A Visitor’s Meditation on Experiencing Marlboro College
Magandang araw po sa inyong lahat! I just said “a beautiful morning to you!” in the language of my parents, Tagalog.
The quilt on my bed at the Whetstone Inn invites me to gather the materials I will piece together into a whole for us to think about this morning. The materials are flutterings of images and thoughts from this visitor (me) with a contrarian streak, a habit of speaking fire in my belly, usually in the form of being an angry critic of higher education, what it fails to do or doesn’t do well enough to address the urgent, intractable social issues that cause so many millions to suffer and to die. Imagine what such a person can stir up, given three whole days to find what’s wrong at Marlboro College.
What have I taken note of at Marlboro College? 24-hour library, teapot at the front desk, meditation pillows below shelves of books. Inner sanctum: the Plan Room. Rows and rows of Plans of Concentration in black bindings, a special universe in itself. Bequeathing a legacy, adding to ancestry. DNA of Marlboro….
Dining Hall. Talking face-to-face at long tables, no one more special than another. No reserved seating. Pottery on display, for sale, leading to interactions, not really about cash….
The greenhouse students built, seedlings popping up in raised boxes, getting ready for the farm beyond. Even further out, the creek: water songs I haven’t heard in drought-stricken California….
The buildings don’t stick out boldly into this clearing. They speak of the everyday, the quotidian, the cooking, eating, meeting, talking, playing and making stuff—whatever necessary due diligence for creating, sustaining, challenging, repairing community—to make community a kindly space for individual journeys …
Faculty describing rich intellectual and personal journeys. But there are also phrases, like “a lot of stretching, a lot of work.” I see wide open faces with easy smiles, bodies relaxed: the words are statements of fact, not a regret about a choice to be here. Faculty mingling at dinner for graduating seniors. Faculty toasts. Laughter, silliness. Exposures of vulnerability, signs of connectedness, of trust …
The stories. At every turn, there is a story. To recognize story, to tell it, to hear it, to pass it on is like breathing here. I am told that, because each individual matters in such a small community, the community narrative shifts and changes with the cycles of coming and going. I ask: “why did you come? What do you like about this place?” and the stories flow. They are like declarations of love of this place as it is. For with all its flaws and faults, this Marlboro clearing can continually become the space it needs to be for each who seeks. I am not suspicious of these sentiments, because the stories of seeking are deep, if not driven, the seekers’ questions are ones you spend years or even a lifetime exploring …
But the vistas of mountains and wilderness make me wonder: is this clearing—this space shaped for purposes that are self-interested in good ways—is it insular? Is Marlboro like a monastery that is closed in order to transcend the noise of the world? Or is it a filtering out of the unnecessary, to avoid distractions, precisely to focus with greater clarity on urgent issues of our times?
These questions about Marlboro reflect what matters to me and why in higher education. But lest you think I am about to unleash an angry critique, I should relieve you of that anxiety. As it turns out, I am somewhat disoriented by my visit here. I am very comfortable with a fighting energy, less so with what I have been feeling here. I am suspicious of it, but, yes, I do feel a calm confidence saying this out loud: in the areas of civic education, service-learning, community-based learning, and many other names for an approach to education I have spent years as a practitioner and advocate, Marlboro has the elements that indicate its direction is headed True North. For me, True North in my area of education work means that the college is already oriented in significant ways towards learning from, and with, communities organized to address challenges they face. Let me tell you why I think this is so about Marlboro. And then I will conclude with offering a challenge that I hope will add to what energizes you as you transition to new journeys beyond Marlboro.
Two stories: one personal, and the other I heard about and have been haunted by it ever since. The first story is in honor of a peasant leader, Mang Ando. I was doing volunteer work with an organization that offered legal assistance to peasants. I was just a beginning college student at the University of the Philippines and was new to paying attention to conditions of life for the poor in the Philippines. To be honest, I was mostly a learner and less of a useful volunteer. The group vowed to fight in the courts to defend the peasant community against a claim made on the land where Mang Ando’s community had lived for decades. Unlike the peasants who were suspicious of the ability of “experts” to successfully win their cause, I was thoroughly impressed with the skills of highly educated professionals committed to a noble cause.
The peasants lost in the courts. What happened next is seared in my memory. I am standing in the fields with Mang Ando. The bulldozers would come the next day to clear out the land where his community lived. I was not thinking of Mang Ando, what he was feeling as a leader of a community who would shortly lose more than just the simple structures they called home. I am the “city girl” with many privileges and a sense of self-importance about what I was “sacrificing” for “others” who need “help.” I am thinking about what courses I should take next, when I returned to campus. “Maybe I’ll have more skills to help do a better job,” I say out loud.
Mang Ando turned to me. I can still see his bare feet, as I looked down, then upwards towards his face. In flowery Tagalog, he spoke to me with kindly eyes: “some things are not for you to choose; they are chosen for you to do.”
Mang Ando’s village is about to be bulldozed, yet I have blurted out a self-centered question. At the time I felt the weight of my questions in the face of our defeat in a fight we waged on behalf of Mang Ando’s community. The community we were helping. I felt the glimmerings of shame then, but the shame has increased with the passing of years since then. I am not as clueless today as I once was. I have since become aware of the complexities of power and privilege, the layers of colonial history and legal titles for tracts of land once held in common, agribusiness pushing out subsistence farming, idealistic college students who assume that, through their sacrifice and generosity, the benefits of privileged education can be applied to benefit the poor.
I want to tell about another community. We shift from the Philippines to another part of the world, this time a small village of subsistence farmers in southern France called Le Chambón-sur-Lignon. Over a period of years, this small community gave refuge to several thousand Jews fleeing the Holocaust.
Hearing about Le Chambón haunted me with a question: could we create a college designed to emulate what the people of Le Chambón chose to do, and do it successfully on behalf of those would would have otherwise lost their lives? If the answer is “yes,” what would that college look like? What would be taught there? It would be a big shift from the conventional content-based curriculum of ethical “know what” to a more multi-dimensional and multi-modal “know how.”
So here is where Marlboro enters the picture.
I will need you to work with me. Imagine that this circle [drawing a large circle in the air] represents the entire universe of knowledge, skills, know-how, attitudes—all that we need to learn in order to have the capacity to ethically and effectively address the urgent, intractable issues of our times. Imagine further that this “wedge”—this slice of the circle—represents academic-based learning, that which follows a tradition of rules of inquiry and standards of rigor that we identify as “academic” in the U.S.
What is in the rest of the circle? It is a big space! I imagine that space to be filled with many things not ordinarily a primary focus of college curricula: compassion, tolerance, kindness, standing up against injustice, building a well for clean water, sustainable farming, bearing witness to the poor, wisdom. Character formation, developing and sustaining community, to name but two we urgently need to learn, that require crossing many boundaries and “categories” of knowledge, of ways of knowing.
I have argued with colleagues that the communities “out there” are inappropriately identified primarily as beneficiaries of college students and faculty doing community service. Community service and engagement is now a familiar part of the landscape of American higher education. But what ought to be good news often makes me cringe, because the “outcomes” are often reported as hundreds of student volunteer work equivalent to a certain dollar value in the community. Or for colleges concerned about academic standards, research focuses on giving evidence for “learning outcomes.”
In the face of many issues that do not call for one more competing theory of poverty or more data, and, instead, require compassion, tolerance, love, courage, and follow-through, we need to learn from Mang Ando and his community their resilience against the odds of systems of oppression, the generous wisdom and compassion I experienced in their care, even as one more group of student and professionals descend to save them. And we need to learn from the moral brilliance of the people of Le Chambón—their capacity to know what is right to do, to decide to do it, and to attend to the hundreds of daily details of organizing and living with their choice to give refuge, over a sustained period of time, to people who would have otherwise perished with the many thousands in the Holocaust.
Let’s shift to Marlboro of the here and now. What did I notice at Marlboro that I think fits with my memory of Mang Ando and the history of Le Chambón? It is part of Marlboro to be interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, and transdisciplinary in teaching and learning. Perhaps this tradition could be stretched to include what I am calling “trans-epistemic,” to be inclusive of diverse epistemologies. Shall we call this “democratic knowledge?” I describe this as an ethic of knowledge inclusivity. It is about including the entire universe of knowledge—of the whole circle—including community ways of knowing, and not a privileging of mostly the one part we call “academic.”
What else did I notice at Marlboro that offers a foundation for engaging with the urgent issues of our times? For most of my earlier life, I have been driven by the dystopic, by a focus on analyses of colonialism, sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, and more, and how to fight back in social justice movement struggles. But after living for seven years with 100 undergraduates, my husband, two children, and two dogs, I have come to appreciate that there is a skill in the craft of community-building.
What I learned from my experience with Mang Ando is captured best in Parker Palmer’s essay on community, in which he said (and I paraphrase) that community calls on our capacities for “love of learning and love of learners.” With great care, Mang Ando addressed the learner (me), even as I queried about what courses to take (presumably indicative of love of learning).
We seem to be comfortable knowing what “love of learning” looks like and feels like, but “love of learners” seems more elusive, challenging. Yet what I have noted here at Marlboro is an expectation for mutuality and reciprocity, for relatedness, which are elements of community partnerships. To the extent that these qualities of relationships are embodied in egalitarian campus customs and democratic practices, such as Town Meetings, then the preparation for community engagement is already integral to Marlboro.
The other element in Marlboro is a culture of participation in creating one’s own social reality, of one’s own community. I think of this as cultivating a habit of daily artistry, the art of creating a social aesthetic, a beautiful community, a civic arts. It is the art of creating here and now small scale experiments of our utopic vision of the “good.”
I have visited many colleges across the country, and I can affirm what you already know: what you take for granted here is a rarity.
Will you continue to carry out the civic arts you learned at Marlboro? What will you do to continue participating in Marlboro’s life by ensuring it continues to teach others many more years and many hundreds more learners after you?
Let me end with a confession. Before coming to your campus, I had decided to abandon altogether what has felt like a futile effort to include Mang Ando and the people of Le Chambón in the circle of knowledge we urgently need, and without which we are inadequately educated to address the urgent issues of our times. My visit here has renewed my energies, the fire in my belly.
Thank you, not for what you have mastered or accomplished, but for daring to become who you are today and for what you will dare to continue becoming.