What are we?
One reason why we struggled so long – and are still struggling – to find a fitting explanation or name for what we started to do on this land is because all names are already occupied by meanings that we partly like but partly do not feel quite comfortable with. ‘Permaculture’ is a term that practitioners and audiences give to a whole range of divergent practices; most people associate learning and teaching at first sight with the dominant education system, which we are not happy with; and the term community is quite confusing – well, in the sense of a group of people living in the same place (which we don’t most of the time, yet) and/or sharing some attitudes and interests that are deemed important … in that sense we are a tiny wee community. And further?
Seven or eight years ago, while writing up my dissertation about medieval China and teaching at Leiden University in the Netherlands, a friend planted the seedling of an idea in my head (it fell on fertile grounds) and said that I should create a Free University. We came up with this in a pub, when he witnessed me and other friends being dissatisfied with the ways we had to teach and all the restrictions that inhibited academic working, and nearly prohibited fruitful manners of thinking together. In our ideas, a free university is a place where everybody, woman or man, no matter the age, educational, national background, and so on, can learn and teach for a certain amount of time in ways most suitable for them. Just like a classical academy, only for the 21st century.
‘But what about food’? asked Arthur. If you want a ‘free’ university (or however you want to call it), shouldn’t it be as free as possible from supermarkets, the electricity grid, money …?’ (of course he has been making that argument for much longer).
And thus I went on thinking and looking around the web and talking to people about the idea, and of course I found (and still find) quite a large number of projects in different countries that are immensely inspiring – whether they are still existent or not. Here I only post two links to quite successful and ongoing ‘projects’ that I find quite inspiring in several aspects:
Searching the net, the first ‘project’ I came across was actually a college in the US that seems to have a wonderful program with teaching rather un-usual subjects (or more teaching in unusual ways) in small groups embedded in a community that is also busy with their own food, energy, and waste, and which has an interesting history (needless to say starting in the 1970s and, well, it adjusted to the contemporary circumstances…). One class, for example, is learning to slaughter a pig, something that I really need to learn, too, sooner or later. Of course, it costs quite a lot of money and mostly addresses the group ‘college students’.
Quite different from that college is the ‘Free University’ in France created by the philosopher Michel Onfray (I am not enhancing his philosophy, I was just happy to notice the structure of his free university), which was recommended to me after I tried to explain my future plans to a fellow traveller in a café. Classes in this free university are open to everybody regardless their degree and age, and there are no exams and no degrees! The idea is based on an activity in the 19th century when teachers, intellectuals etc. offered knowledge to the working classes (not the other way around, though, as it seems), and has now been broadened.
Although both institutions are not exactly what I have in mind, when learning about them a few years ago their existence made me quite happy and confirmed me in my belief that our ‘permaculture learning teaching community thingy’ can actually work.
PS: I want to add that it really is a fascinating research topic and some but not much academic literature exists about the sort of activities we are slowly, slowly engaging in; accordingly we can be labeled ‘back-to-the-landers’ or in similarly broad terms belong to movements such as permaculture or ‘voluntary simplicity’, all labels that rest on countercultures from the 1960s/70s in Europe and the US which rested on previous counter-cultures and so on (see the very brief and critical summaries in Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era). Research about contemporary experiences from the majority world where people have to be more innovative and faster seen the current circumstances is also growing, especially in the direction of urban farming, but I am not so sure about academic interest in alternative reciprocal and communal ways of teaching and learning although they are thought-provoking (e.g. in China; see also this article in Le Monde Diplomatique about ‘China’s village revive’, which shows a similar trend based on different (culture and heritage) reasons). I believe that there is a huge amount of experimenting with living more sustainable, less wasteful, richer in emotions, more integrative, less anthropocentric, and even attempts for balancing the power between women and men more equally, and cross-generational (e.g. Prolongomai; Local Futures; I now focus more on finding projects in which different social classes and people in very different circumstances such as nationals and refugees or immigrants etc. form such communities that are not top-down approaches to teaching. If you know of any, please tell me).