Back to basics is the way forward for two interrelated educational endeavors

It’s late February in the heart of the Driftless region — about a two-hour drive west of Madison — and community members of all ages and backgrounds are gathering at Viroqua’s Blue Bobbin Studio to learn how to sew. a funeral shroud. A few blocks away, others gather at Thoreau Garden Greenhouse for a day-long course in seed collection and garden planning. A month later, at an instructor’s house in nearby Viola, classes will be held in basic spoon carving and birchbark box building. For those who can’t make the trip, an online cultured dairy course is scheduled for April. It’s all part of the Driftless Folk School, a unique educational effort based on a century-old Scandinavian tradition – which attracts students and instructors from all over, including Madison. It offers non-credit a la carte lessons at businesses, homes, public parks and other locations throughout the year, in a wide range of folk arts and wilderness skills – things like animal slaughter, food preservation and furniture making – all of which take participants back to basics. to build a more sustainable future.

“I grew up doing a lot of things at home taught at folk school,” says Driftless Folk School principal Jacob Hundt, who helped found the effort in 2006. He was also raised to think about alternative forms of education – his family helped start Viroqua’s Waldorf Schools at the primary and secondary levels. After high school, he spent two years at Deep Springs College near Death Valley, California, a then unique, small-scale, land- and labor-oriented private two-year college founded in 1917. Now Deep Springs is a model for the nascent “microcollege” movement that has gained momentum in recent years. Although Hundt did not know it at the time, these experiences would influence not only the creation of the Driftless Folk School, but also the newly founded Thoreau College, a Viroqua-based microcollege of which he is a founding member and, since 2019, principal. executive. Thoreau College launched its first full-year program in fall 2021 and will eventually be an accredited two-year college with transferable credits.

“The microcollege model is clearly an innovation in this country. I think we’re in an environment where traditional higher education with a campus and a four-year degree program has been seriously disrupted,” says Hundt, who earned her bachelor’s degree from the American University in Bulgaria and her master’s degree from the University of Chicago before returning to the Viroqua area, where he served as a high school teacher and counselor from 2004 to 2021. He visits other high schools to publicize Thoreau, including Shabazz City High School in Madison. Thoreau’s students included former Shabazz students, a four-year-old student taking a year off, and a student who graduated from high school. Others have been people considering moving to Viroqua, so they’re looking for a foray into local businesses, farms or organizations.

“Many people recognize [college] as being far too expensive and too inflexible,” says Hundt. “Even before the pandemic, fewer young people were going to university. And now you can actually train in all kinds of practical job skills, technical skills, and more, online, from anywhere in the world, on your own schedule.

Classes at Driftless Folk School are open to anyone who wants to learn a variety of skills. A popular class is wooden spoon carving, such as the examples shown here, made by Tom Bartlett of Madison’s Sylva Spoon, who teaches the carving class. (Courtesy of Driftless Folk School)

But what virtual education lacks, says Hundt, are the upsides of a campus community, like building relationships with other students and receiving close, personalized attention from professors. There is also a sector of students who do not wish to have to choose between a traditional liberal arts college or a technical school – micro colleges present another option. Another characteristic of microcolleges is that they keep their student body deliberately small—Deep Springs has no more than 25–30 students at a time, and Thoreau College is built for about 12 students per year.

As with the Driftless Folk School, students at Thoreau College participate in a range of nature-based courses with practical, real-world applications – some even taught by instructors from the Driftless Folk School. But they also take rigorous academic courses, operate a commercial greenhouse and garden center with a small store, work on a nearby small farm, live co-operatively in townhouses, and are involved in college governance at all levels. , including budgeting and hiring. Tuition fees are also personalized on a sliding scale, ensuring that money is never a barrier.

“I didn’t want to just get another piece of paper that says, ‘You’ve completed this program,'” says Liam McGilligan, a 2016 Madison West High School alumnus, 2020 University of Minnesota graduate and student current of Thoreau College. “I started reading about Thoreau and it just blew my mind.” As a performer and writer with interests in politics, entrepreneurship, philosophy, nature and community development, McGilligan felt close to the “five pillars” of Thoreau College’s curriculum: academics , work, self-government, art and nature. He had never heard of a microcollege until he came across it while googling something else.

“I don’t use the word serendipity too often,” says McGilligan, “but I think it really was.”

person standing in Driftless Greenhouse

Thoreau College launched its first full-year program in the fall of 2021, called “the year of makeover.” Current student Elena Holmes works in the greenhouse as part of the microcollege work program. (Courtesy of Driftless Folk School)

The born-and-raised Madisonian graduated from Minnesota’s Guthrie Theater acting training program at the start of the pandemic. He had intended to return to Madison for a role in a January 2021 Forward Theater show and spent the interim looking for someone by the name of Algie Shivers. The son of a slave, Shivers established a settlement near Viroqua in the 1850s, a place where former slaves, Native Americans, and Bohemian and Norwegian immigrants all lived together. The story was fascinating to McGilligan, who thought he could write a play. Googling Shivers led him to a documentary directed by Micah Robinson. Googling Robinson led him to a Facebook post from Thoreau College. “I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s weird. I went to Thoreau Elementary [in Madison],’” says McGilligan. “So I clicked on Thoreau College and started reading about it and everything has changed since then.”

After the pandemic forced the cancellation of his show at the Forward Theater, and after a brief move to New York before returning to Madison, McGilligan packed his bags and headed to Thoreau College, where learning didn’t did not stop at books. For example, after reading “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Potawatomi, the McGilligan class visited a nearby county park, waded through the swamp, and harvested cattails; then an Anishinaabe weaver taught them how to make them into baskets. They camped in the Boundary Waters and the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. They repaired buildings, pruned plants, and worked in the greenhouse workshop.

“There are a lot of people here who are successful without a college education – businessmen, artists, artisans, educators – that young people can look around and see. [they] don’t have to fit that mold,” says McGilligan. “You have the hippies who moved here in the 60s and 70s, the counterculture people. You have a large Amish population. And then you have your classic Republican conservatives from the Wisconsin campaign. All of these communities are here, trying to coexist and learn from each other.

He says this country is so divided today, so polarized; Thoreau College and the Driftless Folk School are the role models we need.

“I just want people to know that on top of all the academics and the work and the uniqueness of the program, we’re trying to create a culture where we can really speak our minds and civilly disagree and learn from each other. others,” McGilligan said. said.

Maggie Ginsberg is associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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