Is this a model for serious education reform? Theodore Richards and The Chicago Wisdom Project.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Theodore Richards, director and founder of The Chicago Wisdom Project, to discuss his ideas regarding contemporary education. The conversation left me inspired and quite moved.
The Chicago Wisdom Project is a non-profit, holistic education program that focuses on students’ creative expression and contemplation of the self. They teach mindfulness, meditation, and they partner with educators and institutions around Chicago, but also run a farm in Michigan.
I’ll quote the vision from their website:
- Students should complete a creative project, giving them a sense of their ability to accomplish something meaningful.
- Students should expand their sense of who they are by seeing themselves as part of a broader community and as having deeper connections to their ancestors.
- Students should begin to see the future in terms of possibilities rather than limitations.
- Students should have the confidence, after completing their rite of passage and their project, to teach others.
- Students should have a sense of their passion, that which gives their lives meaning
- Students should be aware of the issues that face their community and other communities around the world and how those issues are interconnected.
- Students should have a greater appreciation for nature.
It’s this last point, the appreciation of nature and its connection to the creative process, which originally intrigued me. The Wisdom Project teaches permaculture and allows students to go on retreats and to learn about growing food ecologically in their small farm, called the Wisdom Farm.
While the people who attend these programs are younger than my community college students, Theodore Richards and I serve essentially the same socioeconomically disadvantaged residents of our city.
After listening to him describe his mission and experiences, I’m convinced that most of my students, but especially young men, would benefit tremendously by doing something like this, and that community colleges around the country would be well served to invest in some of these philosophies and methods, perhaps in the same way that 4-year colleges include “study abroad” sessions as part of so many majors. My students don’t need language or math education as much as they first need some time to learn to place themselves into a greater context, and to understand how to reflect and feel comfortable learning.
Without getting too technical or using too much educator lingo, I feel that community colleges like mine do students a great disservice by focusing as strongly as we do on “outcome based education”. The way this works is that “expected outcomes” are compiled and listed. (The list above pokes a bit of ironic fun at the kind that end up in college course data forms or syllabi.) A course is deemed effective if students, assessed after completion, show they’ve met the outcomes.
Especially in the subjects I teach—Humanities and Rhetoric—certain things are simply impossible to quantify or measure with any precision, and assessing them depends on an evaluator’s experience, good taste, intuition or feel. Teaching is, after all, an art.
Our society isn’t very comfortable with this. We want to quantify everything to have “solid data” measurable and comparable to other results. While there’s plenty of virtue here, we’ve gotten too caught up in it. It’s as if we wish the exploration of the mind were identical to building a truss.
I’m an artist and also an amateur (but fairly serious) organic gardener, and I can tell you fthere are very strong similarities between the creative process and the life cycle of a garden.
As a parent who gardens with my children, a girl and a boy, I notice how much they learn from something as simple as planting tomatoes or coming out each morning to see how many strawberries have ripened for breakfast.
They know food does not come “from a store”. But there are greater lessons: delayed gratification, patience, awareness of variables that harm or aid growth. My children feel the joy of collecting food and the pleasure of sharing it with neighbors. The greatest lesson of all is that they see their intimate connection to nature, not the common delusion that they are separate.
The creative process, of course, is natural. It is not an artifice we impose on ourselves. To create, one must allow ideas to come, let them take their course as we also guide them. Creative ideas grow. Sometimes they’ll be attacked by weeds or insects. They’ll dry up in the sun or get washed away. People will taste them and like or hate them. They are born, ripen, rot and die, yet they are never “finished” completely; they lead to other ideas in endless cycles.
The most valuable lesson of exploring one’s creativity, especially for a young person, is that we wish to perfect things but can never be perfect. Creating—cultural participation vs. cultural consumption—is a process. Its purpose is to journey, not to arrive.
The Chicago Wisdom Project is teaching all these things and building community in the process. Most notably, it is a place where, alongside girls, boys can explore, safely and in numbers, their emotions and ideas. They can express them freely. The goal is not to gather a “bunch of skills” that will one day help them become providers. Instead, the boys in these programs do what very few contemporary school settings allow them. They get to feel, accept themselves feeling and share that feeling with others. They contemplate and process what gives them meaning, not what value they might one day offer someone else.
If we had truly daring and visionary education reformers working in our government and in our schools, we’d be looking at programs like this one and finding ways to make them the rule and not the rare exception.
Photo of Chicago Wisdom Project students by Michael Relstab
True Community runs each Wednesday. Gint Aras explores his experiences as an instructor in a community college that serves a lower-middle to lower class district in Chicagoland.
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