This post offers newly revised reflections from my life-changing visit to Schumacher College in May of 2016, where I participated first in a short course on Bioregionalism and the story of place and then volunteered for the remainder of my time. In total, I spent five weeks at the college and experienced the remarkable qualities that make it a truly unique and transformational learning center while making new friends from all over the globe. Such a place, I believe, offers a unique and appropriate context for helping catalyze the global transition to a human economy and civilization in harmony with all life.
Schumacher College was founded in 1990 by Satish Kumar and others inspired by the vision of economist E.F. Schumacher, whose seminal work Small Is Beautiful: a Study Of Economics As If People Mattered criticized the trajectory and growth-based assumptions of Western economics, the developmental paradigm that now dominates most of the world’s understanding of progress. His essay, Buddhist Economics, explores labour and development from a Buddhist perspective and advocates for production from local resources for local needs as the most rational way of economic life. Fritz Schumacher was one of the first major economists to question the purpose of economic growth and appreciate the implications of ecology — that the ultimate source of human and economic well-being is the natural ecosystems within which they are embedded.
Schumacher said that, “If still more education is to save us, it would have to be education of a different kind: an education that takes us into the depth of things.” This call to action has been met by the college, its founders, and those who continue to steward the creation of a holistic learning environment at the school’s idyllic location in South Devon, UK; the college itself is nested within the Dartington Hall Estate, a 1,200 acre property with a medieval hall built in the 1300s. Agricultural fields and gardens surround the college and provide much of the food it consumes, reflecting a commitment to ecological sustainability and self-reliance. The location provides a lush natural setting for an educational experience that is, at its core, rooted in ecology and reconnection to nature.
Satish Kumar, founder of Resurgence & Ecologist, activist, and author, is still actively engaged in college life, and frequently returns for courses and fireside chats. Academically, the college is heavily indebted to the work of James Lovelock (a local to South Devon), who co-developed Gaia Theory with Lynn Marghulis and was one of the school’s first visiting lecturers. Resident ecologist Stephen Harding (who is also a founding faculty member) directs the Holistic Science program, which offers a departure from the dominant Cartesian, reductionist scientific method using Goethian and phenomenological approaches. Harding also provides deep time talks and walks to the general college community, which explore the history of the earth from its formation 4.6 billion years ago through today (the deep time walk experience was recently turned into an app and is now available on iOS!).
And so in conversing with a friend and former graduate of the Economics for Transition program after my return we explored how maybe it takes a place rooted in deep connection to nature, both spiritual and scientific, to birth a new perspective on economics. Perhaps I am biased, but what better foundation than nature could there be for the study of economics? Thomas Berry said that the universe is ‘the only self-referential reality in the phenomenal world. It is the only text without context.” To ignore the implications of ecology, in both scientific and spiritual regards, is to close oneself to our primary guidepost for the purpose of economics, whose definition literally means “management of the household” (household being our home, the earth). Schumacher himself understood this, and Satish and company have managed to create a learning environment which reconnects us to the more-than-human world in a way that helps us better understand our own human purpose.
The phrase “Head, Heart, Hands” represents much of the college ethos, meaning that the school intends to not only engage its students intellectually but also spiritually and physically (you could also interpret the word spirituality as love, wholeness, or connection; like Fritof Capra, I interpret spirituality as …the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels connected to the Cosmos as a whole). Intellectually, students engage in rigorous explorations of our great social and ecological crises: wealth inequality, global poverty, climate change, species extinction, etc. Throughout my five week stay I interacted with many students who had just completed their master’s programs in Holistic Science and Economics for Transition. In these conversations I found a remarkable humility as to the nature of these crises and their solutions. One student said to me that Schumacher College is (to paraphrase) “where we come because we know there is a humongous problem with the way things are and we do not know all the answers.”
Hands are engaged through daily participation in the nuts and bolts of the college — cleaning bathrooms and common areas, clearing meals, preparing meals, and gardening are all done in part by students every day. This is the outcome of Satish’s vision for holistic learning; engaging the body and hands in labor each day is complementary, and not separate from, engaging the mind. Perhaps more importantly, cleaning the toilets and chopping onions for lunch (not simultaneously) allows one to experience membership in the community and responsibility for the space it inhabits. Among my best memories are the many hours spent with the cooks in the kitchen preparing epic feasts for lunch and dinner — the kitchen serves a vegetarian whole-foods, plant-based diet, and the head chef Julia Ponsonby has now produced two different cookbooks (Gaia’s Kitchen and Gaia’s Feasts) that provide the recipes for much of the meals prepared at lunch and dinner. Fresh bread and biscuits are baked daily, which was generally a problem for someone with bread obsession and limited self-control like myself.
The engagement of heart was perhaps more nuanced and less explicit. If you wanted to look for signs of this, you might find the well used meditation room next to the library, or the blessing of the food at every meal by those who’ve prepared it. Or you could join everyone in the main hall for Satish’s fireside chats, which occur with general frequency — everyone gathers to hear Satish talk for some twenty minutes and may then ask him whatever comes to mind. I experienced two of these and they were both powerful, rejuvenating, and convinced me that Satish Kumar is both a true sage and a large part of the college’s success.
But there is also something else at play at Schumacher College that probably cannot be put into words but must be experienced in person. The natural setting, historic architecture, community, and head/heart/hands engagement harmonize into a unique and authentic experience far more than the sum of its parts. I found myself wondering just how many lives have been changed in that special place. All of the conversations, laughter, and tears. All of the music spontaneously improvised. All of the meals prepared and eaten together. That same friend and I discussed how after so much intense human (and non-human) interaction at the college, perhaps the physical infrastructure has literally been charged with some numinous quality. Maybe that explained why, after our first week of the short course on a topic as potentially drab as bioregionalism, we found ourselves in a stone circle sharing our feelings and listening to someone play an indigenous spirit flute (yes, this happened).
This nameless quality is most closely revealed to me through my own set of three words: Love, Community, Hope. Love is for the earth, each other, and ourselves. Community defines my intimate sense of connection to the new friends I made at the college, and the flora and fauna that share that space. Hope is how I feel after leaving the college, that, maybe when combined with love and community, the future will be okay despite a warming planet and turbulent political-economic landscape. Schumacher College is not very big, and it will not save the world on its own. But it does embody the change it seeks to create outside its walls, and it gives those who can afford to go there the opportunity to participate in the transition to a new relationship with the earth and each other. Education of a different kind begins upstream: at the fundamental level of self and other, our perception of the world and our connection to it. Small is beautiful because it is the level at which we can experience right relationship with ourselves, human society, and the infinite subjectivity found in living nature. This is the relevance of place. That we know and experience an intimate connection to the web of life that sustains us and makes us whole.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, hop over to the Capital Institute’s Field Guide to a Regenerative Economy and read Unlocking the Potential of Place in the Brandywine Valley, my story of place for my home in Pennsylvania and the [written] outcome of the short course I took at Schumacher College.