This is the story of why intentional communities and universities should get married. It investigates how such a partnership would amplify the lessons of community living, diversify learning avenues at universities, and most importantly, allow students to gain a deeper understanding of their chosen discipline.
The biggest problem with university is that students don’t read enough books. If you really want to understand how Napoleon conquered Europe you can’t just read a couple of biographies and Sun Tzu’s Art of War – you need to understand psychology, the inferiority complex, Clausewitz, feudalism, Foucault, neuroscience and the South Sea Bubble. Impossible, for an undergraduate at least, but true.
The reason that students don’t read enough books is because doing too much of anything is eye-wateringly boring. Reading Oscar Wilde for two hours a day is bliss; flicking to the footnotes of The Wealth of Nations for eight hours straight makes watching Gogglebox feel invigorating.
It is shamefully philistine to demand a nineteen-year-old to spend her life in books. And of course we all know this, which is why our collective caricature of Mr John Student is a half-shaven (unshaven would suggest a beard could be grown), guitar-screeching, Carlsberg-lapping smelly who somehow manages to have a reasonable amount of sex.
I love learning: a big chunk of the reason I began visiting intentional communities was simply to find out what they’re like. If there was a pill that allowed me to enjoy books for eighteen hours a day and sleep the other six, perhaps I’d swallow it – but that’s not life. In life we need diversity. In life we need to use our body as well as our mind.
Students are right, institutions are wrong. Universities are run by scholars who spend most of their time reading books. As much as they appreciate open-mindedness, by nature of their focus, they will subconsciously put books on a pedestal and degrade other forms of learning. They can’t help it, despite their varying disciplines, they’re homogenous in their world of words.
The true student needs something more than books.
Right now, living in cities teeming with consumable leisure, they find that something in bars, clubs, clothes, drugs and Call of Duty. If they were to step outside this over-stimulating space, and into the holistic learning centres of intentional communities, they could escape their books without escaping their studies.
The single most valuable attribute intentional communities have to offer is emptiness. We live in a world where every minute of everyday is being eaten by the Schedule. Our phones command us to wake up at a programmed hour, and Vodafone impels us to Make the Most of Now. Despite the fact that many arts students only have seven or eight hours of lectures and seminars per week, the speed of the world infects them, and true space is harder to find than a fourteen-year-old without Twitter.
Most intentional communities are located far from the roar of 2015. Hidden amongst redwoods or perched on the crest of a Dorset hillside, there is air and there is vista. But there is also a deep commitment to learning, to questioning, and to finding out more about how and what humans are.
Economically, many intentional communities are already very similar to universities: their primary source of income is selling education. They run one- or two-week courses on permaculture, ecological building, meditation or bread-making, and they charge the participants a course fee as well as room and board.
More importantly in regards to university students, they run courses on human communication and self-awareness.
Non-Violent Communication and Process Work are two communication processes which help participants understand their own power as an individual, their own fears and prejudices about other people, and the effects of the ways in which they communicate their feelings about themselves and others. I participated in one such course last February at Sieben Linden, and wrote about it on this blog.
I believe that any serious student of psychology, literature, sociology, media studies, cultural analysis, philosophy, history or any other humanities subject can deeply enhance their understanding of their discipline by taking part in such a course.
But what would really make a difference would be if these students could immerse themselves in an environment that gives them the time and focus to concentrate on their personal and emotional relationship with both themselves and the subject they have chosen to study.
Here’s the idea:
Intentional communities could become satellite university campuses where students go for three months to practice the disciplines they are filling their minds with.
Instead of reading about how Stalin maintained power, history students can learn how they use their own power and influence to dominate others. Instead of analysing how the news uses shock tactics to attract viewers, media students can experience what it feels like when someone uses their body language to intimidate them. Disciplines need to be enacted as well as theorised, they need to be felt as well as seen.
But it is not enough for universities to offer Process Work within their institutionalised walls, students need space from their peer group, space from the city, space from modern life.
My proposal is that students are offered the chance to take a three-month break from their books and go live in an intentional community. Perhaps they could work three days a week in the garden, in the fields, in the kitchen, on the farm; spend two days in communication workshops and forum discussion; and have two days rest.
At present many students do an Erasmus exchange and spend three months to a year at a university in a foreign city – they learn the language and read the culture. Spending three months living and working in an intentional community could be the Erasmus exchange for humanities students.
Of course, we also have to ask what the intentional communities get out of hosting these students. This depends on what they want. Some communities want to raise money to further their ecological or political projects, so students could pay their university fees to the intentional community during their visit, rather than to the university.
Another benefit to the intentional community is the credibility achieved from such an exchange. Communities that are interested in enhancing their public profile – and widening the scope of their message – will be linked to the established respectability of universities. Professors in the university may begin to take the work of eco-academics more seriously, and new doors will be opened between traditional education institutions and these more experimental centres of learning.
Students returning to the university after time in an intentional community are likely to share their experience with their course-mates. Those students who didn’t visit the community can hear of the benefits – or the drawbacks – of learning about their subject in a different way.
Tutors may ask students to write essays on their experience. This task may seem ironic, as it pushes the physical learning back into words, but from my experience writing this blog, I know that theorising your own practical and emotional revelations can be more enlightening than deciphering other people’s impressions in books.
Humanities are called humanities for a reason, and human beings deserve a wider arena for learning about themselves that what universities currently have to offer. Of course the world outside of universities has opportunity aplenty for such learning, but with the competitive economic system that we live under, many graduates quickly scurry into careers ‘to get ahead of the game’, and miss out on a more diverse exploration of their interests.
People in intentional communities may not be any better at understanding themselves than the rest of us, but their environment and the conscious choice they made to live in it, contains fascinating lessons.
Books teach you lots about people, but people teach you more.