Twenty-five years ago Schumacher College was founded as a centre for discussion and learning around the subjects of ecology and spirituality. This year the college decided to go back to its founding roots and created the MA Ecology and Spirituality, affiliated with University of Wales Trinity St David (Lampeter). These subjects have been at the heart of what the college does since it's beginning, and it was such an honour to be a participant on this exciting new course.
The 'face' of Schumacher is Satish Kumar, whom we met several times during our stay. The first night he gave us an introductory talk, during which he threw many pearls of wisdom at us, including what ecology really means: eco= home, logy= knowledge. And so is born the knowledge of home, our own Gaia, Mother Earth. We saw him one more time giving an incredibly inspiring talk about pilgrimage with Rupert Sheldrake. The next morning we participated in a bamboo stick qi gong session with his lovely wife June.
The college is well-known for its relaxed, outdoor environment and the beautiful Old Postern house in which the students stay, play and study. The students of the masters degrees Holistic Science and Economics for Transition lived there. Our group was situated at the top of the hill on Dartington Estate in the section known as the Elmhirst centre, which is where the Elmhirsts, the founders of the Dartington Estate in the 1925, lived. They turned a dilapidated 14th Century building into a magnet for artists, musicians, philosophers and forward-thinkers around the world. We had use of their previously lived-in rooms for our classroom, the cosy authentic library, and the Morning Room for talks. Next door was the Great Hall, in which we had an incredible sound and colour healing session with violinist Dian Booth.
Surrounding the buildings is Dartington Gardens, in which we went to play during many sessions. We gave coca leaf offerings to the stream, made friends with a robin who sat in the middle of our circle, did nature-connection activities and were encouraged to take walks on our own every day. One of the more famous inhabitants of the garden is the solemn 2000 year old Yew tree, certainly a being worthy of respect, to which our lecturer Andy played a song on his lyre.
Dartington estate is huge, and we had plenty of chances to explore it. The first weekend I went for a dip in the freezing cold River Dart, a great start to the month! We walked in the woods, made fires, played with sticks and hiked down the hill to Totnes.
We had so many incredible lecturers and activists visiting us to give talks on many subjects covering Ecology and Spirituality. Our main lecturer was Andy Letcher, 2x PHD in Ecology and in Contemporary Paganism. He gave us many talks including ecology, gender, and resistance movements. Academic Rupert Sheldrake talked to us about sun consciousness, the nature of God and morphic resonance. Stephan Harding enlightened us on Gaia Theory and Deep Ecology. He took us on the Deep Time Walk along the coast to Dartmouth, walking 4.6 miles covering 4600 million years of the Earth's history: each step was half a million years, incredible!
Maria Nita spoke to us about Green Christianity, and climate change activist Christian groups. Jo Hamilton got our emotions going speaking about the environment and grief. Pat McGabe talked to us about Native American Indigenous people, their relation to the land, her views on feminism and much more. Graham Harvey gave lectures on animism and indigenous peoples. Philip Frances showed us how Complexity Theory works.
We met the BBC cameraman Pete McCowen, who worked on Planet Earth and Spring Watch: he had some fascinating stories to tell. Nicola Peal is an activist currently working mainly in the Amazon. Among many, many achievements she led the campaign against Texaco for their oil spills in the rainforest. We spoke with Charles Foster, who wrote the book 'Being a Beast' after literally 'becoming' 5 British animals as closely as he could, including living in a human sized badger set with his son. Martin Shaw, mythologist and story teller enthralled us with a story that, for me, quite literally came alive. With Chris we explored the land, with Will we did some paganism activities in the woods, and Suzie took us on a Shamanic journey.
Quite a full on, varied and fascinating month, I can assure you!
Throughout it all the staff at Schumacher were there on hand, helping us through it all. The wonderful Eve was the facilitator on the course (see her heart-felt TED Talk here). The group doing the MA, and the short-course participants, who only joined for the 3 week 'core module', were a varied and awe-inspiring bunch. We had participants from Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Brazil and Hong Kong, as well as several Brits. We had yoga instructors, masseurs, Shamanic practitioners, a story-teller and writer, an Art lecturer, people who had set up their own eco-projects, and much else besides. So lovely getting to know them all!
The volunteers and cooks were all magnificent too. Every meal was prepared with love, all vegetarian and organic, varied and delicious. Each lunch was a tasty soup with fresh home-made bread. I ate so much food these last weeks! One of the head chefs was Tara, who has her own website you can see here... an enlightened chef and such a cheerful lady. As part of living at Schumacher we were given work groups to participate in cooking and cleaning. So I got to cook with some of the delightful Schumacher chefs!
Aside from college activities I got involved in others in the nearby Transition Town of Totnes. One evening we went to see the French movie Demain (Tomorrow), a feel good film about people who are doing something to change the world. Totnes features in the movie, so the venue was packed out, and the director was there to take questions at the end. Highly recommend this film. Another time I went to a non-duality session with James Eaton, which was profoundly emotional though I would find it hard to put into words what it was really about!
I visited a shamanic teacher, who taught one of the men on our course in Hong Kong. He and his wife live in Totnes and do shamanic circles every month, I also went to see a movie at Dartington's quirky Barn Cinema, the saddest film I have ever seen: A Monster Calls, about an ancient Yew Tree (like the one in Dartington Gardens!) that comes to life.
I also explored Dartmoor a little, visiting Wistman's Wood, and on Reading Week we went to Scorhill Stone circle. One evening we drove to a little village to watch Morris Dancing, an ancient pagan tradition (and completely unlike what we would normally think of as Morris dancing!) It was by the group Beltane Border. After the dancing was another tradition: Wassailing the apple trees to ask them to wake up and bear fruit this season. We sang to them, drank cider to their health, and adorned the branches with cider-soaked toast! Back at Schumacher, some baby apple trees had just been planted, so we repeated the Wassailing ceremonies on our own land!
Aside from all this activity, I had time to reflect and 'just be',
which was just as wonderful experience as the rest.
The month at Schumacher had a profound effect on my life,
which you can read more about on my blog.
This was just one of many modules I will take during this course,
so I am very excited to be part of that community,
and that I get to return soon!
I have been thinking for a while now about starting a family one day, but I always felt like I would not want to bring a child into this world if they have to struggle and suffer for survival, which is what I see around me every day. This is one of my main motivations for beginning this blog: I want to bring my child up to be the best and happiest they can be, and I don't see how I can do that within the current system that we have. So one thing I want to research is alternative schooling. Our family friend Mandy home schooled her son Dan, so I wanted to learn from them about their experiences. They invited their friends Susan and her son Simon to talk to me too. This is our fascinating conversation...
Susan: Simon was always a content and happy child, who was confident to be around anybody. By the time he was 6 he had changed completely, and wouldn't stop clinging to me! The only difference was that he had started school. At age 7 he was reading slower than the school thought he should, the teacher and other students noticed, and he started to believe he was stupid. He was tested for learning disabilities but it turned out he just thought that the books were boring: he couldn't see the point in learning to read if all he read were these silly stories. The teacher started bullying him for not doing what he was supposed to, and the other children followed suit.
When Simon was 9 he refused to go to school for 10 days. We spoke to the educational welfare officer, who was brilliant and helpful. Around that time I met a friend who was home schooling her child. They were on a TV program on channel 4 about home education, and I let Simon watch it. Shortly after that he started asking me if he could stop going to school. Before that he thought that he had no choice, which is what the head mistress told me to tell him- that it's the law! (Actually it's only the law if you are registered at a school.) He took in a letter to say that he was de-registering from school, and he left!
Mandy: when Dan was 8 I noticed that he was slowly becoming serious about life, whereas before he was so light-hearted. We were reading and learning together way before he started school, and we had fun with it. What I didn't know is that I had set him up for being bored to death at school! He was such a good and responsible child, and would always do whatever was asked of him. The school noticed and took advantage of this, asking him to help other pupils and look after anyone new to the school. The pressure put on him was too much, and he would come out of school with a stormy face.
I discovered that the law actually states: ''It is a parents' responsibility to ensure the child is educated to a level according to their age, aptitude and ability, in school or otherwise'', and I was quite happy to do the otherwise! I think every parent should be told this before sending their child to school (or even while still in the womb, as a parent who home schools their child can have a whole different life plan from the beginning.)
When I asked Dan if he wanted to learn outside of school, he said ''yes, but what about friends?'' and I didn't know the answer. My mind was in turmoil. When he was 10 we bumped into a local source of knowledge: right around the corner from our house lives the guru of home education! Dan was determined to stay at school for the Halloween disco (he was a right little mover and always won sweets!), and after that he left.
It took a few months to get used to not having to get up at a certain time, no school routine, not being accused unfairly of disrupting the class, when actually he was asking others to be quiet! (To be fair the teacher can't police every situation, the set-up is unfair from the start!) But we quickly learned to get on, make friends within home education groups, and we both learned so much!
Dan: I actually found that the richest friendships I have ever made were those made through home education. They were not just ''school friends'', who would be dropped when I moved on to other things, but ''friends for life''. And we would mix all ages and genders, from all walks of life. I like my people like I like my food: blended, mixed and full of flavours! And home education gave me that. Each family would contribute their skills or organise workshops. We dipped in and out of astrology, Italian, archery (while the school kids were doing sports day!) Simon and I are in our early 20s now and we still get together once a month. We socialise with the parents too, not just people our age. It's a mix, whereas school separates you into ages and genders. But that's not life!
Simon: We had a community bringing us up, not just my mum, but all the adults would look out for me. My mum didn't ''teach'' me, like sit me down with paper and pen like in school, but she 'facilitated learning'. We had a network of families that built the learning environment together. The best example of this was when we created a group for the First Lego League International. We built a robot with motors and sensors that had to complete tasks on a board. The first year was Ocean Odyssey, so we had to 'rescue a dolphin', and learned about sonar affect on dolphins and whales. Funnily enough the competition was on the day the whale went up the Thames- because of sonar! We had a team of 10 people aged 10-15, and we came 27th out of 52 teams worldwide. In our third year we went to Japan for the Asian championships.
The HESFES is the Home Education Seaside Festival. It's in a campsite with about 1500 people all home educating. They facilitate free workshops in metalwork, circus skills, singing, science. And we did one on robotics, which encouraged other home ed groups to start their own groups, and go beyond what we could achieve. To come from a place of struggle and the feeling of being small, to influencing something positive worldwide, is an incredible feeling.
Susan: The point of home education is that the child can learn at their own pace, and only what they are interested in. You could get a child aged 7 at graduate level ability, but school wouldn't allow them to go that far. They can't be too slow either! Outside of school the children can learn from those who are passionate and really know what they are talking about. I once saw one 7 year old discussing quantum mechanics with a top scientist!
Dan: one of my favourite things was when we went to the residential centre in Devizes and had a team building weekend. For example we had a giant see-saw and had to get everyone on it! We had to work together to balance, otherwise everyone would fall off. Different families brought different things. One did a 3D animation and we photographed the clay models to make a film. We once hired a hall and did a weaving day. The lady who did it was surprised how much the children got into it and interacted with her, very different to school groups she'd done. We have a forum where we put up activities, so people only come if they are interested in the activity.
Mandy: We would go on days out, like to Glastonbury. The first HESFES gathering was magical, but it was huge and hard to get to know people. So we decided to create a Wiltshire one. We found a place to have a campfire, sit around singing songs, and someone gave us Scottish country dancing lessons! We organised it ourselves and it went so smoothly.
Amy: What keeps coming up for me is the competitiveness of school, and sports day etc. It seems that you don't have that element with home education. You work as a team, always co-operating as a community. There is no separateness and no feeling of wanting to be better than anyone else, but simply the best that you personally can be.
How did you feel after you left?
Dan: I Felt relieved knowing I was leaving, but it took 3 years to fully recover. There were 2 sides of me, one side hyper, which annoyed some people, including Simon! The other side was begrudging the world, and I got unhappy if a person didn't act the way I would expect. Once I had finally relaxed my expansion was amazing! At age 13 I went to look at going to New College and decided I wanted to go. I started at 14, and had to take some GCSE equivalent maths and English classes. But the rest I could choose myself. I thought it was excellent!
Simon: I went to college but found sticking to a timetable frustrating. If I was engrossed in something, I wanted to continue. So at the end of an hour I would be in the flow and have to stop. In my first lesson the English teacher said ''we are reading Shakespeare'' and everything from school came flooding back. I went to the learning support teacher, who put me into functional skills English and maths. She was great! I was later assessed for dyslexia and scored a 2.4 of 4. That meant someone took notes for me in lessons, and I got 25% extra time on all exams, so I didn't feel as pressured and could go at own pace. I didn't necessarily need extra time, just having the freedom helped. The learning support tutor was amazing, and it was great just knowing someone was on my side. New college was a great experience as unlike school I chose to be there and chose the subjects. I had to do maths and English, but also chose photography, software development web design, fashion design and textiles. In the textiles exam I had 5 hours to do something craft related, and I could chose whatever I wanted, which was fantastic! I made a knitted shawl.
Dan: The best thing about home education was having the freedom to be fully yourself in your expression. I felt I was entitled to unlimited power because you have the freedom to be you. I also took maths, English, photography and I-media, which covered game development and website design. In my first year I was embracing the new social environment and was lazier than I could have been! I took year off, then went back the next year and took photography, where I met my girlfriend Kayliegh. I always went for what was interesting, not what was needed. Home education makes you more free to be open and creative when you set your mind to tasks.
I don't have a plan for future. But unlike the way we're taught, I don't fear for my future. I know I can create it as I want it: I know I can manifest it. I just know it will be good and know how I want to feel. I know how to respect people, and how to speak my truth. I can let go of people who are no good for me, which is very liberating.
Susan: All I wanted to produce is a happy adult. It feels like a huge risk to take your child out of school, and you wonder: am I doing the right thing? At school you are told to work hard, achieve exam results, go to university to get a good job. But it's a lie! Children have all this homework, but have no life or self-expression because they spend their time doing irrelevant stuff. My idea was to create child centred autonomous learning: if he was interested, we did it. If not, we didn't. He learned to access words not through reading books (because he refused!), but by reading street signs and on the computer. The first time he saw the point in reading was through reading instructions for a computer game: because it had a purpose!
Simon: I would love to set up a centre where people can access whatever they need for freedom learning. There were so many things we couldn't do because we didn't have the resources like in a school, such as chemistry. I would make a centre that has access to all that a school has, and more. And I would do it in the middle of a wood!
Amy: Let me know when you do that, Simon. I'll be bringing my future children!