The Early Years of Friends World College



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THE EVOLUTION OF ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION:

The Early Years of Friends World College


1965-1970

Based on a presentation made to Friends Association for Higher Education, June 15, 1991, Wilmington College, Wilmington. Ohio


Keith Helmuth
The desire to write an account of the early years of Friends World College has been with me a long time. When I received the call for papers issued by Friends Association for Higher Education for this conference, I thought, ah ha, perhaps the time has come. I submitted a proposal, it was accepted and here I am. I am indeed grateful for the opportunity this occasion has afforded me.

What I am presenting is in the nature of a memoir - an account written straight out of memory, drawing only on such documents as I have on file in my library from the time we were with the College. A number of persons with whom we shared those extraordinary years would also be in a position to tell this story, As far as I know, none of them has yet done so.

At the 20th anniversary reunion in 1985 I spoke with a former colleague, Richard Lannoy, a about a writing and editing project documenting the early years of Friends World College. We planned a two volume work. The first volume we saw as a detailed narrative, with contributions by a number of participants. Volume two we saw as a selection from student journals, illustrating the kind of learning which takes place in this kind of educational program. Unfortunately, after the reunion Richard returned to England and I to Canada and no further work was done between us on the idea. Perhaps this paper will renew the idea and set a process in motion toward a more complete telling of the College's pioneering story.
* * * * *

In 1964 Morris Mitchell was ready for retirement. He was nearly seventy years old and had been the president of the Putney Graduate School of Teacher Education for the past fifteen years. He had had a long and creative career as a teacher and educational innovator and was anticipating living and working full time on his rural property in Georgia. Dr. Mitchell’s attitude toward the concept of retirement was the same as his attitude toward the idea of a vacation. He didn't hold with such notions. He said all that was needed was a creative change of pace.

As he was preparing to leave the green hills of Vermont for the piney woods of Georgia, Morris Mitchell was offered both a change of pace and a challenge he could not turn down. The change of pace was toward increased intensity and the challenge was to translate his seasoned concept of education and the learning process into a cross-cultural world encompassing context. The challenge was also to his ability as a visionary humanitarian and as an inspiring leader of an administrative team. He was offered the directorship of Friends World Institute.

Friends World Institute was the result of yet another Quaker committee. (If a Quaker had written Ecclesiastes it would surely say, "Of the making of books and committees there is no end.") In the late 1950's a group of Friends within New York Yearly Meeting, led by Dr. George Nicklin, had a growing concern for a college level educational program that would be truly international in scope, bringing students from many regions of the world into a living and learning relationship; a program in which, in addition to the curriculum, the social context of the college itself would become a significant instrument of learning. And so a Committee on a Friends World College was established by New York Yearly Meeting.

My earliest recollection of this project was reading material that had been sent to the Iowa City Friends Meeting in the early 1960's soliciting financial support. I remember being struck by the visionary quality of the proposal and thinking, "Here is an example of Friends at their best!" Little did I realize that a few years later my wife, Ellen, and I and our two young sons would become immersed in the struggles, satisfactions and celebrations of the College's opening years.

By 1963 the Committee on a Friends World College had gathered enough dedicated workers and financial resources to begin making concrete plans toward the realization of their vision. The Committee had become increasingly successful in developing a wide ranging support base. As with many Quaker projects, support from people who were not members of the Society of Friends became critically important. Among contributions received was a small estate property on Long Island donated by Henry Ittleson. This property, called Harrow Hill, provided the facilities for an administrative base and became the setting for a pilot project in the summer of 1963. Under the name of Friends World Institute, an international, cross cultural mix of students were assembled at Harrow Hi11 and, directed by Harold Taylor, became an experimental exploration of world oriented education. (An account of this project, written by Harold Taylor, appeared in the November 14. 1964 issue of The Saturday Review under the title. "The Idea of A World College.")

Having taken this first experimental step, the Committee now took direct aim at their goal. This is where Morris Mitchell comes in. The Committee approached him with the opportunity to establish Friends World Institute on a full program basis. (In New York State the word "college" cannot be legally used until a program satisfies certain specific requirements of the State Board of Regents.) Morris Mitchell rose with alacrity to this challenge. He was later fond of saying that on his journey from Vermont to Georgia he was waylaid on Long Island. Actually he came to see the development of Friends World Institute and the acquisition of a college charter from the State of New York for a radically experimental educational program, under the auspices of Friends, as a fitting capstone to his career. And, indeed, it was.

Morris Mitchell was one of those rare persons who, as an educator, was never off-duty. He had a disposition that utilized every circumstance in which he and his students found themselves as an opportunity for learning. Indeed. Morris Mitchell deliberately cultivated a pedagogic routine in which the range of learning opened to his students would be as broad and deep and practical as the multi-faceted panorama of real life. John Dewey was his mentor and he recommended the study and assimilation of Dewey's book, Experience and Education, the way an evangelist recommends the Gospels. Morris Mitchell was deeply convinced, along with John Dewey, that real education, the best and most vital learning, was based on direct experience - first hand intimate involvement in the circumstances of life and work. He saw this approach to education as a natural corollary to Quaker spirituality. His commitment to the Society of Friends was strongly rooted in a shared passion for justice, the vision of a world free from hunger and oppression, and both economic exploitation and war made unacceptable and obsolete by a rising tide of cooperative and mutually beneficial relationships between the peoples of the world. And for the realization of this vision Morris Mitchell had a strategy.

Working under all these problems, like a comprehensive antidote, he saw a process of learning based on experience which, slowly but surely, can move rational humanitarian cooperation into the forefront of world problem solving. When the Committee on a Friends World College, with its own well developed vision and sense of mission, hired Morris Mitchell to direct Friends World Institute, two streams of commitment to human betterment, both uniquely Quaker and both uniquely world oriented, came together in catalytic fusion. The Committee had envisioned a college experimentally oriented from a cultural point of view. The hiring of Morris Mitchell introduced an experiential pedagogic technique which quite literally turned the programmatic element of the College inside out. He proposed that rather than bring students and faculty from around the world to a North American campus, the College open centers in all the major cultural regions of the world; that indigenous faculty be hired; that students be admitted into the program in their home region and progressively move through periods of study in each of the other centers and, in the course of four years, come to have acquired a true world education - an education based not on studying about world cultures but based on immersion in world cultures.

The Committee was captivated by the idea. With a single stroke of imagination this 70 year-old educator had turned a good liberal Quaker education project into a radical educational movement. This was Morris Mitchell's first contribution to the evolution of the College idea. But there was a second stroke to his pedagogic imagination, a stroke even bolder than the first. He proposed a curriculum based on a systematic study of what he called "world problems and their emerging solutions." By this he meant the type and scale of problems that are coming to adversely affect the stability, productivity and social development of human communities and the ecological integrity of all world regions. Various of these problems have particular expressions, but the growing interconnectedness of world cultures and economies gives even regional problems a global impact. Some people, in those days, had difficulty understanding Morris on this point and were puzzled by his tenacious insistence that the real task of education was to honestly and ethically confront these problems and devote our intelligence and energy to their solutions. Others were galvanized into enthusiastic response by a vision that redeemed education from national aggrandizement and personal ambition.

Morris Mitchell had been a professional educator a long time and had come to some very definite conclusions about relevance and irrelevance in education. His sense of impending world crisis was so acute and his conviction that education must be turned toward preventing social, economic and ecologic breakdown so strong, that his point of view quickly became the ethos of the College project. Morris Mitchell did not devalue the traditional categories of knowledge. He was deeply committed to mastery in all the arts and sciences of human endeavor and welfare. He simply insisted they are learned best when students become engaged with real problems in the real world, when they become motivated by ethical commitment to human betterment and see the need for acquiring skills and mastering a discipline to equip them to he effective problem solvers. He encourage students to see themselves as "agents of social change" - a phrase that would come back to haunt us all, as we shall see.

Morris Mitchell identified the critical world problems as including racism, poverty, environmental degradation, political and social oppression, economic injustice and war. He posited the emergence of countervailing spiritual, social, economic, political and technical forces that, in combination, can work toward the elimination of these world problems. He believed in the unfolding of these positive, creative social forces, based on the metaphor of a maturing humanity. He was not naive about the difficulty of what he proposed or about the timetable likely to be required, and he feared that nuclear war could totally subvert this creative movement. But, in his view, the rational, ethical response to our collective situation was to pitch in, full tilt, on the side of the creative social forces. This he urged students and faculty to do and this is the stance that shaped the founding of Friends World College.

Morris Mitchell identified the emerging, world level, creative social forces as including the following. His list was open ended and he challenged students to identify additional movements for inclusion.

World Government

Universal Suffrage

Racial Equality

Social Planning

Regional Development

Producer and Consumer Cooperatives

Democratic Socialism

Intentional Community

World Education

You will note this list is a mix of the highly abstract and the highly specific. This integration of grand vision with concrete commitments was characteristic of Morris Mitchell. He had a seemingly endless supply of stories with which to illustrate his points and that served to charmingly ground his lofty vision. You will also see that he did not shrink from including his own particular focus in the list of world level, creative social forces. World education came to be for Morris Mitchell a summing up of his life’s work. He was a Southerner who had worked for racial equality long before it became a movement. He helped found community schools in the rural south where the first item on the curriculum for both students and teachers was to build a schoolhouse. The second item was to figure out what kind of self-help projects could be undertaken by the school that would benefit the whole community. Morris's schools became catalysts for upgrading both self-esteem and living standards. Learning to read, do math, understanding history, economics and basic science developed directly out of the community building project.

Morris Mitchell had worked on the Tennessee Valley Authority project and never lost his faith in comprehensive social and technical planning. He had been a teacher of students at all levels from grade school through graduate school. One time when he was without a job he went to Teacher's College, Columbia University, seeking employment. Though he was eminently qualified they told him they had neither the financial resources nor any available classroom for additional faculty. Morris asked them if it would be all right for him to use an out of the way space in the corridor and do a little volunteer teaching. Permission was granted. Morris posted notices of his class and set up shop. At first a few curious students came and then more. The result was Morris Mitchell was given a classroom and hired. As you can see this was a man who truly knew how to do "environmental education." (I am here giving the term "environmental education" an expanded usage to which I will return.)



For Morris Mitchell World Education was more than just another creative concept. He saw it as an engine of creative social change, identifying, propagating and even inventing the new concepts and movements with which to construct the future. The following quotations are taken from his 1967 book, World Education: Revolutionary Concept.
If one of these emerging concepts is more basic and important than the others, it could be this one of World Education. For through education that has made of itself a reverent search for universal truth appropriate to our age, mankind could creatively join with such impulses as these which shape destiny and hasten the progress that has been so needlessly tortuous. Then, with love, we could begin to mend the scars man has inflicted on Mother Earth, abandon war. advance knowledge, abolish poverty, provide for the sick, lengthen life, and prepare for the creative enjoyment of leisure. This is the direction of the emerging concept, the revolutionary concept of World Education. World Education must find a new focus for these critical times, which will integrate certain historical values we cherish with new theories of reality and knowledge.
More specifically, World Education must bring into a single focus two great currents of human understanding; that ancient one which interprets reality by sense perception, and the new, sometimes contradictory, interpretation of reality as revealed by scientific investigation. If we tolerate the compartmentalization of the traditional and the new understanding of reality, science will remain amoral, its destructive potentialities a threat, and religion and education will continue to be ineffective. In our search for truth relevant to our times, we can, and doubtless will, continue to use traditional value words, but every word must assume revised meaning. For example, among Christians the "divinity of Christ," at first threatened by the growth of objective understanding, loses its uniqueness and its superstitious qualities and becomes in a superlative degree that gift for sympathetic love with which every human is endowed. Again, to listen for the "voice of God: is to open one's being, heart, and mind in earnest, "reverent" search for the meaning of the unfolding of the powers of truth. And a localized, personalized God becomes those all-pervasive forces and motives that govern every electron of every galaxy. And what vistas are open as we glimpse the newer meanings of divinity as World Education finally views all as one family?
That is the central challenge. With our new understandings and the powers of science to create and destroy, can we modernize our ancient preconceptions based on faulty sense perception? Can we embrace, before we destroy ourselves, the actuality of an existence of such incredible complexity and magnificence as to make childish the myths of our bibles and our tribal histories? Can we still nurture the impulses of respect, sympathy, and love, that were inherent binding forces in tribal structure and yet deliberately outgrow the counterbalancing hostilities toward other tribes? Can we accept the reality that we are all of one family and all interdependent as, at once microscopic and macroscopic, we cling perilously to our incredibly complex globe?
We must. accept a revolutionary change of attitude toward the nature and function of the educational process. For in content, too, we must outgrow the now universal, provincial pattern which employs education as a tool to transmit tribal beliefs, tribal attitudes, tribal structures, tribal skills, tribal habits, and tribal knowledge. Education must undertake a loftier-purpose, an aim of new qualities, new dimensions. It must become for now a tool of human survival, and that assured, must assume as it ultimate goal individual and social growth, based on reverence for life, as an end in itself. Then education on a world scale will be the social counterpart of the creative forces that shape our destinies. Then we shall have achieved Plato's dictum that education is "process not product." Indeed, man may find such education the means of so identifying with the progressive evolution of his environment as to share, through his inherent creative ability, in the primal processes of change. Education, in an almost new sense, must bring us into greater identity with the complex, systematic beauty of the universe, our world, ourselves. With new found ecological and anthropological perspective, man - creature of environment that he is - may approach the longed-for freedom of will by deliberately changing his environment in order to direct universal human betterment. This would call for the discovery, for each time period, of universally applicable concepts by which a creative cycle might come to replace the past, downward spiral of destructive exploitation leading to further destruction. Already there are inklings of this prospect. Let us call this new form World Education and seek to describe it.
Just prior to joining the faculty of Friends World Institute, I spent some time helping Morris Mitchell prepare his book, World Education. During this time I was also studying the works of Lewis Mumford. In reading Mumford’s book, The Conduct of Life, I discovered a passage that electrified me. I took it to my next meeting with Morris and his response was equally enthusiastic. "That's it"! he said. "That.s really the potential of what we are doing." Mumford, writing during World War Two, was looking to the future and called for a combination service/education program for youth. He writes;
Once war armies are disbanded, peace armies, on a far larger scale. must be formed. Every young man and woman, at the age of eighteen or thereabouts, should serve perhaps six months in a public works corps. In his own region he will get training and active service, doing a thousand things that need to be done, from planting forests and roadside strips, supervision of school children in nurseries and playgrounds to the active companionship with the aged, the blind, the crippled, from auxiliary work in harvesting to fire-fighting.
Unlike military service, these forms of public work will be carried out with the educational requirements uppermost; and without any justifiably uneasy conscience as to the premature coarsening of the fiber of the tender and the sensitive. No citizen should be exempt from these common work experiences and services. But every effort should be made, for the sake of education, to take the student out of his home environment for a period, introducing him to other regions and other modes of life. Those who show special interest and aptitude should be given the opportunity to perform similar service in an international corps in order to become active participants in the working life and culture of other countries. In time, these planetary student migrations will, let us hope, take place on an immense scale, comparable to the comings and goings of unskilled labor from Europe to America at the beginning of the twentieth century: but now worldwide in scope and with teachers, not labor bosses, to lead them. The result of such transmigrations would be to enrich every homeland with mature young men and women, who knew the ways and farings of other men, who would bring back treasures with them, songs and dances, technical processes and civic customs, not least, ethical precepts and religious insights, knowledge not taken at third hand from books, but through direct contact and living experience: thus, the young would bring back into every village and city a touch of the universal society of which they form an active part.
Such people would be ready for further study, further travel, further research, for further tasks and adventures . . . They would no longer live in their present parochial world: that world whose narrow limits are not in fact extended by the vague dribble of information and suggestion that reaches them by way of books or radios, filtered through many political and ideological sieves. The present trickle of students already passing back and forth between certain parts of Europe and America under the Fulbright Act, are still caught by the routines of conventional education. But in time, their studies, their civic responsibilities, and their vocational interests will be united in a new kind of education; and mighty streams of such students, flowing back and forth along the seaways and skyways, will eventually irrigate the parched cultural soil of many lands. The comradeship and understanding of such a world fellowship of the young, based on common experience and common purposes carried through together, the stimulus of new interest that would come with foreign service, would turn world co-operation into a working reality; and in time create a true world community. Such a course of education in world citizenship would create seasoned young men and women, awakened to the immense variety and diversity of other cultures, yet more conscious than ever, through the services they have interchanged, of their common humanity.... By such means, not by books and constitutions and laws and technical devices alone, we will create one world. One of the ultimate aims of our lifetime education will be to make us the sharers in and creators of this universal culture; out of that development will come balanced regions, balanced communities, balanced men. Once the renewal we have pictured begins to work in the person, in a multitude of individuals and groups throughout the world, many projects that now seem as remote as the International Work Corps will become near: many plans for re-building of cities to human scale, for the re-integration of city and country, for the humanization of industry, for the development of family life, for the general endowment of the workers' new leisure with active opportunities for creation, such as the artist knows, will become feasible.
You can see that what we are dealing with in this vision is a greatly enlarged under standing of "environmental education."

There were two people, during the early years of the College, on whom Morris Mitchell particularly relied for administrative and program support; Rene Hill and Arthur Meyer. Though it would be uncharacteristic of the community ethos of Friends World College to attribute its survival to a single person, I think there is no doubt that Rene Hill would be unanimously declared the "key player" in the equation. During those early and tumultuous years, she literally held the College together and on course. No words are adequate to describe her commitment and hard work; work always done in such an easy going manner that it was a joy to consult with her on development or program, the details of which she invariably had a command. Rene Hill was listed as the Assistant Director of Friends World Institute and later as Vice President of Friends World College, but Morris Mitchell used to say that he, as Director and then President, was just a papier-mache mask; pull it to one side and there would be Rene Hill.

Arthur Meyer, who earlier had done graduate study in education under Morris Mitchell. was the first Director of the North American Center of Friends World Institute. With unflagging energy and almost unbelievable patience and good will, Arthur Meyer piloted the early student groups through some amazing adventures and some stormy seas. After five years at that post Arthur became Director of Admissions for the College and has only just retired (1991). He has been the longest serving staff in the College's history and became, through 25 years, a link with the inspiration of Morris Mitchell and the original New York Yearly Meeting Committee.

In the mid-Sixties ecologists were already sounding a warning that pollution was more than an inconvenience. Rachel Carson had rung her great bell of warning into an increasing silent sky. Murray Bookchin had already written his classic essay, "Ecology and Revolutionary Thought". A significant and growing number of young people knew in their bones that, for more reasons than can be easily stated, the American Dream was turning into, in the memorable phrase of Henry Miller, an "air conditioned nightmare." Not only were consumer values ripping up the ecosystem but they offered only a bizarrely superficial sense of identity and no moral or ethical guidance at all. The Civil Rights Movement was spreading from the South into the North and the war in Viet Nam was ominously and sickeningly enlarging. There was despair and rage in the streets. Student demonstrations were bringing prestigious universities to a dead halt. This was the mid-Sixties! What a time to start a college!

As it turned out it was probably the perfect time to start a college like Friends World. Morris Mitchell was fond of quoting George Fox's injunction: "Ye have no time but this Present." (Fox was the founder of Quakerism in the 17th Century.) And so, though many details of start up were yet unsettled, the decision was taken to open Friends World Institute in the fall of 1965. The site that became available was the abandoned officers quarters of the old Mitchell Air Force Base, Westbury, Long Island. The stories from those early years are so numerous and so interesting it is tempting to digress. I will allow myself two, which, in fact, reinforce my theme of an expanded concept of environmental education.

The students and faculty were on a study trip in the southern states when civil rights worker James Meredith was shot. Ruby Magee, a faculty member and close friend of Meredith, hurried to him, The students resolved to follow and join the march of protest and solidarity being organized. Morris agreed to extend College support to this event and walked with the students, on his seventy-first birthday, the 18 miles to Canton, Mississippi. The day's march concluded with a rally that was brutally set upon by police releasing tear gas and indiscriminately clubbing participants. Several students and faculty were among the injured. As they regrouped Morris told the students, "This is a college for experience, not war" and he proposed they now return to Selma, Alabama and continue the study trip as previously planned. Not one student or faculty agreed. They were determined to see the march through and were prepared to take the consequences of their action. Morris commended them and declared the school temporarily closed so they could proceed on their own responsibility. The group continued with the march on toJackson. We have here a case of environmental education stretched to the limits of institutional accommodation, and beyond.

The second story comes from the end of those early years and looks north. Tom Findley joined the faculty of Friends World College in the fall of 1968. He was a chemist who for some years had been the head of a research division of Swift and Company in Chicago, but who now was aiming at a life of service, and simplicity. The value of his service to the College was immediately apparent. He brought a manner of calm deliberation and thoughtful rationality. His judgments were balanced and his advice clarifying, His approach to the simplification of life was direct and non-doctrinaire. When the car that had brought him to Long Island broke down soon after his arrival. it remained un-repaired and that was the end of automobile ownership for Tom Findley.

Tom Findley was an experienced canoeist and added environmental expeditions via this mode of transportation to the College's North American study-travel options. He had a keen interest in water quality and with his water test kit and expertise as a chemist, brought a research ethic to his canoe trips, In addition, Tom took full pedagogic advantage of the fact that traveling by canoe, like walking or cycle touring, puts one in direct contact and immediate rapport with the natural and cultural elements of a region. Tom Findley's taste for learning, like the college, had a world context. He had been thinking globally for some time and had acquired an impressive collection of topographic maps that when laid out, revealed the continental waterways which could be used to canoe around the world. Tom was low-key about this idea but eager to discuss it and answer questions. Gradually, a number of students attached themselves to the first phase of this project - traveling from Long Island Sound into the Hudson River and then north by northwest to the Bering Strait.

This was not just an elaborate camping trip. Under Tom's guidance the opportunities for learning that this project offered were maximized. The problem solving method of learning was taken seriously, It began with the building of canoes, A shipyard facility on the North Shore of Long Island was made available to the College. The project crew set up shop, designed and built the needed forms and produced six expedition quality fiberglass canoes. With a major learning component in design engineering and fabrication behind them, the group launched the canoes from the shipyard into Long Island Sound and began paddling toward Manhattan and the Hudson River. I asked Tom what happens when you reach the Bering Strait and the Soviet Union lay a few miles beyond. Tom is an intensely practical person and he simply said he didn't know if they could get permission to enter, but if they had any chance at all their mode of transportation would probably be a point in their favor. That was a distant problem. The work and learning that lay before them as they moved through the cultural and ecologic regions of North America - English, French, Cree and Inuit; urban, agricultural, forest and tundra - was all that need concern them now.

The expedition moved through successive seasons and soon moved beyond the scope of the College, Some students departed to take up other avenues of learning or other ventures. Others returned with Tom each spring to continue from the point they had hauled out the previous fall. A core group carried on, settling ever more deeply into the knowledge, skills and habits of direct engagement with primary biosphere process - the world of photosynthesis, metabolism and mutual interdependence. Several members of the expedition, including Tom Findley, were eventually claimed by the land and culture of the North and have remained more-or-less settled residents. Tom did make it to the Bering Sea but instead of pushing on into other continental waterways, has retired with his canoes and extensive journals to a northern Ontario homestead. Solar energy collectors now power his computer but his canoes are still powered by metabolism and imagination.

I have told these two stories because, though sharply contrasting, they both illustrate a dynamic of human association that has made Friends World College something more than an educational institution. It has been something like a small society, a small group culture, in which shared experience creates bonding. It has been like a refiner's fire, producing elemental relationships, relationships that in some cases have endured and in many cases retain in memory an extraordinary mystique. I have thought about this a good deal over the years and have brought it to this point in my understanding: Relationships formed in the midst of vital, cooperative learning resonate in the deep soul and tend to endure in fact or in memory.

At the 20th anniversary reunion Richard Lannoy spoke of "a certain iridescence of spirit" he always finds in the presence of those associated with Friends World. When I heard Richard coin this expression, I knew exactly to what he was referring: It refers to those especially bright, varied and luminescent moments of relationship that characterize the culture of Friends World. Those who lived through the stories recounted here will know what this means, as will many others whose stories from their days with Friends World are equally vital.

It should be dear by now that in the experience of Friends World College, environmental education does not mean just studying about ecosystems or life cycles or the effect of a polluting industry. All that was included as sub-text, but the broader context and the approach that made Friends World daringly unique was its commitment to education in the environment as well as about the environment. For students who had rejected the narrow categories of conventional curriculums and the regimentation of bureaucratically administered education, Friends World was a breath of fresh air. For the faculty it was often a complex kind of dance. On the one hand we were free to connect our own expertise with events and actions that facilitated the kind of learning to which we were committed. On the other hand it was also necessary to be a competent advisor to students on areas of learning that developed from their interests and life experiences. And behind all this was the world view of Morris Mitchell who saw the curriculum totally in terms of world problems, social forces, emerging solutions and problem solving. As this amalgam began to function as a college program, inevitable conflicts appeared and exactly what kind of environmental education Friends World was equipped to offer became an increasingly prominent issue. To this I will return, but first a closer look at the expanded understanding of environmental education.

Joining the faculty the first year and continuing until 1969, Richard Proskauer became a key influence in our definition and practice of environmental learning. Richard was trained as a physicist and engineer and had been a member of the original Committee on a Friends World College. He had had a career in industry which included the development of the oscillating, gyroscopic compass which is critical for submarine navigation under the Arctic ice cap. His interests and values had changed, but his inventive and creative thinking had not. Richard Proskauer represented Science on our faculty and for him that meant looking at what was happening to local ecosystems and enabling students to appreciate the centrality of the environmental crisis to our cultural situation. So he began taking groups of students to a municipal incinerator in order to understand the magnitude of the consumer culture garbage problem. He paid visits to fossil fuel powered electric generating plants spewing a vast tonnage of toxic pollutants into the air and then coupled that with a trip to Levittown, Long Island to view the vast acreage of single family dwellings, all equipped with the same array of electricity consuming appliances.

Richard Proskauer, like Morris Mitchell, understood the importance of focusing on the emergent. He was fond of citing Descartes' philosophical error that the value of a proposition can be judged by its clarity. Richard's comment was that perfectly clear propositions are simply boring. It is only when a proposition is emerging into clarity that it has compelling interest and, hence, real value for learning. Richard made a habit of being one question ahead of the answer to anything. Complete understanding, he said. was fatal to learning. Things are either unfamiliar or familiar, but the minute we feel we have a complete understanding of something we have thrown up a barrier to further learning.

For Richard Proskauer, the best route to any particular goal was never a straight course. In a way he was the polar opposite of Morris Mitchell. Morris well understood the power of learning directly from experience in the environment, but he always moved from point to point in a direct and focused manner. Deviations annoyed him. He could never quite figure out what Richard was up to. To Morris's credit, however, he recognized pedagogic genius, even when it contrasted sharply with his own, and Richard was not subject to the same scrutiny as the rest of the faculty. While he might have a particular field study goal, Richard was always eager to use any eventuality that arose to the best pedagogic advantage. He was connoisseur of serendipity. He loved deviations and was convinced that more could often be learned by allowing them, and even following them up, than by sticking to a predetermined plan. Thus, for example, on a study trip to Vermont to learn about woodlot management, Richard's van load of students would arrive at our destination hours after the others with a wealth of improbable tales about a chance encounter with a store keeper who told them about an old mill where they could see apple cider being pressed and where they discovered the mill operator to be an articulate Goldwater Republican and on and on. The other students had traveled in a straight mental line from Long Island to the Vermont woodlot. The students traveling with Richard had been out on a ramble and had already learned a good deal about economics, technology, politics and culture in Vermont. Richard did his best to infect us with his approach to environmental education, and though he may have sometimes thought us slow learners, I think he succeeded better than he realized, A few years later when conducting study trips in East Africa for the College, I would often think of Richard and allow openings in our itinerary that I might have otherwise closed off.

I have several times mentioned study-travel and I would like to indicate more precisely the role of this activity in the Friends World approach to environmental education during the early years. The introduction of this educational strategy grew from Morris Mitchell’s conviction that students should have the opportunity for direct learning about the kinds of problems that plague certain peoples and places; but even more importantly, to come into direct contact with places, projects and people where social and economic problems were being addressed and solved.

Thus, for example, the southern study trip mentioned earlier included a visit with Myles Horton at the Highlander Folk School near Knoxville, Tennessee. It included visiting and learning about the reclamation and reforestation of previously strip mined lands and an extensive on site introduction to the history and development of the TVA by both the officials of the agency and by rural residents who could remember the life and hard times before this integrated regional development scheme brought in electricity, industry and jobs. Morris was keen for students to understand cooperative economic structure and the importance of planned communities. He included Columbia, Maryland and Reston, Virginia in the study-travel itinerary, both early examples of planned communities after Ebenezer Howard's garden city model, He would introduce the cooperative idea through visits to the impressive coop supermarkets serving these communities, It was here that Morris began to encounter troubling student reactions. They said, in effect: "Hey, wait a minute. These are just bedroom communities full of affluent consumers and the coop supermarkets have all the same junk food and over packaged, plasticized products that any profit driven, capitalist store carries. And look at the TVA. It has become dominated by electricity production and has built coal fired generating plants that are fed by rapacious strip mining. And now TVA is going nuclear. Where are the creative, emerging solutions in all that. This is all part of the problem."

This reaction saddened Morris. He wanted the students to see the core ideas, the concept, the original vision behind these social innovations and not be put off by what they had become. But students responded by pointing out that what they had become was exactly the crux of the matter. Cooperatives, planned communities, regional development were all good, liberal, socially progressive ideas but in the context they were being asked to study something had obviously gone wrong. And it was in understanding what had gone wrong that the most interesting and relevant learning was to be found.

Many students who came to Friends World College had already been to other colleges. Some were veteran activists and most of them were intuitive critics of consumer culture. Many students were on a quest for alternatives to the standard American way of life. They were primed for environmental learning. They were inspired by Morris Mitchell's vision and charmed by his stories. They readily adopted his innovative immersion-in-the-environment style of learning, but they came up with their own conclusions.

Because Morris was so wedded to his core ideas of progressive social change and because students were reacting negatively to his examples, he came first to the conclusion that faculty were insufficiently dynamic in putting across the college’s vision of world education. He later came to the conclusion that most students were not sufficiently mature to appreciate the importance of world education’s emerging concepts. Indeed, there was some truth in that view. It was often noted that the content of the program and the degree of self-discipline required was more suitable for graduate students then for undergraduates. Many of the students were right out of high school and were full participants in the curriculum of the youth culture of the late Sixties. It was a lively time and studious self-discipline was not the period's strong point.

Despite Morris's disappointment with student readiness for his curriculum, the process of environmental education was really working. The students were simply taking in a different level of information. They were acutely attuned to the dissonance between ideals and reality and were drawing very different conclusions from what he expected. The environmental learning dynamic of Friends World College was beginning to chart its own course. It took several years and more community meetings than most of us care to remember to work through and accommodate the emerging student initiative for self-determined programs of study. Students were strongly attracted to environmental based learning and eager to utilize the guidance and expertise of faculty, but they had interests and concerns that outran the pre-set College program.

For the first two years the learning program was based mainly on group activities with opportunity for only short term individual study projects. In part. this was a fiscal consideration since program costs had been initially calculated on the discount rates available from airlines for booking the movement of student groups from one regional center to another. This arrangement soon proved unworkable as students began requesting to stay an extra semester in Kenya or go back to Europe rather than on to India. Environmental education was really taking hold and the learning and work-study priorities of an increasing number of students threatened to disrupt the orderly administration of the program. In hindsight it appears an entirely predictable problem: Introduce students to the elixir of direct environmental learning and the directions and patterns of exploration that will inevitably emerge will require an appropriately flexible administrative response.

By the fall of 1967 the demands of students abroad and the expectations of students at the North American Center were such that a medium level crisis was recognized by all. Morris agreed it was time for a little environmental learning on his part about the nature of students in the late Sixties. He understood that many students came with their own rather urgent personal agendas which often included questions of identity, self esteem, anger and alienation, Added to all this was the absolutely sickening expansion of the war in Viet Nam and the increasingly clear evidence that the American political establishment was quite prepared to violently suppress all demands for a significant change in policy. We were caught up in a social maelstrom, the full complexity and personal impact of which was hard to handle.

In my memory a turning point came when, in one of the many community meetings devoted to the question of program structure and process, a student, Roger Mann, said to Morris; "Morris, you believe in economic democracy, why don't you believe in educational democracy?" For some of us who knew Morris well it seemed a cruel and unfair question. But in this case it reflected exactly the position Morris had assumed with regard to accommodating student initiatives for program modification. Morris was a calm and deliberate speaker and it was rare for him not to have a ready reply or comment. But in this situation he just looked at Roger for what seemed like a long time and then made a half humorous diversionary remark. It didn't work. Roger's question was still in the air.

Another aspect of Morris's own commitment came to work against his view of how the College should proceed. From the outset, in his writing about the College, in his talking with students and faculty, Morris used the language of community. He spoke of the whole College being a community of learners and actively promoted the Quaker method of considering issues and reaching decisions. Mutual respect and the inclusion of everyone, including the service staff, in decision making gave the College a genuine sense of community process. When the conflict over the pre-set curriculum and the predetermined times of student movement came into sharp focus, the language of community, mutual respect and consensus decision making gave the students requests a framework of legitimacy that could not be denied. Documents of analysis and recommendation were drawn up. The problem solving techniques which students had been studying were now applied. Students from Europe and Africa sent impassioned requests for recognizing the validity of their self-determined programs. Students in Mexico and India were requesting changes in travel plans.

In the late fall of 1967 a general College meeting was called. Both the Board of Trustees and the New York Yearly Meeting Board of Overseers were requested to join all of us resident at the North American Center in an effort to understand what was happening to the College and to help decide what could be done to accommodate the increasing complexity of demands. One thing was clear: there was no lack of commitment. Everybody involved really cared. Students who had dropped out in frustration offered their perspective and even came back to campus to help out in the on going deliberations.

Three significant developments flowed from the general College meeting: (1) A new member of the Board of Trustees, Sidney Harman, emerged as a mediating influence; (2) A Central Coordinating Committee was appointed with representation from all levels of the College community. The CCC was mandated to carry on the discussion about restructuring the program and make recommendations to that effect; (3) A "world conference" was scheduled for summer 1968, bringing together students and faculty representatives from all regional centers for a general evaluation and re-visioning of the College programs.

Morris Mitchell, who was visibly stressed by all this turmoil, allowed Sidney Harman to become more and more the spokesman for the College vision of world education. But Sidney, who was an industrial entrepreneur, experienced at labor relations and negotiations, understood the validity of the turmoil. Sidney Harman, at this time still the chief executive of the Harman-Kardon Corporation, was a man of unusually diverse commitments. Some years previously he had commuted two and three days a week, via his private aircraft, over an extended time, to do volunteer teaching in the black schools of Prince Edward County, Virginia when the white school board of the county closed the entire school system rather than accept integration. Sidney Harman pioneered worker management in his manufacturing facilities and later became the Under Secretary of Labor in the Carter administration.

Sidney played a key role in the work of the Central Coordinating Committee. Our chief accomplishment was to work out the details of an independent study component for the College program and establish the Independent Program Committee. The Independent Program Committee established a system of proposal review, counseling, monitoring and evaluation which satisfied all concerned that a workable path had been found. Morris was apprehensive that if we once allowed independent study programs the College would fly apart and the unique orientation of world education, as he saw it, would be lost. No one wanted to see that happen. The CCC and the World Conference of 1968 both strongly confirmed Morris's vision of world education. The change was simply - or perhaps one should say "complexly" - to enlarge the scope of environmental learning according to student interests and expand the time available for study in any given region. As it eventually turned out most students came to develop deep attachments and on going interests in a particular region. Recognizing that this pattern was conducive to a better quality of learning, the requirements for graduation were modified from having to spend a semester in all six regional programs, to having become deeply engaged with at least two cultural regions other than one's own.

The other change that flowed from the introduction of the Independent Study Program option was a surge of interest in culture as such and in music, dance, drama, poetry, arts and crafts of culture. Many students were deeply interested in the religions and philosophies of other cultures. Again, in hindsight it seems obvious that an educational program that puts on its boots, rolls up its sleeves and walks right out into the great world environment will be stimulated by more than just the socio-economic realities of planet.

In 1969 Morris Mitchell, retired as president of Friends World College but continued, as Provost, to be active in the administration of the College. Sidney Harman became the new president and, following on the successful work of the Independent Program Committee, introduced further structural changes in this direction. Again, part of the rationale was fiscal, but this time from a different view. Group programs were becoming increasingly expensive. Emphasizing independent study programs made it possible to shift expenses that had originally been paid by the College, like travel and room and board, to the student.

Through the early 1970's this program direction became established as the pattern of the College and has continued to serve the varied interests of students. A common orientation is still part of each regional center's responsibility and group seminars are regularly provided. But a student now traveling through Friends World College is predominantly engaged in designing and carrying out his or her own program. It may include time spent auditing classes in economics at a university in India or working with abandoned children in Central America. It may include being part of a wildlife ecology research team in Kenya or helping to build a school in South Africa. It may include studying the desalination of sea water in the Middle East or living and working with the nomadic peoples of northern Scandinavia. It may include teaching English in China or studying Japanese language and drama in Kyoto. The list goes on and on in fascinating variety. And the stories of student adventures and their subsequent career paths are equally diverse and equally fascinating.

I should not leave you with the impression that the early years of Friends World College were all a glorious struggle. There were disasters stemming from a lack of cultural sensitivity. When Morris Mitchell encouraged students to think of themselves as agents of social change he neglected to say, but only in your home culture. Young men with shoulder length hair and young women in jeans promoting radical social values was not a recipe for good cross-cultural experience in many parts of the world. Some students of that era were on a pendulum swing away from being neat and tidy. When these students heard Morris Mitchell's injunction to "treat the world as your campus" we are not sure what they thought, but considering how they actually treated their campus and the fact that some students - presumably the same ones – were reported as treating the world as their trash can, we can conclude a significant shortfall of environmental learning.

Another behavior that caused problems was drug use. Morris could not fathom why students who were interested in understanding world problems and in becoming agents of creative social change would be interested in drug experiences. But this was the late Sixties; the North American Center was 20 miles from the East Village in Manhattan. Students were traveling to Mexico, London, Amsterdam, Africa, India and Nepal. The world of youth was awash with exotic substances. One observer tagged Friends World as "a traveling psychedelicatessen". That was unfair to the College as a whole but it was characteristic of a certain group of students.

The fact that Friends World advertised itself as a place for experiential learning put it in a curious position when dealing with the drug use. Of course, the learning that results from using psychoactive substances was not included in the College's educational horizon. But the program attracted some adventurous individuals who stretched the idea of experiential learning and of being an agent of social change to cover the use of drugs. Students who failed to accommodate themselves to regions which took a strict view on drug possession occasionally found themselves in serious trouble. Students suffered emotional breakdown in faraway places and had to be gotten home, Students were deported. Whole programs had to move. Administrative ineptness and financial misappropriation at regional centers had to be dealt with. Faculty problems and manipulative behavior by individuals with influence over the College tested the community's problem solving methods and Quaker conflict resolution skills.

This brings us to the great weakness of Friends World College. It never succeeded in attracting and incorporating more than a token number of non-North American students. It was simply too expensive and the scholarship money too slight. The original vision of the founding Committee and Morris Mitchell, of a multicultural student body mutually sensitizing, stimulating and enriching the learning experience, never came to pass. Regional centers have almost always been staffed by persons of the culture, and a small number of students from cultural regions other than North America have always been in the program, but the College has remained, mainly, an opportunity for young North Americans from relatively affluent settings. Because this element of cross-cultural learning often was absent from student interaction, intensive orientations to cross-cultural experience and behavior became an added focus of the North American Center program.

During the early years of Friends World College, when the structure and process were being developed and modified, I was in my early 30's. I understood and supported the kinds of changes that progressively broadened the scope of this new kind of environmental education - this world education. I had long discussions with Morris Mitchell about the importance, from a pedagogic point of view, of students, with the help of faculty advisors, designing their own learning programs. I still believe the direction the College took was the right one, perhaps the only one possible, considering the circumstances.

The College has worked well for many students. Has it worked well as a sustained catalyst for creative social change? Or has this emphasis become muted, a memory of the social consciousness of the Sixties? Has Friends World adapted to the ideology of individualism and mainstream career building? In part, this seems to be true, but the cultural mainstream is no longer monolithic. It has bifurcated and a powerful confluence of ecological, soft energy, liberationist. feminist, community organizing, human service, grass roots democracy, sustainable economics, and local arts and crafts movements now define an alternative mainstream option. It is not yet dominant but it is seeded in every region of the world in some form. Many students entering Friends World College became educated to this confluence of movements for social betterment and ecological integrity, and found their niche in its unfolding. It is not exactly what Morris Mitchell had in mind, but it is definitely in the same tradition. If he were living I am sure he would recognize its continuity with his vision. The College, like the Society of Friends that founded it, has had an influence on higher education quite out of proportion to its size. Friends World College stands as one of the seminal institutions in an educational revolution. It helped open up a panoramic concept and practice of learning which has not only generated similarly innovative programs across the face of education, but has altered basic assumptions about relevance and social commitment,

There is also a darker side in all this reminiscence. I realize in a new way that Morris Mitchell was right in his emphasis on understanding the structure of economic activity and social organization. As we all know by now - or should know - human betterment in the long run depends entirely on the preservation of ecosystem integrity. And ecosystem integrity is exactly what the world wide, high energy, capital driven market economy is destroying. The capital driven, command economies have done even worse. Economics is the key.

I have suggested that Friends World College pioneered a new definition of environmental education, a definition that includes learning about everything, for example, from woodlot management to organic gardening to municipal composting systems; from refugee resettlement to literacy work to intergenerational housing design; from sumi painting to video production to landscape architecture; from bicycle repair to solar voltaics to bio-gas cookers; from organizing a health information collective to peace tax lobbying to non-violent direct action on ecosystem protection - and all accomplished by direct engagement with process and people. But behind and around all this great diversity of opportunity for learning hangs the question of economics - the way we adapt to and utilize Earth's ecosystems - and the fact that in the last 25 years the destructive impact of economic activity on the integrity of the Ecosphere has vastly intensified.

Nothing any of us has done has appreciably altered the momentum of destruction. All our environmental education of whatever definition or practice has, thus far, been to no avail. The great hope of Morris Mitchell, and of those who worked with him, that education, effectively employed, could become an instrument of human survival and betterment is far from fulfillment. Perhaps a caveat is in order: At least the arms race of the Cold War is over and survival on that score seems advanced. Degradation of biosphere fecundity remains, however, an equally ominous sword of Damocles over our heads.

I am not constitutionally a pessimist and it does not please me to strike this note at the end of an otherwise hopeful and upbeat report. But I think we cannot honestly avoid acknowledging the desperateness of our ecological, and by extension, our economic and social situation. Neither am I a radical in the conventional left-wing sense. But I have, never-the-less, come to the conclusion that our economic system must change, that the capital driven market economy must be replaced because its innate expansionist dynamic has, apparently, no countervailing mechanism of limitation that will prevent it from driving the planetary ecosystems into collapse. There is, of course, a control on human economic activity within the ecosphere. That is what “collapse” means – ecological limitation. It would be nice, and sign of intelligence, if we could manage to put in our own limitations somewhat earlier. The activity of “marketing” is not, in itself, the problem. The market process must mature out of its simplistic motivation – the production and accumulation of money – and take on a more challenging and complex task – the production of social value and ecosystem strength and resilience. We need an ecologically determined social economy.

As I compressed decades of study, environmental education, work and business experience into the previous few lines, I had a strong sense of Morris Mitchell’s presence. They are not exactly his words, but I think his spirit would be satisfied that we, who shared a few intense years with him, have not abandoned the cause.

I have gone on a long time, but in truth I am barely started. In planning this presentation I made an outline and I have not covered half of it. Having made this start in recording those legendary early years at Friends World, I hope others will join the task. I thank you all for having given me the opportunity to get started. In summing up, it can be said that Friends World College was very often a life changing experience for both students and faculty. Having that intensity of contact with that diversity of human cultures, seeing various conditions of people and environments - some in strength and beauty, some in poverty and devastation - changed people in ways that nothing else could have accomplished. I remember students reflecting on their experiences with the almost surprised realization that they no longer saw things from a North American point of view. The magic that Morris Mitchell knew was latent in experientially based world education had worked. These students had become world citizens. And that, to my mind, is the highest kind of environmental education.

Keith Helmuth


150 Chapel Street

Woodstock, New Brunswick E7M 1H4



Canada

ekhelmuth@mindspring.com
June 1991 – August 2008


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