A beacon of educational light

Those disgruntled with the University should notice the good happening here, such as Phil 4326.

by Jason Ketola

The media coined the adage “If it bleeds, it leads” to describe why death and misery dominate the news. Although bloodshed isn’t always featured on these opinion pages, they are, more often than not, rife with complaints. To this my column is no stranger. As a change of pace, allow me to write about something that I think is going very, very right at the University.

The story begins with me nearing the end of a totally disoriented freshman year. As hard as some of my professors seemed to try, most of my classes seemed to lack any real-world significance. I felt like I was paying tuition to be forced to memorize trivia. Worse, my classes were so large or met so infrequently that it was difficult to feel any sense of community with my peers. Meeting individuals with interests similar to mine was part of the great appeal of college, after all. I had great luck finding interesting people in my dorm, but I knew that dorm life wouldn’t last forever.

I probably spent as much time mining the course catalog looking for inspiration as I now spend on Facebook, hoping to craft the perfect schedule to make the coming fall semester different. My cynicism had grown tremendously, however, and I had the strong feeling that no matter how great the course descriptions sounded, my hopes for the mind-blowing experiences I desired certainly would be dashed just after the course change period ended.

On one of my breaks from downloading MP3s, I stumbled upon a description for a philosophy course titled “Lives Worth Living: Questions of Self, Vocation and Community.” I was accustomed to reading interesting-sounding descriptions and seeing right through the rhetorical veneer, but this one threw me. The questions motivating the course were ostensibly, what is vocation? what kind of community do I want to have around me? and as the Mary Oliver quote accompanying the description asked, “Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Anyone who’s taken an academic philosophy course knows that any sense of philosophical wonder we bring with us gets stomped on immediately and drowned in esoterica, but this course seemed to offer something different. It was to be held on a retreat center in rural, southwest Minnesota on the grounds of a small farm featuring free-range animals. Having grown up in the suburbs, I couldn’t think of a more boring place to spend the May term than the prairie, but I was willing to give the course a shot especially after meeting with some of the instructors who strongly suggested this wasn’t a typical philosophy course.

It turned out that those of us who attended the course that summer were initiates in the first run of this very different experience. We quickly realized that traditional syllabi and course schedules were absent. Instead we were asked to prepare meals from ingredients together and eat together, we shared favorite books with one another, and we laid personal stories of friendship, tough times, et cetera, side by side in “learning circles” in which each of us was offered the opportunity to respond to a prompting question while commanding the full attention of others around us.

After the first weekend passed, our performance anxieties dissipated and the course took on a richness unlike any I’d experienced. We weren’t being forced to do anything, but were offered opportunities to explore those questions at the center of what authentic living is about. Philosophy was working in our lives. We learned that the course structure was modeled on the “folk high schools” in Denmark founded in the 19th century by a clergyman to encourage collective spirit and democracy. People from all walks of life would retreat to these places to engage life’s most important questions. Scholars credited folk schools with preventing the kind of violent oppressions that have accompanied nearly every other modernization period in other countries. Today, folk schools appear all across Scandinavia.

The American tradition of folk schools has similarly impressive stories. At a place called the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, poor, illiterate and marginalized people have found the resources and resolve to take on various interests that have affected their lives in Appalachia. The Highlander Folk School also figures significantly in the civil rights movement as a place that was inviting blacks and whites to experience democratic living together as they worked to solve injustice. Septima Clark, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks all spent time at Highlander.

Having participated in Phil 4326 twice now and looking to return this summer as an apprentice instructor, I can sing only high praises of the course. Many of us leave college feeling let down at failing to have found something “real” in our courses. At Lives Worth Living, students can expect a radically different teaching and learning experience where instructors are just as much participants as the students, who come from different colleges, wildly different backgrounds and represent a full spectrum of places in their college careers.

Anyone who’s interested should check out www.philosophycamp.org for more information on the course and its history. If you decide to attend, either as a student or resident fellow, you might, like me, come to realize that the prairie is actually pretty cool.

Jason Ketola welcomes comments at [email protected].