As Dr Pavel Cenkl marks two years as Head of Schumacher College, we’re sharing an extract from the recently published book that he edited with Satish Kumar; Transformative LearningReflections on 30 years of Head, Heart and Hands at Schumacher College.

When I came to Schumacher in 2019, the college was on the cusp of a substantial revisioning of many of its systems. Further, by dint of a failing centuries-old slate roof, the college had been forced to leave its spiritual home, the Old Postern, for the first time since 1991. By October, the community was still coming to terms with what it meant to be connected to place and had found creative ways to work in new surroundings.

What struck me then, and what continues to encourage my thinking about the college, is that the students, staff and volunteers came to realize that Schumacher College was not a thing, and not a building, but a set of ideas and a way of life that could hold a community of learners together with a shared ethos and approach to living, learning and working in a shared community of practice.

The core of Schumacher College has always been the dynamic interweaving of rhythms of experience, ecological systems and learning. As we celebrate the college’s first thirty years, I am reminded of all the work done to foster, support and celebrate community learning before my arrival — from prior Heads of College, administrators, and faculty to Learning Community Coordinators and volunteers all helping to create the space for learning as a continuum across students’ lived experience in the community and to the thousands of students who each added their own timbre to the songs we sing at morning meeting that ground us at the start of every day.

The key to maintaining successful communities, as we have learned through the years, is to embrace and encourage their dynamism, vibrancy and passion — as we must in order to continue the evolution of the Schumacher community into the future.

In writing this chapter about Schumacher’s future, I am reminded of the work of Donella Meadows, who wrote in 1997 about finding leverage points at which to maximize our ability to change complex systems. She explained that “ideas, cultures, community norms and paradigms are the sources of systems. From them, from shared social agreements about the nature of reality, come system goals and information flows, feedbacks, stocks, flows and everything else about systems.”

If we can address our global challenges at the level of cultural paradigms and worry less about making incremental changes in our daily behavior, she suggested, we can have far greater success in making meaningful change.

Dr. Meadows was right, of course, and although she never taught at Schumacher College, her work underlies much of what we do. I firmly believe that by identifying community learning and daily rhythms of practice as the core of learning, the college has built a solid foundation for a flourishing learning environment whose participants are empowered to leave the college and go out into the world and make meaningful change in their own communities.

Every nation and every man instantly surround themselves with a material apparatus which exactly corresponds to their moral state, or their state of thought…It follows, of course, that the least enlargement of ideas…would cause the most striking changes of external things. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

This epigraph, from an 1838 lecture, entitled “War,” Mr. Emerson gave on nonviolent resistance is a foundational statement on how the social construction of ideologies reifies ideological spaces which then reinforce cultural conventions.

Of the many subsequent thinkers, writers and activists who have engaged with this idea, I am most often inspired by the striking visual work of Neri Oxman of the MIT MediaLAB as a means to make tangible many of the questions inherent in Mr. Emerson’s lecture.

Dr. Oxman, an influential designer and scientist, has worked for many years at the intersection of art, science and design and has spoken and written widely about the need for more multiscale systems that are interdisciplinary in both their nature and structure. I could think of few examples more salient for the development of a resilient, adaptive and multiscale curriculum.

In her engagement with material design, Dr. Oxman explores the power of gradients — suggesting that an increased resolution (in modeling, 3D printing and computation) can help us to make objects with gradients so fine they challenge our notion of boundary and of materiality entirely.

She continues to interrogate the privileging of form over the use of materials we have readily to hand; she asked in her 2010 doctoral thesis (Material-Based Design Computation), “How can a material first approach, prioritizing environmental performance and material behavior over form, be accommodated by design, and in what stages of the design process can such an approach be implemented?

We find ourselves in a similar “crisis of form” in education today, wherein even the best-intentioned programs in ecological thinking and sustainability are effectively locked in a staid paradigm of learning that emphasizes traditional modes of engagement with ideas.

Imagine if we could ground every program by meditating on the idea that nature does not first set out thinking, “I need to make a tree; what should I make it out of?” But, rather, we would recognize that trees grow in intimate relationship with their ecosystem, in concert with the soil and sun and soaking rains, and entwined with the spirit and substance they derive from the seed from which they began.

Before becoming Head of Schumacher College, Dr. Pavel Cenkl was the Dean of Sterling College, Vermont. He is working on a new book titled Resilience in the North: Adventure, Endurance and the Limits of the Human.

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