their tangible goods produced. This may be so, but it isn’t the root of the problem. I think that lies deeper, in the thought that the measure of value is always monetary, is always a matter of products produced. I think that there is value in this struggle for more, but I think it is inappropriate and outmoded for such pleonexia, such striving for more and more, to stand at the center of our collective value system.

The value of striving for ever more output is of course a huge topic, and I don’t want to really address it here. I raise it only to preliminarily bring into focus the value of the humanities as opposed to the sciences. The value of the humanities lies not in its products but in its questions, in the continual reassessment of what we should value that it spurs. In the humanities we encounter contrasting pictures of human life, with many different views of what counts as flourishing for us. When we study the humanities, be it philosophy, theology, literature, or other art forms, we come up against different systems of values and are thus faced with the question of what we ourselves should value.

So far this sketch of the value of the humanities is vague and broad. Let me try to bring it into focus and tie it back into the purpose and aims of a liberal arts education by talking a bit about a book that Tim reviewed in his pie and pedagogy talk two weeks ago. The new book was called “College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be”. It outlined the development of colleges from small seminaries, through institutions directed towards the ideal of a liberal arts education, into the enormous research universities that we have today. The aim of the book is to recapture the meaning of ‘liberal’, in a ‘liberal arts education’, and to quietly impress on the reader the value of such an education. ‘Liberality’ in this sense means, that which is suited to the education of a free person. It is, I think, this value of liberality that is what is promoted when we study the humanities and coincidentally it was also, I think, the core value that Nunn set out to promote in the founding of his educational projects.

In order to understand what “is suited to the education of a free person,” we need to first know what freedom amounts to. At the core of Nunn’s conception of freedom is self-governance, for he views freedom and self-government in obedience to law as one and the same. He recognizes that on the face of it this doesn’t make sense. How can obedience be synonymous with freedom?

To understand this it will help to contrast the fee person with the slave. The free person lives in free society with others. Free societies can be small and large, ranging from, for example, the small association of students at Deep Springs, to the state government of Pennsylvania or the government of the United States of America. When people live in society with one another they choose to establish laws governing the conduct of their members, for the maintenance and flourishing of the society as a whole, and they curtail their own rights, for the benefit of the common good.

Slavery, like freedom, requires society. Unlike freedom, which is participation in society, however, slavery is subjugation to it. The slave does not choose to enter into society with others, but is coerced into obeying orders out of fear. Both the slave and the free person recognize and respect the law, but they do so in extremely different ways. The free person wills the law, takes responsibility for it, and has her part in determining it. The slave submits to it and is bound by it in servitude.

At the individual level, Nunn thinks that we find a situation analogous to that of the free person and the slave at the social level. He thinks there are laws governing our right conduct, laws of morality that we can all be aware of through our good common sense. We can rebel against these and instead follow our personal inclinations, desiring our own pleasure and our own gain, at the expense of others. Such intemperance, according to Nunn is the mark of poor self-governance. When we follow our good judgment, will our action in accord with it, and take responsibility for this action, however, then he thinks we govern ourselves well individually.

Now in a free society, the authority of the body politic derives from each individual’s choice to enter into that society. Accordingly, the authority of the society is in part vested in it from each of its members, and in respecting its authority the members are indirectly respecting their own authority over themselves. In this way, when a free person respects the laws of their free society, they are engaged in a further form of self-government.

Entering into society with others involves a curtailment of one’s rights for the sake of the communal good. At times one will be in the dissenting minority, even when one has followed one’s best moral sense. This is the moment when our free power to enter into society is put to the test. According to Nunn, it is in this moment, when we choose to follow the legitimate dictates of the social body, although they go against our better judgment, that our freedom to form civil societies reaches its highest degree.

That said, of course, Nunn does not think that the prevue of collective legislation can penetrate into every affair. On the contrary, a society only has the right to govern the conduct of its members insofar as that conduct impinges on the collective good, and to the greatest extent possible, the dominion of the individual is to be preserved.

With this roughly hewn Nunnian conception of freedom via self-governance in mind, now we are in a position to be able to ask: what is a liberal arts education in the sense of “that which is suited to the education of a free person”? Deep Springs was the culmination of Nunn’s answer to this question. So perhaps now I’ll say a bit about the various aspects of a Deep Springs education, before returning to examine the question again more generally, as well as the value of the Humanities within this education.

There are three main pillars to a Deep Springs education: Academics, Labor, and Self-Governance of the student body.

There are usually three long-term faculty at Deep Springs: one in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. In addition to these, there are two or three short-term faculty that fill gaps in the curriculum. There are usually around ten courses in any given semester. The only required courses are the summer seminar one’s first term, which is usually a sweeping survey of classics in western political thought and literature; a composition course one’s first full academic semester, which is meant to ensure that all students attain a certain high degree of proficiency in writing; and finally public speaking every semester, which takes place weekly, and in which all students deliver one or two speeches over the course of a term.

As I mentioned, Deep Springs is a working Cattle Ranch and Alfalfa farm. While in attendance students spend roughly half their time working on the ranch. The amount of time spent on ranch work can vary drastically from job to job and term to term. If something needs to get done on the ranch it is the first priority, often because the consequences of failing to do it are immediate and drastic. The kind of jobs include moving cattle, feeding animals, tending the hey operation, working in the office, cooking for the community, cleaning dishes in the boarding house, milking the dairy cows, assisting the mechanic, and butchering, as well as general labor positions responsible for doing whatever special labor projects need to get done at a given time. The labor commissioner oversees this general labor crew. This student is elected to the position and is responsible for making the labor assignments at the beginning of every term.

The final pillar of the program is self-governance. I mentioned that according to the Deed of Trust establishing the college, the members of the current student body are the beneficial owners of the college, its land and its facilities. Their powers in regards to the college, however, are thankfully substantially curtailed by the powers of the board of trusties, president, and other administrative positions. Nonetheless, students retain the power to govern the conduct of their fellows, “in accordance with its traditions and the ideals and policies of Deep Springs” (Deed of Trust). The student body meets weekly, usually on Friday evenings, where it discusses, approves or denies motions brought forth by its members. Each year it reassesses the standing bi-laws of the body, and the two ground rules instated by Nunn: the prohibition of drugs and alcohol and the isolation policy. In addition to these regular student body meetings there are sub-committees, run by and primarily consisting in students, that make recommendations to the student body and president as to who should be admitted to the college for the following year, which faculty should be hired or whether their contracts should be renewed, and whether or not first year students should be re-invited for the next year.

In all of these activities, however, Nunn stresses that students should not be as concerned with performing their duties as they are proscribed in letter, as they should be with engaging in these activities in the right spirit. Of course, the chickens need to be fed, the dairy cows need to be milked, and the alfalfa needs to be watered. But inevitably students make mistakes and break things, and naturally everything would run much more efficiently if everyone had performed their duties day in and day out for years. Avoiding these pitfalls and running a successful ranch is not, however, the point. This is, as Nunn conceives it, to cultivate the character of those engaged in the project. This cultivation, however, is also not the spirit with which everyone works. Such a self-serving enterprise would be self-defeating: it would not instill its virtue. That is, it would not awaken students to their common moral sense, and would not teach them the virtue of good self-governance.

Accordingly, it was a different spirit that animated all aspects of the work at Deep Springs, at least in my experience. This spirit, in the ideal, was that of giving everything you had in you to any individual task, for the sake of the community and its well functioning. This wasn’t, however, a matter of just trying to do everything as well as possible. This perfectionism was driven by something deeper than the satisfaction of a job well done or even the knowledge that the community as a whole would benefit. What drove the work, what performing our daily tasks in the right spirit amounted to, was doing them out of love. This love was a love for one another as people, as brethren, as well as a love for Deep Springs as an institution, for its project and for its future.

The notion of love that I have in mind is a sort of selfless one that can have a general object. It can be directed towards people with whom one does not have a personal or familial bond, merely in virtue of their humanity. Fitting it into one of the traditional categories, it seems closest to philia or fraternité, the kind of love appropriate to civic bonds. While there is something to this, living at Deep Springs, striving to serve one another, it became evident that under philia, animating it from within, is a spark of something more self-giving. This spark is agapic love. I suspect, however, that this form of love will seem antiquated to most, and insofar as anyone thinks about it at all these days, I suspect it is in relation to the mandate to love one’s neighbor. I think it is a shame that this kind of love is often only recognized in religious contexts. I don’t think the love that ideally animates those working at Deep Springs, or in civil society in general, must be particularly religious in orientation, although I do think that agapic love is at its core.

Throughout his writings, Nunn often talks about the ideal of service. He recognizes that there is a danger of pursuing this ideal in the wrong way. He says, “There is a great danger of hypocrisy in the pretense so often indulged in of helping, but there is plenty of opportunity to help so modestly that “the left hand knoweth not what the right hand doeth.”” I myself am uncomfortable with holding the ideal of service too far aloft for this reason and for the arrogance that seems to me so often endemic to it. Nonetheless, I think when it is viewed the right way, this ideal can capture well the spirit which Nunn hoped would animate the work at Deep Springs and which did animate it, at least some of the time, while I was there. For I think the kind of action, animated through love, that one ideally undertakes at Deep Springs is what Nunn had in mind with his notion of service.

Acting in service to one another, although it was the spirit in which Nunn hoped we would live, by no means exhausted his educational vision. Another of Nunn’s guiding principles is summed up well in his remark: “It is impossible to believe long contrary to conduct. We believe as we act.” In acting in service to one another he thought that we would come to recognize what genuine service was, that this kind of activity was ours and mankind’s highest vocation and that the good life, a virtuous life, was a life of service.

Two weeks ago Tim read a passage from College quoting from Emerson, “The whole secret of the teacher’s force lies in the conviction that men are convertible. And they are. They want awakening.” Teachers have always been—and, let us hope, always will be—in the business of trying to “get the soul out of bed, out of her deep habitual sleep” (College, 45). I think the purpose of Deep Springs, through its three pillars of academics, labor and self-government, animated by a love of one another and an ideal of service to one another, can also be summed up as a kind of conversion. Not conversion in an essentially religious sense, but conversion to a way of life, a forging of good character, the recognition of one’s self as a free person.

According to the author of College conversion is the single most important aspiration of someone engaged in undergraduate teaching. That instant where students get it: they see that their lives will be better if they are critically engaged in thinking about how best to live them in an intellectually rigorous conversation with those who have thought hard about how to live their lives before them. On the traditional liberal arts model this can happen on a number of levels. In part it happens on a small scale: when in a class a student sees how the ideas being discussed that day fit together and feels the thrill of understanding just a little bit better how some very small portion of the world works. It happens on a larger scale, over the course of a student’s education where, after they have felt that excitement a number of times, they come to crave it. It also happens in the life of the college community, when talking to one another, members of this community come to realize that although convictions are held individually, talking them over happens together, and that this too is a critical aspect of evaluating them. In the process, members of this community come to value the community itself, for how it contributes to furthering the dual goals of understanding and of critiquing what one thinks one understands.

Deep Springs builds on this traditional model. Nunn’s intent was not to cultivate academics but free agents of social change directing the nation towards the good. Accordingly, to merely develop an intellectual community was not enough. His ideal of the free man was not only someone who knew what was worth doing, but also someone who knew when action needed to be taken, when restraint was required, and how to live in a free society with others. Because it did not educate its students for this, the traditional model of a liberal arts education was incomplete and needed the supplementation of labor and collective self-governance.

In laboring we subjugate ourselves to matter: we conform to its necessities, attend to its needs and obey its command. In labor we discipline ourselves to the demands of our matter; we come to respect its laws so that we can put it to use for our ends. As Nunn, who made his fortune building power plants, puts it, “If he wishes to utilize the natural forces of light and electricity he proceeds first to learn the laws by which they operate and then conforms to them. He does not, in the name of freedom, undertake to control the forces of nature by an autocratic command.” Beyond this practical lesson, however, Nunn thought there was a beauty to be found in our subjugation to and respect for matter in laboring. It is in labor that, when we undertake it in the right spirit, we take our proper place in the order of things, and where we become mechanisms for bringing about the good. Learning to love this work and appreciate its beauty, Nunn thought, was essential to being properly free, and to governing a land whose people mostly labor.

In governing one another, the students of Deep Springs enter into a kind of civil society. Over the course of Deep Springs’s development, power over its affairs was to be granted to students as they exhibited a sense of responsibility adequate to ensure its good exercise. This kind of gradual enfranchisement, like work, is a matter of submitting to the rules of a system for the sake of attaining the good of the community. Unlike with bare matter, however, these laws are subject to revision. They do not merely demand respect, but transformation as the need arises. Here too, however, this practical lesson was only part of the perceived value of the task. In binding themselves together into a society that governs its members and is devoted not only to their collective good, but also to the good of its future members, students are allowed the opportunity to enter into society together and thereby learn how to govern themselves in a free society. Now we are in a position to see why it is here that the education of a free person attains its chief perfection. If one enters into a free society in a spirit of service, in accord with good moral sense, loving one’s fellow members and loving the appropriate purpose for which the society was convened, then in serving this society and furthering its purposes, one will become even more finely attuned to one’s moral sense and will come to value the purposes of this society even more.

In Deep Springs, then, we get a different conception of the liberal arts education, which nonetheless fits the traditional one. It is an education that goes beyond instilling the value of intellectual questioning, aiming further at instilling the values of attending, creating, and serving in self-governing. Accordingly, it is one where the value of studying the humanities is situated within a larger context. This context is one where the value of the humanities lies not just in one’s personal development, but also in the development and cultivation of civil society, and thus humanity, as a whole. The character of students is transformed not only intellectually, but also in activity. They develop both their conception of what is valuable and their capacities for realizing those values. This transformation is concrete. It is a matter of learning how to do things both in productive labor and in productive free society, but more deeply it is a matter of becoming accustomed to doing these things for the right reasons, out of love and service to one’s fellow human beings.

So far I have described the particular development of the ideal of the liberal arts education at Deep Springs within the context of life there. If this was where its value stopped, however, then it would lack purpose. An associate of Nunn’s summed up this aspect of his conception of liberty well after his death: “The truth is, liberty is not a condition, but a career. Even its helpless opposite, slavery, is a career—the weary career of obedience to orders. Liberty is the career of the freeman. Its essence is responsibility and self-direction. But he shares the authority, and as servility is what we expect from the slave, so “liberality”—of mind and bearing—is what we have a right to count on from the freeman.”

This liberality of mind and bearing, whose essence is responsibility and self-direction, which is fueled by a love of one’s fellow man, and which is not merely a condition, but a career and vocation is what the liberal arts education, properly understood, strives to instill in students. At Deep Springs this is done through the cultivation of an intentional community, for its philosophy maintains that belief follows action, and that the easiest road to conversion of character is through activity, bolstered by the communication of ideas.

Let me close then with a final quote from Nunn’s associate: “I call you to liberty. I have tried to show you what it means. It is the noblest birthright of an American. Do not lose it. It is not an indulgence. It is a life. Live it.”

Post Script:
This was written quickly. In preparing it for a wider audience I have left it largely unaltered. Reading through it now, its conceptual flaws are glaring, but if I attempted to revise it into some suitable form I fear it would both grow substantially in size and never reach a state of completion. In preparing it I aimed to recapture and communicate the core of Nunn’s vision of the college and its purpose, although in doing so I have not hesitated to interpret this vision as seemed appropriate to my experience. This was my aim because of its audience: a group reflecting on how they should think of their own educational project and its purpose, prior to facing the realities of its implementation. My hope is that this account of Nunn’s vision and purpose for Deep Springs (which is in some ways very similar to how I envision Saxifrage but in other ways extremely different) will help throw our conception of the purpose and vision for Saxifrage into relief.

To be clear, this account is only of the founder’s vision, and has been formulated over a decade after my days as a student at Deep Springs. Accordingly, it is doubly removed from actual life there. Its intent is only to present a picture of the ideal that the College strove after, a purification of its own internal mythology perhaps, and not to provide any account of what life there was actually like. That isn’t to say that the picture I’ve painted has nothing to do with how real life was there, but real life is always more mundane than myth. Like any other human institution, Deep Springs is just a bunch of people trying to get by together, in their day-to-day lives. The spirit that I have articulated here was only on display occasionally, and perhaps not much more than in other places and activities. Life is life wherever you find it.

The main difference between my years at Deep Springs and those spent elsewhere perhaps is just this: life there was simpler. It was simpler because it was preparatory. It was about surveying the space of possibilities, laying foundations, and getting one’s bearings. This was mostly an internal process. It was about getting one’s heart in order. And while this process couldn’t happen alone, in isolation, it could happen in a relatively simple, small community of fifty or so people, largely cut off from the mad complexity of life in the real world and of what our future lives in that world would be. The tremendous privilege that Deep Springs students receive is, then, just two years in this simple space in which they can orient themselves and prepare for the complexities of life to come.