Over the past 10 years I have been lucky enough to teach some very committed and bright young people, many of them passionate about making a difference to the lives of people less fortunate than themselves.
I work as a lecturer in the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, a place where research and education is focused on understanding the causes of conflict and violence, and applying this understanding in the search for more peaceful relationships. My own interests have tended to focus on the possibilities (and limitations) of education in this process, and increasingly, on the relationship between learning and the prospect of more resilient societies.
This has led me to some interesting experimentation and experience (including setting up a Permaculture-based module within our degree), but also to frustrations with the restrictions that our current higher education system - and our culture of education more widely - can place on teaching and learning. Like many, including an increasing number of young people, I have come to question some of the assumptions that underpin mainstream education, and to consider what can be done - both within and outside of this system - to provide an education that is appropriate to the challenges of the 21st century.
Recently I have been working closely with the Trill Trust in Devon, helping to develop plans for an innovative alternative education project. The Trust was established by Romy Fraser, the founder of Neal’s Yard Remedies and a passionate advocate of progressive education. Before going into business, Romy taught for six years in a democratic school in London, and nurtured a dream of setting up her own progressive school one day. Her expertise in health and alternative medicine led her instead to set up Neal’s Yard Remedies, but as the business flourished she established a charitable trust in order to continue her support for educational projects.
Learning about nature
After selling the business in 2005, Romy bought Trill Farm, a beautiful 300 acre site on the border between Devon and Dorset. She has transformed it into a flourishing example of sustainable and diverse farming practice. The farm is already host to a range of educational courses, including nature-based learning activities for visiting children, and short courses for adults. The next phase of the Trust’s work will see the expansion of this activity, together with the creation of a more ambitious project - a year-long programme for young adults aged 18-24, which aims to be a pioneering model of integrative, sustainable education.
The Youth Fellowship Programme
The Fellowship programme will be a one-year residential programme, with students living, studying and working at Trill Farm. The aim is to enable students to understand the conditions for healthy and sustainable social and ecological systems, and to be able to make choices and take actions that foster both personal and social-ecological resilience. The programme will be organised around a number of interconnected themes, all linked to the concept of resilience: food, health, energy, ecology, education, community and enterprise. As I explain below, study of these themes will be integrative and holistic, with an emphasis on making clear the relationships between different themes, knowledge and practice.
The programme is intentionally designed to encourage engagement with the natural environment and the seasonal nature of land-based work, enabling participants to experience the work and ecology of the farm as it changes through the year. This offers opportunities for observation and connection - and a relationship to place - that would not be possible in a shorter programme. It also addresses a key deficit in most mainstream education - the chance to apply knowledge in meaningful ways, to see the impacts of actions directly, in the place where we live. Such learning can be very profound and lasting.
The programme is being designed specifically to meet the needs and expectations of young adults. The years after young people leave school are a critical life phase, a formative period during which decisions about future careers and lifestyles are taken (in some cases, without the experience or maturity to make good decisions). We hope to recruit students who will benefit from a year of exploration and new challenges, such that they have the time and opportunity to make informed choices about how to spend their lives and best use their talents. Our aim is to support students in making the transition to independence, and to enable them to engage critically in thinking about their part in the social, cultural and technological transitions that are happening or need to happen in their lifetimes.
The education programme we are developing at Trill Farm is not labelled explicitly as 'permaculture' education. However, in design and method there will be much that overlaps and resonates with permaculture. For example, the principle of integration will be at the heart of what we do, in three different senses.
First, we will adopt an integrative pedagogy, meaning that there will not be the usual divisions between subjects, or between practical and intellectual learning, or between the objective and subjective worlds. Rather, the programme will be designed to enable students to connect knowledge from different subjects, to learn in an holistic manner, and to bring their own knowledge and experience to bear on the learning process.
They will learn from knowledgeable teachers about the world we inhabit, the challenges we face this century, and the range of inspiring experimentation that is emerging in response to those challenges. They will learn in a stimulating and diverse social and natural environment. And they will also participate in running a wide range of projects and enterprises - growing, processing and selling food, teaching children, running a small business, hosting events and engaging with local communities. These will be closely connected activities, enabling students to learn about sustainability and resilience in an evolving form of praxis.
The principle of integration also guides the delivery and viability of the programme. Education will be the responsibility not just of professional teachers, but of everyone who works and studies at Trill Farm. It will be woven into the life and operation of the farm and its various enterprises, not just in a way that benefits the students, but that allows students to make meaningful contributions to the farm.
Hard at work
The students’ labour is actually essential in an economic sense, so there will be a clear and beneficial relationship between the inputs of time, expertise, and labour of staff and students, and the outputs of learning, produce and farm income. This is similar to the apprenticeship model, of course, but we think the programme offers much more than a typical apprenticeship because of the diversity of work and learning opportunities available to the students, and the way of life that students will experience.
Finally, the principle of integration will be reflected in the emphasis on collaboration and cooperation in the programme. Students will be living and working closely together, and many aspects of their residence and study will require collective endeavour. A core strand of the programme, therefore, will be learning about how to build and maintain community, and the social skills in communication and conflict resolution that this requires. In addition, we expect students to take an active role in their education, and in the enterprises that operate at Trill Farm. They will be participants in, not passive recipients of, the programme. It will be an education in and about community.
Other connections to permaculture will be evident too. As mentioned above, we will encourage students to develop the skills and habits of careful observation, to learn how to see patterns and relationships in the social and ecological systems at Trill Farm. Students will be engaged in design-based projects, to develop their own ideas for sustainable living at and beyond Trill Farm. And, of course, they will learn how to grow and process their own food, in ways that are appropriate and beneficial to the land.
So, why is this programme relevant, or even pioneering? For a long time, the more academically gifted among our young people have not been encouraged into land-based or practical careers. For a long time, as Wendell Berry argues, we no longer encourage young people to remain in the communities where they grew up, to contribute their learning to the improvement of a home place. Instead, it is mainly those classified as being destined for ‘less-academic’ work who are encouraged to learn horticulture, or arable farming, or forest management, or similar.
Our culture tells young people that the purpose of their education is to enable them to leave home, to supercede their parents, to be socially and geographically mobile, regardless of the need (not yet widely recognised) to limit our mobility, to build stronger, more resilient communities. Yet, ironically perhaps, there are increasing numbers of people changing career, recognising the rewards of different kinds of work, the ‘wisdom of the hands’ - but often in later life, and with regret that they make this discovery this so late. There are increasing numbers of people seeking a deeper connection to place and community, and more sustainable ways of life.
This programme will hopefully address this cultural issue, in a small but symbolically important way. We hope to recruit people who sense the limitations of their formal education, who seek a (re)connection to nature, who want to experience different forms of work before they decide their career. At the end of the programme, they may not wish to continue in land-based or practical work, but we feel sure that the life choices they make will nevertheless reflect a deeper understanding of what is important and necessary - healthy, sustainable communities and environments.
If you are interested in the Youth Fellowship programme, either as a potential student or as a contributor, please get in touch: [email protected]