Learning From the Mountain
This is the last of three major pieces about education. It is also the last part written particularly for this book. Unlike many other pieces included here, it was first largely composed in my head and then, somewhat revised, written down. It has the form of a sermon and may eventually be presented as such but was not written with any date or congregation in mind.
On the morning of Saturday, May 13, 1989, a fire broke out in a remote part of western North Carolina. An older house, not then in use as a residence, was destroyed but the fire was too small to be worthy of note except that it marked a turning point for the local community and resulted in my becoming aware of that same community.
The house, known as the Lodge, was a gathering place at the Unitarian Universalist retreat center, called The Mountain, near Highlands, NC. The center had been organized some ten years earlier by members of UU congregations in the southeastern US.
I became aware of the fire and of The Mountain and of its people the following day when members of the Clemson UU congregation (UUFC), who were there at the time, spoke movingly of the event and of their reactions to it during a Sunday service. I was struck by the depth of their feeling of loss and of their determination for a rebirth, for a replacement of the building and a mending of the community. That rebirth took place and continues through today.
It was nearly a year later before I first came to The Mountain as a part of a UUFC work/retreat weekend. I remember little of that weekend other than my first step out onto the new observation deck which had been completed to replace the old one destroyed by the fire. I was suddenly in the midst of a profound silence and acutely aware of being in a sacred place, a place where the barrier between the everyday and the other is thin, where events of transcendence can occur easily. The sky was a clear, high blue and a hawk slid down between me and Chinquapin Mountain, wheeling and gliding over Blue Valley below. I have returned many times and spend much time there, in all weathers.
As I travel, my thoughts often come back to that place.
What is The Mountain?
Is it: an old, clapped out, tired holiday camp, perched awkwardly on a small hill top surrounded by odd, stunted trees?
Or is it: a holy place, a cathedral, centered on a height in an enchanted forest?
It is both and neither, for the real essence of The Mountain is the people who live there and those who come home there for shorter and longer periods, together constituting a ministering, intentional community. This community exists because of the location and is nourished and taught by the place but is larger than the sum of its parts. People speak of going to The Mountain to get filled up; I go to become empty, to let the trivialities of the everyday drain away and be replaced by calm, purpose and new resolve.
Early in my association with The Mountain, I began to speak with people there about my interests in education and about my concerns for the community as a continuing enterprise. On each trip, I was more and more impressed that I saw the young, coming as children in families and the early middle-aged and older, coming as families, with and without children, and as singles. What seemed to be missing were those from late teenage to young adult, perhaps to age 30+. The Mountain has much to give to people passing through this part of their lives, as we discovered when the UUFC one year brought four members of its UU college student group with them on retreat. This phase of life is a period of seeking, of loss of early certainties and of a need for insight and purpose. It breeds an openness of spirit and a willingness to be touched. And The Mountain responds.
These discussions became somewhat more concrete when, visiting during a Mountain Representative/drop in weekend in late March of 1994, highlighted by a wonderful, driving 18 hour rain storm, I was invited to return in July to spend two weeks as an observer of the Senior High youth camp. The reasoning was that, as this camp was the program which most closely served the age group about which I was concerned, I could gain practical experience as to who these young people are and what they do and have done to them while at The Mountain.
Well, I came. Let me assure you that this "assignment" was some of the most difficult professional work which I have ever done. As an experience, it can most closely be described as a combination of butterfly watching and swimming with dolphins. I found that useful daily preparation was a half hour spent each morning on the deck of the now completed new Lodge, watching for humming birds. I understand that in some places these tiny fliers are aggressive. However, at The Mountain, they are shy to the point of paranoia. Not only must one remain perfectly still, but it is necessary to empty one's mind, as they are apparently telepathic. I occasionally succeeded and was rewarded by hearing for the first time the minute squeaks and peeps which make up their speech and by becoming aware of a large vocabulary of expressive but unintelligible, at least to me, tail wags which are apparently used for punctuation.
I followed the youngsters around, wearing an old battered fishing hat to make me appear less threatening. Gradually, I began to recognize individuals, connections began to be made and conversations started. I was able to see them at play, at work and at worship. We hiked together, eat together, sometimes only shared silence together. Over the time I was with them, I came first to know the youngsters, both campers and counselors, then to understand them in a small way and finally to feel deeply for their needs and their experiments. For, first and foremost, the youth camp is a brief time in the year when these folk can relax and experiment, unwind and try out being various types of people whom they might wish to grow up to be.
Some lasting impressions:
The need for summer camping experiences particularly designed to suit the youngsters of the UUA was one of the driving forces in the acquisition of the site on Little Scaly Mountain which became The Mountain. The camps began early on and the Senior High camp, at least, has now exceeded those intentions. For this camp has become autonomous, supported in its spirit by campers and counselors, many of whom return year after year but all of whom quickly grasp the shared traditions of honor, respect and openness to each other. The camp is at The Mountain, exists because of The Mountain but is sustained by its own inner values. This continuity is both a strength and a weakness. Campers and, I suppose, counselors, coming for the first time, stood out during the orientation evening which felt more like a college 5th year reunion. Traditions are sustained and change must of necessity be slow.
There are mixed messages within the governance of the camp. The overall pattern is that of pseudo family, reflecting such organizations which were introduced into many institutional settings in the late 19th. century to replace earlier military command models. The basic unit is the residents of a cabin and its counselor, as parent and guardian. However, much is properly made of the need for individual responsibility and decision making. As the time went on, I found that I longed for the presence of a cat putter and for self-governing village life.
The position of cat putter is a post which derives from that of the jester, a licensed fool who is permitted to be wise and to challenge authority without fear of retribution. I first encountered such a person while a Cornell undergraduate at Telluride House*: : the cat putter there was formally charged only with putting out the cat and turning off the lights when everybody else had retired for the night but was in practice both the moral rudder and the ombudsman of the community.
Self governance is something which we take for granted in our adult lives. We live by laws which are clearly written and, if we transgress them, we hope for justice from our peers. Such a culture can come to The Mountain camps in the form of a handbook which could incorporate rules and traditions, as well as favorite songs, local lore, recipes, etc. Justice could easily be introduced through a representative council with a judicial committee, to work in parallel with the present parent/ grandparent organization of counselors. We will always need our parents for memory and advice but they, and we, wish us to be free.
There are real opportunities for expansion of activity offerings to the campers. The programs now are still largely those traditional for a youth camp in a remote country setting. You can even play shuffleboard, two courts, no waiting! But the campers are, by and large, highly intellectually and creatively gifted. It is often these gifts which set them apart from their peers and isolate them in their local school communities. I found myself dreaming: of a craft village, at the foot of The Mountain, where committed craftsmen and women were eager to share their gifts with the campers, where music, dance and the written and spoken word shared pride of place with the wonderful physical outlets afforded by the heights and waters of the Smokies.
I came away from the camp and from The Mountain with a great sense of loss. Not for myself so much, as I could come back when I willed it, as for the campers. I hurt for the Sarahs and Marys, for the Davids and Marcs who, having tasted autonomy and physical freedom, must now go back to their difficult lives and reassume their protective masks. Wouldn't it be wonderful if, instead of being ground down in the mill of the State school system, they could live free at The Mountain and develop at their own speed, like the great trees? If trees are free, why must we enslave our children and young people?
Perhaps the answer is to work for a year round youth presence at The Mountain. But, you may answer, "They need to be in school!" Therefore, it is appropriate to examine more deeply what The Mountain is, what is the UUA from which it springs and what do we really mean when we say "school."
At the beginning of this consideration, it is a matter of some importance to know if the UUA is an organization of religious people in the sense that we understand the Catholic Church or the American Baptist Convention or for that matter, the Society of Friends, to be. The lack of doctrinal definition, the wide variety of personal beliefs, from atheist to pagan to scriptural Christian, and the emphasis on personal discovery of spiritual truth all cast doubt on UUism's status as a religion. But, I am reminded of Will Rogers' comment, "I'm a member of no organized political party; I'm a Democrat." Perhaps, in a similar vein, we might each say, "I'm an adherent of no formal religion; I'm a UU."
The UUA is certainly an ethical movement which satisfies, to a greater or lesser degree, the spiritual needs of a majority of its followers. Some do not look to the UU movement for spiritual sustenance, choosing to make their own direct contact with transcendence and prefering a good lecture (with argumentative "Talk Back" to follow) to liturgy and corporate worship on Sunday morning. And yet, the very act of gathering in community is for all of us an act of dedication, of mutual appreciation, of actual worship.
Therefore, let us accord the UUA the status of organized church. It certainly has its' preachers, its' theologians (strange, for a non-doctrinal movement!), its' churches and assembly halls, its' overarching structure of communication, publication, meetings and conventions. And, in the recognition and use of sacred places such as The Mountain, it even has its' cathedrals.
But where are its' schools? Most UU congregations, whether fellowship or church, lay or professionally led, provide religious instruction to both children and adults. But, unlike the case for many other religious communities, there seem to be no UU schools or colleges.
What elements constitute a school? I have spoken and written* elsewhere about my ideas concerning secular education; let me now make some comments concerning religious, or at the least religion based, education in a UU context. It will become clear that many of these comments also apply to secular education, but that they approach the subject from a different direction than I have previously taken. Also note that I write here about the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom, not of the certification of skills, as embodied in grades and diplomas. The processes of examination and certification are, in my view, counter productive to the process of learning and should be external to schools, whether secular or religious.
For a school to be said to exist, there must be, in the first place, as a foundation, an intentional community. Education, as I have argued the case for the verb "to teach," is a reflexive process. One does not lead out but one is led out by one's own effort. Such a result is next to impossible to achieve unless those seeking knowledge and wisdom participate voluntarily and are surrounded by those of a like mind concerning the process and goals of the undertaking. This is, in my mind, the central and fundamental failing of any school, whether State or private, secular or religious, which is able to compel attendance or to which "students" are committed involuntarily: Education in such a setting is an accidental by-product and may well include lessons one would rather not wish were taught.
The second requirement, given the existence of an intentional community, is a safe place. It must be a place of physical, psychological and intellectual safety. Physical safety is an obvious need: one cannot ask a question or conduct a conversation or tell a story unless this most fundamental of human priorities is met. Psychological safety is also a prerequisite since learning requires a high degree of self exposure, of letting down protective screens, of experimentation without fear of punishment for failure. This is true for both student and teacher: in many schools the institution protects the identified teacher, whose qualifications are certified, from the consequences of unsuccessful innovation but frequently, deliberately, punishes the student both for incidents of mere iconoclasm and more generally for failing to learn those things which are intended to be taught. Intellectual safety is perhaps the most difficult aspect to achieve but possibly the most essential. One can, I suppose, imagine situations in which learning takes place despite inadequate physical and psychological safety but in the absence of intellectual safety, perhaps better recognized in the term "academic freedom," learning quickly deteriorates to rote memorization.
For a religious school, or one which simply wishes to impart the ethical and moral principles of its faith community to intentional students, there is another requirement related to safety: there must be provision for sacred space in which the enterprise may go forward. I have previously remarked on the similarity between worship and writing,* as mystical processes about which we know very little. Let me suggest that learning, especially the advance from knowledge to wisdom, shares many of the same mystical, thus transcendent, elements. None of us know how we are able actually to learn things, where our intuition is built, from whence we acquire our moral compass. In fact, we practice a form of primitive natural worship in our pursuit of such matters: wishing to become wise, we associate ourselves with wise people; wishing to lead moral lives, we seek out those whose conduct we respect. In each case, while we may enter into a formal process, called education, what is actually sought for and happens is largely a process of association, of imitation, of osmosis. And when the issue is morality and the desire is to acquire the tools and techniques needed to lead a moral and spiritually satisfying life, this magic happens best in a sacred space.
There is one final requirement and that is for an ingredient that I believe drives all desire for learning and, must as a consequence, dominate the conduct of any educational process or setting. I believe that the central reason for wishing to learn, at whatever level, is a desire for transformation with consequence. That is, all students wish in some way to change and for that change to have importance in their lives. Therefore, we learn to drive an automobile so that we can become drivers and, having done so, achieve a higher degree of personal freedom. We learn to paint, to write, to sculpt, to sing, to become, betimes, painters, writers, sculptors and singers and, having done so, to have outlets for the creative impulses within us all. We learn about faith and reason to become fully human and, having done so, to lead better, more satisfying lives and through these lives, to transform our relationships and our secular communities.
So, with these four requirements in mind, how may I answer the question, asked repeatedly since its foundation, of what a school at The Mountain would look like? My first response is that The Mountain is a school by the intrinsic nature of the place and of its' community. The community is intentional, drawn, by and large, from other intentional communities. The place, itself, is safe. Its apartness and strangeness encourages people to care for each other and to look out for children, even ones whom they don't recognize. The "UU connection" and all that that implies produces a high level of psychological and intellectual safety. The Mountain is a place where we open to each other and where nothing is unthinkable or unspeakable. And, finally, if there is one central goal of the community, on which all agree, it is the desire for transformation with consequence: personal transformation, relational transformation, cultural transformation, societal transformation.
But having said that, a small voice still reminds me of the earlier question, "But where are our schools?" As I have noted previously, The Mountain is a school, and, as Shelly Jackson Denham sings in her Mountain anthem, "It reaches and teaches us." However, there is a need to make its benefits available on a more organized basis to those who, although in need of transformation, may not recognize The Mountain as a place to seek it. I think that people, primarily from UU congregations but also from the larger community, in the underserved age group about which I am concerned, are in special need. Young adulthood is a time of breaking of old patterns and formation of new ones. In such a period of transition, early life crises may occur and people often lose their way. Even at my age, in early mid-life, I sometimes become confused and, returning to The Mountain, find the path again.
Therefore, I suggest the following program,* one which I would have welcomed myself when younger. My thinking is guided by two primary referents:
When I was quite young I picked up a paperback book entitled, I think, Dickon Among the Indians**. It was an account, written as an autobiography, of the experiences of a young English ship's boy who was ship wrecked off the Delmarva peninsula during the early 17th. century. He was the only survivor of the wreck and was befriended by the Lenape "indians." He grew up as a native, only later in life being "rescued" and returning to England. One of the moving accounts of his life among the Lenape was of his manhood ceremony which was preceded by going into the wilderness, with minimum supplies, and fasting and dreaming until he received a spirit message from which he would derive his adult name and about which he would form his life. This tradition parallels that found in many native American communities. I am reminded, for instance, of the visionary dreams recounted in Black Elk Speaks.
A second referent is Thoreau's experiences which resulted in the book Walden. When he was 30 years old, Thoreau went to Walden Pond, bought some boards from an Irishman, built a cabin and lived in it for two years, in an attempt to confront life and nature, both his and that of the physical world. It is clear to me that this experience was the foundation for much of what he thought and wrote about in the later years of his life.
The target participant of this program, which we may call for the sake of discussion, "Transitions," is the high-school senior who does not know what to do next, the college student adrift after two years of effort, the early career professional doubting the wisdom of her path or, even, the younger UU minister between placements.
I have trouble with naming these individuals. "Student" is inadequate, since we tend to define this term from our current State school experience. The term "steward" comes closest, although the service intended is to The Mountain, not to individuals.
I propose that each steward come to The Mountain for a period of 3 to 12 months and live there as a member of the community, under the guidance of a mentor. An individual agreement would bind each steward to three aspects of his or her life while at The Mountain:
First, to devote themselves to a course of self-directed study. The goal may be to learn the history of 19th. century America, to write a series of short stories set in the Carolina mountains, to master off loom weaving, to compose a song cycle. The topic matters little, except that the steward choose it freely and that an obligation be made to pursue it to the limit.
Second, to work. The Mountain is a self-sustaining community and needs the work of all. It is desired that the stewards enter into a stewardship relationship with the place, a relationship which will hopefully last long beyond their period of residence, by doing real work, suitable to their skills, strengths and experience, which is needed by The Mountain. The work should be perhaps half-time, requiring 20-25 hours/week and be real: not tasks that are on a wish list but efforts needed now and in the future to sustain, support and enrich the physical facility and its' programs. The work may be varied: A working in the kitchen for a year might well be counter productive, but each task should be long enough for the steward to gain mastery and understanding.
Finally, to undertake a course of solitude and spiritual reflection. I need say no more about this, as each one's path is unique and each must plot their own direction. However, the Mountain and its' surroundings provide many physical settings and opportunities for activities which ease the process of reflection and self-discovery.
All of these aspects would be guided by a plan, in the form of a contractual agreement, arrived at and drawn up between the candidate steward and a mentor, before the period of residency begins.
Who will the mentors, the "teachers" of the Mountain School be? Many are already there: most of the present Mountain staff have experience, talent and probably desire to work in such relationships. Add to that the human resources of the surrounding communities and older, possibly retired, UUs who wish to come up from the flat lands to live for a while or longer at The Mountain, and there are mentors to far exceed the capacity of The Mountain for such stewards. Mentoring, like more formal teaching, requires no qualifications beyond a moral sense and the authority of wisdom, both gained from life's experience.
Again I dream, now of an academical village, of small mentor's houses, each with learning space and minimum living quarters for 2-3 stewards, arrayed along the road to Abe's Creek. It is a summer dusk, it is darker here on the road and I walk along from one pool of light to the next. There are voices on the porches, there are snatches of music on the breeze, learning is happening and wisdom is growing as they have all of the day, here at The Mountain.
Will these dreams happen, will they come to pass? Perhaps and probably, for they are the nature of The Mountain and within the grasp of its' friends.