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Talks by John Last Updated: Sep 8th, 2009 - 08:07:52

Finland Woods Learning Center for Community and the Environment

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I've been involved with at least six Learning Centers for social change in my life. I'm going to speak briefly from memory about lessons I've absorbed from each of these six:

FIRST, Interlochen Music Camp in Northern Michigan founded by Joseph Maddy. Interlochen is on two beautiful lakes. It gave young people a chance to interact with such famous musicians as Percy Grainger and Howard Hansen. No lectures, just practice, performances, and radio broadcasts. As a teenager in Detroit, I went to Interlochen early in World War Two, to be an announcer for some of its musical radio broadcasts.

LESSON ONE: A beautiful natural setting provides an opportunity for people to grow in ways they might not in hectic urban areas. But please be patient with some of us city-bred bookish types. I always carried a book with me at Interlochen and I had my nose buried in a book as I was walking the paths here when I first visited Finland Woods. I was not even looking to see where I was going. I'll never forget the laughter that sight provoked among the more nature-loving folks here. Some of us take longer than others to respond to the power of nature. A lot longer!

THE SECOND learning center I was involved with was the FDR-CIO Camp near Port Huron, Michigan. I was there as part of my work for the Michigan CIO Education Department led by the late great Bill Kemsley. Another camp on lake fronts, this time much more rustic and run-down, but a wonderful place to get into small groups to discuss labor union issues, relax away from grueling factory jobs, and belt out radical songs with gusto.

LESSON TWO: Allow plenty of time for just plain relaxation. Encourage people, but don't force them, to join in all the activities such as singing. I remember one night a bunch of us were guzzling beer and singing. A woman with the old International Ladies Garment Workers Union turned to some of the members of the young United Auto Workers and said sadly, "Just wait till your union is fifty years old, like ours. You won't be having as much fun then."

THIRD, The Highlander Education Center in Tennessee. I've known about, or been associated with, Highlander since I worked with the CIO. It's probably the most prominent learning center for social change in North America. There's a lot to learn from it, but I caution you not to get too caught up in its myths. I was leading a group there once, discussing the importance of exploring feelings as well as rational issues. After the discussion was over, which went very well, Myles Horton, the co-founder of Highlander, came up to me and said, "You know, exploring feelings won't work, it just gets in the way of social action." Later Myles' son, Thorsten, told me that it was his father's unwillingness to permit inquiry into emotional interactions which led to so many internal fights at Highlander.

LESSON THREE: Find ways of encompassing both the head and the heart in your work. Find ways of balancing both. Don't let one sweep away your concern with the other.

FOURTH, the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions outside of Santa Barbara, California. The illustrious adult educator Robert Maynard Hutchins set up this center at a mansion on beautiful rolling landscape. I went there a couple times. Also since the beginning of this year I have been engaging in email discussions with one of its leaders, Harvey Wheeler, the co-author of the best-selling anti-nuclear novel *Fail-Safe*.
This center wasn't a place that invited a lot of people to get together to work on issues. It was more confined to small groups of intellectuals who discussed the basic questions behind a current issue. The Center then published the results of their discussions. Some of these publications led to discussions by others and to social action, like helping to end blacklisting. As Harvey Wheeler emailed me a few weeks ago: "The Center was dedicated to two things: to be a D E W, a doo line, a Distant Early Warning system for social and political issues; and to apply a version of the Socratic Dialogue approach to public policy research. Policy papers were refined in at least one such session before being published." Harvey Wheeler concludes: "We have nothing like this today."

LESSON FOUR: Consider the possibility of publishing as part of your work. It could be a way of spreading the center's value.

FIFTH, Selkirk Community College in Castlegar, British Columbia. I was the first director of continuing education at this first true community college in Canada. Gordon Campbell, its first principal, set it up to be a focus of community concerns, not just a place to take classes and get a diploma. Following Campbell's lead I arranged for public forums on controversial issues. These forums were very successful. But the whole approach was quashed when Campbell was forced out and Selkirk became just one more junior college, an extension of high school.

In the fall of 1982 I delivered a talk at several universities in Canada and the United States. Michael Marien, the editor of the magazine *Future Survey*, prepared a chart for me pointing to the two main views of what a future society might be like. The first view was that it could be a technological, top-down, service society seeing the "good life" as affluence and leisure with high-tech technology solving problems leading to mastery of the environment. The second view of the future Michael Marien charted in 1982 posits an ecological, decentralized society. The "good life" in the second is useful work, peace, self-fulfillment, and appropriate technology leading to harmony with the environment. Is there any doubt that in the 15 years since 1982 society, with the thrust of dominant institutions like universities, has moved even further toward the "technological, top-down, society," or that we now face even worse environmental and social crises as a result of that thrust?

LESSON FIVE: The lesson I learned from my experience at Selkirk College and from experiences since is to be wary of, to beware of, too close association with powerful and dominating institutions like standard-brand universities. If you must work with them, do it like porcupines make love, very carefully. Don't get caught up in offering regular classes for credit or offering pieces of paper in the form of degrees, diplomas, or certificates.

SIXTH, the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico. This is the center set up by Ivan Illich, the author of *Deschooling Society* and many other provocative books. It was a very stimulating place to visit. A lot of lively informal discussions took place there, especially in a little open-air cafe called "La Cucaracha," The Cockroach. All six of the learning centers I'm mentioning here existed in the shadow of charismatic leaders. Such leaders are important but shouldn't be allowed to dominate. One way of avoiding such domination is to provide many open spaces like "La Cucaracha," where people can eat, drink, let down their hair, and find their own paths away from the charismatic leaders.

Also, the sense of humor in naming a place to eat "The Cockroach" is crucial to a good Learning Center.

LESSON SIX: A poem from the ancient work *Tao Te Ching* carries an essential lesson about leadership. It's one of 81 in the work of the legendary Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. It's the one most often quoted by such world-renowned adult educators as Horace Kallen and Myles Horton. It's called "Natural Simplicity":

"Leaders are best
When people barely know they exist,
Not so good when people obey and acclaim them,
Worst when people despise them.
'Fail to honor people,
They fail to honor you.'
But of good leaders, who talk little,
When their work is done, their aim fulfilled,
People will say, 'We did this ourselves.'"

FINALLY, I'd like to touch on an experience I had here at Finland Woods. It's a great honor to be invited today for the opening of this "Learning Center for Community and the Environment." Not so long ago, I was pleased to be invited to lead a small informal weekend gathering here for area residents. I tried to keep the atmosphere open and flexible by offering what I called an "Unlearning Workshop." "Unlearning" is a very elusive term. It does NOT just mean wiping the slate clean of bad lessons and starting over.

SO, ONE LAST LESSON: The fuller, but still ambiguous, meaning of unlearning comes through in another verse from Lao Tzu called:


If it is not moving you can hold on to it;
If it is still in the planning stages you can stop it;
If it is brittle you can shatter it;
If it is tiny you can scatter it.
Act when there is yet nothing to do.
Govern where there is yet no disorder.

Though, as naturally as a seed becomes a giant tree,
There can rise a giant construction project from one shovelful of earth.
Or, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Try to improve it, you spoil it;
Try to grab it, you lose it.
Therefore the wise do not act, so they do not ruin things.
They do not grasp, so they do not lose.

People often spoil their work at the point of its completion.
With care at the end as well as the beginning,
No work will be spoiled.

Wisely, you will desire to be desireless,
Not hungering for rarities.
You will learn to unlearn,
Regaining what everyone else is missing.
You could assist in the self-becoming of all beings,
But you dare not do it."

Offering that verse from Lao Tzu as one potential creed, I join with all of you here in welcoming the opening of the Finland Woods Learning Center for Community and the Environment.

© Copyright 2004 John

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