Schumacher – a 21st Century Druid College?

August 6, 2020

There is a well-known legend that Jesus, while still a boy, was taken by his uncle Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury. The legend is most famously alluded to by William Blake in the opening lines to the song we now know of as ‘Jerusalem’: ‘And did those feet in ancient time, / Walk upon England[’]s mountains green?’

Less well known is that Jesus and Joseph may have stopped off along the way, travelling by barge up the river to Dartington, there to converse with the Druids. Where the origins of the Glastonbury legend are lost in the dim recesses of the past, this extra addition has a clear beginnings with Vera Strachan – wife to William Elmhirst and daughter-in-law to Dorothy and Leonard – for whom it came in a vision. Dartington, she saw, was once a Druid college, and the boy Jesus came here to partake of the spiritual wisdom of this ancient British priesthood.

A Druid college? What a crazy notion! And yet I find myself beguiled by the idea.

Very little is known about the original, British Iron Age Druids. In the opening chapter of his definitive history, Blood and Mistletoe, the historian Ronald Hutton writes that the ‘Druids may well have been the most prominent magico-religious specialists of some of the peoples of north-western Europe just over a couple of thousand years ago’, before sadly concluding ‘that is all we can say of them with reasonable certainty.’ The Druids, whoever they were, kept no written records and those that exist are from Greek and Roman sources so far removed from the people they claim to describe as not to be trusted. Yet it’s so easy to imagine Druids in groves of trees where the Great Hall stands, philosophising, theologising, debating, questioning with that precocious young talent and his worldly uncle! It’s so very Dartington.

If the original Druids melt away under the piercing glare of logos, the idea of the Druids has remained a potent catalyst for the Western imagination, for mythos. Hutton goes on to detail the myriad ways in which each generation has reinvented the Druids anew, from the Middle Ages right through to the present, where no summer solstice sunrise is complete without a white-robed Druid raising their arms to the sky. The Druids have been imagined and reimagined as proto-Christian patriarchs, as Pythagorean philosophers, as the masons who built Stonehenge, as keepers of a perennial spiritual wisdom, as human-sacrificing barbarians, and most recently as inspired shamanistic, pagan priests, effacing the gap between the human and the other-than-human.

My interest is not so much the literal truth of the Druids (though for the record they didn’t build Stonehenge: it’s far too old), of whether they actually had a college at Dartington and received the boy Jesus for instruction. Rather I’m intrigued by the continuing potency of the myth of the Druids. And if Vera’s vision speaks to Dartington the place, its genius loci, its vibe, does it have anything to say about Schumacher College today? Could we be a Druid college? Should we? What would that even mean? If nothing else it’s fun to imagine.

Right from its inception at the hands of the Indian sage, poet and polymath Rabindranath Tagore, the Dartington experiment has always entertained an undercurrent of spirituality that informed the more outward focus on education, arts and agriculture. This still obtains at Schumacher College, itself the inspiration of another great Indian sage, Satish Kumar. People come here from all over the world, to live and work together in community, to learn from each other, to retreat from the world momentarily so as to inquire into the big questions, what it means to be human at a time of crisis. In that sense Vera’s vision was a kind of foretelling. You could say we are already a Druid college, in all perhaps but name.

Yet today spirituality is regarded as problematic, embarrassing even, largely scorned within intellectual circles where rationalism and atheism prevail. Many question Schumacher College’s explicit emphasis on spirituality. Aren’t all those Totnesian shamans, with their drums and feathers, ‘a bit woo’? Isn’t Vera’s channeling off the scale of unacceptability? Shouldn’t we put critical distance between ourselves and all those cranks?

As a scholar of religion I can see why some might say so. The academic critics of contemporary spirituality are many. With all those workshops, therapies, courses, books and paraphernalia, spirituality isn’t so much a counterblast to capitalism but an expression of it. In privileging self not other it falls short of the charitable ambitions of the religious traditions it claims to supersede. And why does spirituality lead so often to sanctimony, self-righteousness, and virtue-signalling, not to mention a neo-colonial appropriation of other people’s traditions? Put like that it’s hard to deny the critics have a point.

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At the same time, I can see very clearly that the dire ecological and social crises go hand in hand with a desperate crisis of meaning. In Europe people are turning away from traditional religious institutions in droves because those institutions are undeniably late to the table when it comes to ecological matters. Hidebound by tradition on the one hand and mired in their own complicity on the other, these institutions can’t adapt quickly enough. No wonder so many people now identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’. At the same time, mainstream culture’s proffered answer, consumer capitalism, fails us during times of crisis by offering nothing but empty platitudes: ‘keep calm, carry on, buy this t-shirt, put it on Instagram’. There’s something undeniably rotten at the heart of Western culture, and the rising popularity of spirituality speaks to a deeply felt need, one that isn’t easily denied.

'Solstice Stone' and labyrinth created by Andy and head gardener Colum Pawson in the Schumacher Gardens

‘Solstice Stone’ and labyrinth created by head gardener Colum Pawson in the Schumacher Gardens

So a Druid college need eschew neither spiritual practice nor critical thought. We need both, mythos and logos, even as we wrestle with the difficult questions of our time. We would, as Donna Haraway advises, ’stay with the trouble’. For if the legacy of empire and a capitalist spirit infuse our spirituality, the same is true of our education system, the academic project (as #RhodesMustFall reveals), and pretty much every aspect of Western culture. We need not abandon spirituality; but we must transform it, we must decolonise it. To do that we could do worse than look to our ancient roots, to the land beneath our feet, to see what inspiration lies in those pre-Imperial Druidic bones, to make what treasures we find there available to all.

Nor should a Druid College espouse a quietist retreat from the world, a retreat into solipsism, a washing of the hands. Rather it should strive to develop what the late Gloria Anzaldúa called conocimiento, a critical yet spiritually-open consciousness. ‘Conocimento’, she writes in Light in the Dark, ‘urges us to respond not just with the traditional practice of spirituality (contemplation, meditation, and private rituals) or with the technologies of political activism (protests, demonstrations, and speakouts), but with the amalgam of the two: spiritual activism…’ Through such spiritual activism ‘Spirit-in-the-world’ becomes conscious, and we become conscious of spirit in the world. The healing of our wounds results in transformation, and transformation results in the healing of our wounds.’ Working class, chicana, feminist, queer, diabetic: Anzaldúa embodied and epitomised spiritual activism in her day to day struggles. She remains one of the few scholars to refuse to purify theory or activism of spirituality, and in that she remains a pathfinder. To paraphrase E. F. Schumacher, we might be cranks but watch us create revolutions.

We don’t have to wear white robes or hair shirts. We don’t even have to frequent Stonehenge. But a college that finds spiritual expression in service to the others with whom we live (human or other-than-human) and to the land beneath our feet, that scrutinises and decolonises itself without fragility, that privileges listening before speaking, and that acts mindfully and soulfully in the world, would be a college that meets the needs of the time. That’s certainly how I see Schumacher College going forward, perhaps the Dartington experiment as a whole. If you want to call that a ‘Druid college’, so be it. I can’t help feeling that Vera, and the ancestors, would be thrilled.

Andy Letcher

Dr Andy Letcher is a lecturer on the Schumacher College Holistic Science MSc/PGCert course. He is a writer, performer and scholar of religion who began life as an ecologist, completing his D.Phil in Ecology at Oxford University. After a spell as an environmental activist during the 90s, especially during the anti-roads protests, he moved across to the humanities, completing a PhD at King Alfred’s College Winchester. He is an expert on contemporary alternative spiritualities, especially modern Paganism, neo-shamanism and psychedelic spiritualities.

Tags: alternative education, connection to nature, higher education, spirituality