The Saxifrage School: Part I

The “How?” Must Come From the “Why?”

Timothy Freeman Cook
The Saxifrage School
6 min readDec 13, 2013


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tl;dr :: When trying to figure out How we should fix school, we should start by asking “Why School?”. The Saxifrage School is not innovative. We are trying to reform, but good reform need not be destructive. Instead of educators being afraid of “disruptive innovation”, lets try to refocus on the purpose of education and work to serve students.

When I began this work in higher education, I started with a simple but profound design principle: the “How?” must come from the “Why?”. This approach echoes, not coincidentally, William Carlos Williams’ reconciling manifesto “No idea but in things.” While we are right to praise problem-solving, problem-posing is the more essential act; seeing a problem and giving it a name. We cannot mend that which has not been named. By naming, I do not mean merely stating the label of a thing, but the act of truly and completely connecting the accurate ideas of things to the things themselves; to get beyond the abstracted, prejudicial knowledge of something to an embodied truth, grounded both in history and complete context.

In order to function, this act of abstraction—of forsaking detailed knowledge for general knowledge—is an absolute necessity. Or else, the mass of detail would overwhelm us. The abstractions, however, build upon themselves and, if left untended, the details they once generally represented hold true no longer. We see this frequently in the degradation of language, like in the case of the word “Trivia”. In the literal Roman meaning of the word, “Trivia” refers to the goddess who waits at the crossing of three roads. These three roads, the Trivium, were used as a metaphor to describe the core subjects of what we now call the Liberal Arts. “Trivia” was a referent for the most consequential knowledge. Centuries later it has the opposite meaning. More troublingly, an example of language degrading in our modern era is the flippant juvenile usage of the word “rape” as in, “He raped me at that video game last night! lol!” Surely, you are not raping anyone in a game of Madden 2013 or Grand Theft Auto. I hope.

Wendell Berry (who I will quote often) writes of W.C. Williams’ work that

“He was speaking also from an ancient aversion to disconnected abstraction. Usury and inflation are two of the worst and most notorious examples of an idea (money) divorced from things (goods).”

In order to use money, we regularly take for granted what it means, what it represents, and what value it holds. Its abstraction from what it represents is so engrained in us that it has taken on its own meaning regardless of its subjects. Instead of valuing the labor or the value that the money is intended to represent, we value the abstraction of the money itself.

The act of problem-posing, often, is the act of recognizing abstractions in the world which wrongly, perhaps disastrously, represent their particulars; it is the act of naming. Naming, like in birth, requires a definition of identity that starts at the beginning of life. An identity is an essential thing that is tied to the purpose of the thing: “Why do I exist?” or, simply, “Why?” is a question of identity. “Who?”, I would argue, is a question one rung down the ladder from “Why?” If you ask a person who they are, they respond with an answer as to what they do, i.e. why they exist.

When I first fell in love with the problem of education, I saw the mess of the abstraction, but lacked the language to explain it. The issues of debt, drop-out rates, poor results, 6-year graduation averages, etcetera, presented themselves obviously. However, it was also obvious that we have been throwing solutions at the same problems for a long time to little effect. Somehow, 100 years later John Dewey is still fully relevant, because we have done little to follow his warning that if a student grows to dislike learning, the entire process has been miseducative, a net loss. It seems right that a good education would be one that perfectly meets the need for an education. A good education is one that does whatever its purpose requires of it.

Again, all this is to say, once again, this very simple thing: the “How?” of education must come from the “Why?” This is the not “Why?” of learning, we know why we learn. It is the “Why?” of everything we do to support, systemize, or plan our learning. In the abstractions of the academy, the motivation for all of our work is rarely referenced. The use of the words “school”, “student”, “teacher”, and “study” are rarely questioned. As students we are never prompted to ask “Why School?” So I began there: What is the purpose of education? Why School?

I recognize this is a rudimentary beginning that, likely, is where many begin their work. But, I had never heard anyone say this in this particular way and thought it bore this brief exposition. Additionally, I think it serves to set up an important disapproval of the excessive rhetoric of “disruptive innovation”. For a few years now, everything in the entrepreneurial space is discussed in light of this concept. A concept that, unfortunately, implies that the best creations are those that destroy whatever came before them. If the attributes of a thing are designed to satisfy the “Why?”—the purpose—then those attributes should not be constantly replaced by new ones. Rather, they should be consistently refined to better align with that purpose. Instead of constantly throwing the old out for the new, we should seek to better align the “How?” with the “Why?” including better Hows that may now be possible given new technologies and contexts.

While it may be easy to place the work of the Saxifrage School in this camp of “disruptive innovation”, I must respectively decline. Although, at certain points I have unthinkingly used these words to prop up our own work (as so many of us are guilty of doing), it is shallow compared to these essential questions of purpose. While innovation may be the most valued credential of my generation, it is not worth the price if it requires the arrogant destruction of whatever came before. The constant turnover of technologies and mediums of content delivery causes an excess focus on consumption and the means of consumption, rather than why we are consuming in the first place. I would argue that the most valuable innovations are those that design with this principle in mind.

The Saxifrage School is not a disruptive innovation. We have no plans to destroy the University. Our work is focused on asking “Why School?” and letting that purpose define how schools—our schools—should operate. For a while now we have talked about what we do as a “higher education laboratory”. For a while, our supporters were overly focused on when we were starting (“Did you start the college yet?”). While we do hope that, at some point, our work is embodied in a fully-fledged learning community, “starting a school” is not the beginning. Rather, we are starting by prototyping concepts that spring directly from the “Why?” of education.

It seems important to say the same thing about “reform” as “disruptive innovation”. Reformation, also brings with it this fear of destruction. Any reform, however, ought not to entail the destruction of the old, but, rather, a constructive re-focusing on the purpose of the work. Reform, like poetry and the naming of the world, ought to be a work of constant vigilance. Unfortunately, it often occurs—or, at least, is most often remembered—as an act of reactionary violence. If this continues perpetually, the pendulum is always swinging past the mark.

We are doing the work of reform, but so are a lot of others. This reform, we would argue, should be done as much and as often as possible, by as many as possible. It should be done in the service of students, with students in mind, and—this rarely happens—with students involved. It should not, however, be concerned with piling on solutions, nor should it be left only to the reformable institutions themselves. Reform from the outside-in should not be feared, but fostered. The goal, after all, is not reform or innovation or profit, but to serve the needs of students. To help them flourish; to help them make what is valuable; to help them question what is valuable; to help them live the life that is truly life.



Timothy Freeman Cook
The Saxifrage School

Product @launchdarkly; founder of @saxifrageschool ed. laboratory. Part-time farmer. Bikes. Poems.