Leaving Schumacher College.
In September this year, after frantically and excitedly raising £10,000 through a crowdfunding campaign, I began a masters in Holistic Science at Schumacher College.
Set in the beautiful Dartington Estate in Devon, Schumacher prides itself in offering ‘cutting edge learning’ and has over 25 years experience offering ‘transformative courses for sustainable living’.
As a thinker, activist and practitioner working to create social change, I was interested to explore on a deeper level how this change could be truly transformative both in myself and through the work I do in this world and felt very grateful to have the gift of time and resources to do so.
After two weeks I switched from the Holistic Science masters to the Ecological Design Thinking masters (the reasons for this have been explained in another blog — but are similar to many outlined here ) and at the end of October I made the difficult, painful but necessary decision to leave a masters I had just started at Schumacher College. In this blog I will share with you the reasons why I chose to leave, which for me lead to a wider discussion in terms of what we are referring to when we speak of ‘cutting edge and transformative learning’ in the current global context.
I have agonised quite a lot about how to write this blog — particularly around how much detail to go into in terms of what I experienced that made me leave. I started off with a purely intellectual analysis, but the more I wrote the more important it felt to include examples of my personal experience as well as the way these experiences impacted me emotionally.
We often see emotions as devaluing a piece of writing, making it less ‘rational and legitimate’ however for me when combined with intellectual analysis they can add another layer of richness and depth, and enable a reader to connect with a story in a different way.
As always I am experimenting with what level of personal sharing feels right for me as the author and you as the readers, so let’s see.
This piece will focus purely on the reasons I choose to leave Schumacher — that does not mean there is not a huge number of things that I immensely enjoyed and found hugely valuable about the Schumacher: the academic content on the EDT course was brilliant and inspiring, the setting and community life is a wonderful environment to learn in, the food, the gardening, the other course participants from all around the world.
So why in the end did I decide to leave?
Emergence, Power and Privilege
Underlying the three core reasons why Schumacher did not feel like a safe and empowering learning environment for me is Schumacher College’s approach to emergence, power and privilege.
Schumacher College has a huge focus on the concept of ‘emergence’ — the idea that in order to be effective change makers in our current context we need to learn the ability to tune in to and respond to what is ‘emerging’ from the current moment and situation rather than try and predict and control the future. We need to learn to be responsive and adaptive, and to understand what we can and can’t control. This approach holds a lot of strength in the complex and unpredictable world in which we live. And I have personally found many of its insights and approaches valuable and useful.
However if it is not combined with an analysis of how power structures and norms emerge then it can be problematic. Schumacher College has a belief in humans learning from nature — particularly plants and trees — and points to the beauty, complexity and wisdom that is in ‘naturally emergent ecosystems’. However for me its analysis misses out the fact that both animals and humans create complex social systems that often involve power structures that have the potential to oppress, liberate or serve certain groups.
From my experience, when we let things ‘emerge naturally’ they are likely to repeat the norms that are in us and the societies we have grown up in. What this means in terms of education (and many areas of society) is prioritisation of white, male, middle class voices; a prioritisation of the head over the hands and heart, and the creation of structures that exclude or oppress and suit the most able rather than the least able.
Unless we proactively put structures and processes in place to create new norms it is unlikely that these norms will change randomly and suddenly. The concept of emergence and letting what comes arise naturally has value and a place, but can only be effective when combined with proactive and practical ways to overcome inherent oppression and power structures that we have all learned.
This problem is not just isolated to Schumacher College and in fact I have experienced it in many projects trying to create ‘alternative utopias outside of the system’. There is an idea that once we have created this alternative space all the power structures and norms we have learned in society cease to exist. But they don’t — they stay within us as trauma, experience and learned ways of being. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to create these utopias; these alternative ways of living, working, learning together is definitely what we need to be doing! But with an understanding and analysis of power and privilege and clear ways that we will proactively try and unlearn oppressive behaviours and relearn new ones.
So in what ways did Schumachers approach to emergence, power and privilege affect me and my learning experience whilst I was there?
1) Head, Heart and Hands
A core tenet of Schumacher’s approach to education is ‘learning with the head, heart and hands’. Satish Kumar has spoken extensively on this topic (Ted Talk here) and in the course handbook I received before arriving it outlines that Schumacher’s ‘unique holistic approach to education’ includes:
- Acknowledging and developing the whole person: intellectual, emotional, ethical and practical.
- Valuing transdisciplinary approaches and different ways of knowing (analytical, sensory perception, feelings and emotions, and intuitive)
- emphasis on embodiment and practical action in participants’ own lives
This was one of the reasons I chose Schumacher College. I had done an undergraduate degree in International Development where I had learned how messed up the world was, but was only able to bring my intellectual response to class — not my emotional and personal response (heart), as well as the experience from my own life, nor did I feel empowered to act and create change as there was no inclusion of practical ways of applying my learning (hands).
However as time passed at Schumacher I realised that whilst there was a combination of head, heart and hands within the reality of living in community at the college — i.e., one hour a day spent doing practical tasks such as cooking, cleaning and gardening, and spending time with people at dinner, lunches or various evening events where we might connect on a more emotional than intellectual level — it was not actually embedded into the approach to learning in the courses or given enough time or consideration.
The ways that I experienced this on Ecological Design Thinking were that almost all timetabled learning time was lecture or thought-based discussion (10–1) and (2–4), which is 5 hours of head based learning a day. There was no explicitly included or structured time for sharing on an emotional level between course participants, or timetabled space for creative activities that may help one tune into and process emotional responses, nor was there active encouragement and support to share emotional as well as intellectual responses in class (something which we are not used to doing and is therefore hard to do without support and encouragement).
Not only was there no active encouragement or support for emotional sharing but when I raised this point in a feedback session I was told by a teacher — “that’s something we let happen naturally outside the classroom”. This was further reinforced through comments from other students such as: “this isn’t group therapy” and “I came here to do a masters not talk about my feelings”. I would expect these comments from a university based on head, head, head but was very surprised to hear them both from my teacher and fellow students in a college explicitly focused on head, heart and hands. This made the classroom feel like an unsafe space to share my emotional responses and when we had a lecture on the details of the contraptions that battery farmed pigs are kept in (something which I have a strong emotional response to) I had to leave the class and share the sadness it brought up for me with a friend over the phone. Once again I felt like I was back in a learning environment where I was learning about all the painful problems of the world without being able to share what it makes me feel as well as think, and by sharing emotions, to experience some collective vulnerability and solidarity — that I was not alone in what I was feeling.
In my opinion to be able to truly face, deal with and take action in the situation we are facing we need to find ways to express, share, honour and deal with the emotions it makes us feel.
When we disconnect from our emotions, not only do we cut off the pain we are feeling but also the love. When I feel sadness about losing something it reminds me that I love it deeply, I feel deep pain for the people, animals and environment that are being destroyed because I feel a deep love, and that love is what gives me the strength, courage and inspiration to take action and fight. In ignoring our emotions and cutting off from our pain we also cut off from the very thing we need to give us the hope and energy to take action — which is love.
Joanna Macy’s — ‘The work that reconnects’ is an excellent example of ways that we can embed our emotional responses and journey into our change making work as it takes groups through a process of ‘coming from gratitude’ and ‘honouring our pain’ before we ‘go forth to take action’. Interestingly this process had actually recently been embedded in ‘The Economics for Transition’ course at Schumacher — but by a proactive student that took the course in the previous year and felt it was missing — rather than as a new approach to education taken by Schumacher College as a whole.
The hands part of the education was not just a nice idea for me — but essential. One thing that has really supported me through depression and anxiety has been doing practical tasks with my hands. There is a huge amount of evidence and theory that discusses how this can contribute to a person’s wellbeing — whether in the case of recovering from a physical or mental illness or just in terms in day to day happiness and fulfilment. But on another level I think it allows us to learn, process and integrate information in a different way.
For me it allows me to get out of my head and into my body, it gives me a space to not be overwhelmed and filled with information, but to process that information- through doing, through being, through moving. Some of my best ideas over the last few months have come to me when I have been gardening, or drawing, or building — anyone who does creative work will know that it creates a different space for wisdom and insights to come from a less controlled and linear place. Hands activity gives a person time to integrate and reflect on what they have learned and in my opinion is crucial to reaffirming what one has learned.
With the morning and afternoon full of head activity — there was simply no space for this and as I was in the situation of dealing with health problems and therefore had limited capacity it was not something I had the energy to do on top of an already full day. In the end I had to take personal responsibility for my own wellbeing and ask the course leaders if it would be ok to attend just morning classes. For my mental health I needed time for the hand activity in the afternoon. They agreed to this willingly and accepted it. However later on in front of the whole class one of the teachers said that it was no longer possible and made me feel guilty for the important parts I would be missing and the impact that would have on the group.
As I spoke to other students, volunteers (doing cooking and cleaning) and also the ‘growers’ growing food for the community, what I began to find out was that everyone was experiencing an imbalance of the head, heart, hands in a different way. The growers and volunteers had 5–8 hours of hand activity every day and were lacking time and space for head based activity, students had 5–8 hours of head based activity every day and were missing time and space for hands and many (although not all) were also missing time, space and holding of heart-based spaces and processes. It seemed so silly to me that the imbalance in society was being replicated again here — that once again the ‘thinkers’ didn’t have hand time, the ‘do-ers’ didn’t have head time and as always time for emotions, relationships, and feeling was not valued.
It made me think what would it really look like to create a learning structure that ensured we had that balance in our daily life? For example those 5 hours that are currently all head based learning at Schumacher — what would it look like to have 1 for the heart, 2 for the head, 2 for the hands? What would it look like to create the space for emotional, intellectual and practical learning?
2) Mental Health and Pastoral Care
This one is harder for me to write about — as I have less knowledge in this area — in terms of what type of pastoral care it is appropriate for educational institutions to give — and because it is a sensitive and personal area for me right now. So as always I can only really speak from my own experience but that does lead to some more general and broader thoughts and comments.
The first thing to say is that I was very explicit and honest with the college about my situation — in terms of experiencing and recovering from depression and anxiety. They in turn said they were very supportive and accepting of people experiencing mental health problems.
I asked and found out what kind of support would be possible for a person in my situation and found out that they are a small college, affiliated with Plymouth University and that disability assistance was provided through Plymouth University. What was an offer for my situation — following an assessment process in Exeter — would be online counselling or a learning support assistant at Plymouth University. As my issue was not with my academic ability and the idea of online counselling — as in responding to questions and processes on a computer, did not sound helpful for me — I decided not to go through the assessment process and to stay with my current therapist. I was however assured that Schumacher was a ‘welcoming and supportive’ environment for people experiencing mental health problems and that both a woman in the admin team and Jon Rae the head of college had an ‘open door policy’ to support people with these issues.
Now what exactly constitutes a ‘welcoming and supportive environment’ is obviously very subjective so it’s very hard to objectively comment on, but there were a number of experiences that fundamentally did not make me feel safe — which I guess is the idea of ‘welcoming and supportive’.
Firstly when I switched courses I sent an email to the new teaching team informing them of my situation. It was important to me that the new teaching team I would be working and learning with closely, had some understanding of the journey I had been on to get here (as the previous teachers did from the application process) and I also wanted to inform the other students on the course of my situation so they would understand that I had limited capacity and therefore would not be attending the afternoon sessions. As it was a small group it was important to me that they knew why I wouldn’t be there and that it did not come from laziness or disrespect to the group.
Two of the staff members responded by talking to me about my mental health issues in public — ie not in a private and confidential spaces. Another did not respond to or even acknowledge the email. I was then reassured that there would be time to tell the group in a session facilitated by an external facilitator ( that I had never met) over the next few days. This facilitator was a great person — but they were there to teach us about systems thinking — not to create a safe space for group communication and bonding — so I was not able to tell the group my situation, which led to problems later on.
Secondly when I was moving courses and also later thinking about whether Schumacher College as a whole was right for me, the woman responsible for pastoral care kept approaching me and talking about it, again in very public spaces, giving me her opinion on what I should do in a very anxious manner and making it quite clear that she did not appreciate my indecisiveness. As I said I am no expert in this area — but generally I imagine that confidentiality, privacy, listening and not pressuring are pretty important aspects of pastoral care. Aside from this woman, there was only one other person on campus responsible for pastoral care and that was the head of college. The head of the college is a very nice man — and I have no personal issue with him — but to be honest talking about my mental health needs and issues with someone who is in a position of power as the head of the college was very difficult for me. It was very difficult to work out if the meeting was a support meeting for me to find out if I was ok and what my needs were? Or me giving feedback to him about the issues I had been experiencing at the college. From my experience and research of what other educational institutions offer — whether it’s counsellors or advisors — they generally seem to have people responsible for pastoral care and support who are separate to the senior management and admin team and the people making decisions within the institution.
Finally the very full and strangely hectic and fast paced nature of the college and its timetable for me felt like it was structured for people at full capacity rather than making space for people that might be have varying capacities and energy levels. As you saw in the timetable from the first blog, not only did the day start around 8:30 with a morning meeting but there was nearly always an event (often head based) happening in the evenings — a talk, a lecture, a workshop — alongside a very full on timetable this was very difficult to cope with.
Now of course — a huge element of this is about self care. Me choosing and accepting that I can’t and don’t have to participate in every evening event, to take time out to be on my own, go on walks in the woods, have nights in for myself — and I did do this.
But there is something deeper and more structural here about the culture and a feeling a place creates. It did often feel like everyone was running around and was quite busy, like people didn’t have time to just chill and chat to each other, or be idle and just be and reflect, or be silly or whatever. And that to me felt like modern life again. I felt so busy at the college during the week that I didn’t have time to reply to friends messages, or sit and have a long conversation with someone, play guitar, a game — do things that aren’t productive. And I often wouldn’t have energy for these things because the day had been so full on. I remember thinking — hang on — how am I in this situation again? This is very similar to what I was experiencing in London — apart from the fact that I was running around the countryside not the city.
There was a great article written on this recently by Omid Safi on ‘The Disease of being busy”
“This disease of being “busy” (and let’s call it what it is, the dis-ease of being busy, when we are never at ease) is spiritually destructive to our health and wellbeing. It saps our ability to be fully present with those we love the most in our families, and keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave.
What happened to a world in which we can sit with the people we love so much and have slow conversations about the state of our heart and soul, conversations that slowly unfold, conversations with pregnant pauses and silences that we are in no rush to fill?
How did we create a world in which we have more and more and more to do with less time for leisure, less time for reflection, less time for community, less time to just… be?”
This also made me think about inclusivity and what it means to be inclusive, supportive, welcoming? Could that involve creating a less full on timetable so people with less energy or ability don’t feel overwhelmed and have no time left for things that bring them joy — and those that want to do more, more, more can do that — but those that can’t don’t feel the frustration you feel with not being able to keep up with the pack?
More broadly this raises bigger questions around what constitutes adequate pastoral care in educational institutions in general — but also in alternative educational spaces that are aiming to be more inclusive and are also supporting the young generation to have the knowledge and resources they need to create positive change in the world.
We are living in a situation where 1 in 4 young people have mental health problems, where suicide is the biggest killer of young men under 50, where never before has a generation faced such huge uncertainty and instability in terms of work and living situations, or such huge challenges economically, environmentally and socially. Schumacher College acknowledges and talks about this reality, but in my opinion does not have adequate support in place to support young (and indeed people any age) on the emotional rollercoaster that facing these global challenges really involves. And for me truly ‘radical and transformative learning environments for social action’ need to be able to do that.
3) Group Process
When a group of people come together to learn, live, co-create or work together, whether for 2 hours or 2 years they inherently create and are part of a group dynamic and a group process. This dynamic will be made up of the different relationships that are formed, what behaviours become acceptable, the way that people communicate, the culture that is created.
As this happens in all human communities and situations from a small family to a multinational corporation a huge amount of research has been done on group dynamics, organisational structure and so on. This means that there is a multitude of different approaches and theories on the best way to approach and work with group dynamics.
Underlying Schumacher’s approach is the previously mentioned relationship to emergence, power and privilege. What I could ascertain from my experience, as well as ideas clearly expressed to me from the leaders of my course and the head of college, is that Schumacher’s overall approach to group process is very hands off. It is about letting it happen and ‘seeing what emerges’. What this means in practice is that the course leaders do not play any role in ‘holding’ and ‘supporting’ the group to “form, storm, norm and then perform”, they do not put in place any kind of processes to support the group to check in and communicate with each other; they do not support the group to create any agreements on what would create a safe learning environment for them, how they would like to communicate etc etc. They leave the group to do their thing and see what happens.
Having worked as a facilitator for the last 5 or 6 years my approach to group process is very different. I believe it is important and necessary to have a person or people responsible for holding and supporting a group through its process. Someone who is experienced at tuning into the needs of the group and who can support the group to create boundaries and ground rules and create spaces for safe and open communication. This is actually a very difficult task and something you need to be trained and highly skilled in.
For me facilitation (a role often played by women — and one that involves emotional labour) is a very underrated and undervalued role and can often go unnoticed. When things are going well you think wow ‘this is just all flowing naturally’ — but often the thing that makes a meeting or process feel easy and effortless for the participants, or supports a group to go from storming to performing — is that a highly skilled person has thought about a process and structure beforehand; they are aware of timekeeping, of the energy of the group, if someone is being unheard and left out, of the power dynamics that are playing out and so on.
The role of the facilitator is not to control or dictate what the group should do, but to create the boundaries and safe space in which creativity and connection ’emerge’ best.
It is well known from attachment theory and psychology that for a child to feel confident to grow and explore they first need to feel secure attachment with their parents — they need to feel loved, understood and know that if they leave, the parent will still be there when they come back. It’s a bit like that for a group. To be able to explore, create new concepts, challenge each other, take risks — you first need to feel safe and that comes from having created clear boundaries and ways of behaving with each other and having built intimacy and connection with one another. These kind of things can be created through ‘group agreements’, ‘sharing circles’, doing creative and practical exercises with each other (different people will feel more comfortable in different kinds of activities so it’s important to have a balance), but what’s important is that someone is there to organise and structure this, to make the space for sharing safe (for example, by ensuring people don’t directly criticise another). The facilitator also ensures that everyone’s voice is being heard, that people feel listened to and they create structures that can begin to overcome the replication of power dynamics — such as asking those who speak less to speak first, or thinking of creative ways to gain participation of those who feel shy.
Having facilitated so many group workshops and processes in the last few years, one thing I was really hoping to get from my time at Schumacher — was to feel like someone else was in that role and ‘holding’ the process of the group. I was so looking forward to just being a participant and not having to think or worry about the overall structure and picture from a facilitation point of view. But unfortunately that was not my experience in the group.
So what was my experience of being in an ’emergent’ group process and where did it leave me?
From the second I joined the Ecological Design group (which I joined 2 weeks into the course) I could feel that there was tension and lack of cohesion, and gradually I began to pick up different bits of the story from different members of the group.
It seemed that when there was the initial sharing of personal backgrounds and stories (as happened on all the masters courses) the space for sharing was not held very well, some people were cut off when they were speaking, and others were left out and almost missed entirely. Following this another member of the group had joined late — and there had been no integration process for him joining and sharing, and then I had joined — again without the consultation of the course participants and a getting to know each other process.
There seemed to be a general lack of clarity in terms of which of our course leaders was responsible for what, or who we could go to to speak about certain things. The course leaders seemed to breeze in and out to teach their different sessions, some only here one or two days a week, rushing in to teach a class and then leaving. Others were absent in their own different ways — one preparing to retire and leave, another not feeling ready to hold the group.
And so the course structure, the group process, the learning process, lacked stability, boundaries and safety. There was a feeling in the group of not knowing each other, not trusting each other or the course leaders — that there wasn’t one person who was tuning in to what was happening, taking on feedback and trying to create a nourishing vessel for our journey together.
This began to manifest in different reactions and behaviours of participants in the group. For example: one participant flipped out when someone tried to move their desk in a group activity, another broke down into tears and had to leave the classroom, others would hardly participate in class or became passive aggressive, others would not turn up to class at all. On one occasion a small group decision led to an argument which ended in most of us walking out.
For me this was the result of different people’s reactions to not feeling safe, held or heard within the group. Many people had made big life changes and moved to a whole new country to be here; at least half of the group were already in therapy for some reason. Then we were launched into an intense and full on group learning environment without anyone tuning into and supporting the group through its process of ‘forming, storming, norming, performing’. For me this was incredibly anxiety inducing and exhausting and at one point I realised every last drop of my limited energy was going to trying to deal with what was happening in the group — or step in as facilitator — which was something I did not have the capacity to be doing.
For me the final straw came at the end of a long week during which the group itself had tried really hard to heal relationships that were broken and start to institute some kind of healthy group process for ourselves — that we would all hold together in some way. We had done sharing of emotions, trying to create a group agreement, putting post its on walls, listening activities etc etc — a lot of which I had organised, got in external facilitators for and structured whilst having panic attacks about going to class most mornings. On the Friday we tried to make a group agreement, and after two hours we had still got nowhere. I really do believe that this was not the fault of any individuals in the group. But that we had a collective need that needed to be met by someone that was not a participant of the group and this was not going to be provided by the college or the course leaders.
Once this became clear to me, and I had also explored the option of switching (again!) to the ‘Economics for Transition’ course — which coincidentally was being held by a really amazing group facilitator that had studied the course last year and could see it was really needed — but was unable to move as the course was already at capacity, I realised I might have to leave the college all together.
The Final Straw
As I was sitting with the idea that I may have to leave the college entirely — another possibility came up — in January a new course in ‘Ecology and Spirituality’ was starting which I was told would have more of a focus on the ‘inner’ as well as the ‘outer’ transition — there was a talk from the leaders of the course happening that evening at the college so I decided I would go along and see if I could give it one last shot.
I think I lasted about 15 minutes in the talk before I decided to walk out of the talk and leave the college all together. Schumacher’s newest course on ‘Ecology and Spirituality’ was being led by 4 older privileged white men who in their opening speech said “we are so used to being on a stage together — that so and so says this — then so and so says this — and then so and so finishes with this”. As I sat there I thought “how fucking wonderful it must be — that as the most privileged people in society to always get to sit on a stage together and have your voices listened to”.
This was all of Schumacher’s issues with gender, power, privilege, their whole approach to ‘ecology and spirituality’ caricatured perfectly for me on a stage. Where are the voices of people of colour? Of the next generation? Of women? Of anyone that isn’t Grayson Perry’s ‘default man’ as he so brilliantly describes in a recent article. Those that have almost exclusively been listened to and put on a stage for the last 2,000 years? First God, then Moses, then Jesus, then Mohammed (sorry that order may be historically incorrect but you get the point) — and now these four on stage — do any more men want to stand on a podium and preach their theory of the universe to me?
This is exactly the problem and affirmed to me that we can’t have movements and spaces for social justice that don’t put the voices of those who are experiencing this injustice at the heart of them. People facing oppression have a huge amount of insight from their experience as to what the problem and therefore the solution is, and these voices need to not only be included in places striving to create a better world but be put at the forefront.
Physically I was so full of rage that I was unable to sit there any longer and had to leave. Rhiannon one year ago would have either said something as I walked out — or quickly written a placard to hold up and encourage others to leave — but I was too broken to have the energy.
And after writing this my body was once again filled with rage to the point that I had to go and punch my neighbours punch bag and then cuddle my dog to calm me down.
In a post Trump world, this problem can no longer be avoided. Trump is an extreme personification of the issues that are already there in our media, our education, our history books, our economy and our society; one that values and privileges the voices of white, wealthy men over all others — and therefore perpetuates a racist, patriarchal, capitalist system. White privileged men who are reading this I want to make it really clear that I am not am angry with you as individuals — or even that I don’t want to hear your voices. I am angry with the system and structures that prioritise and affirm white male voices over all others. And Schumacher is still replicating that problem. This oppresses all of us to different degrees and please note as a white middle class woman I also experience privilege.
So that was it. I made my decision, I packed my bags and I left that weekend.
A final Reflection
Writing through this experience has resurfaced the pain of the process and the anger I also feel. But without denying the pain and anger, I would like to finish on an appreciative note. My brief two month experience at Schumacher was rich with learning and I gained a huge amount of wisdom and knowledge in the time I was there, and for this I am enormously grateful, both to Schumacher College, to the many people I met and interacted with there, and of course to my community of funders that made it possible.