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25 Years Of Schumacher College

By: Julia Ponsonby
Head Of Food

When I arrived at the Old Postern, for Schumacher College’s first course, in January 1991, I didn’t imagine to what extent my life was going to change and I didn’t dream for a moment that I would be living on this very campus for the next 25 years – with one of the College’s founding teachers!  My plan was simply to deepen my understanding of Gaia Theory, and get back to Westminster where I was becoming increasingly involved in the Green Party.  I had heard Jonathan Porritt and Sarah Parkin talk at St Martin in the Fields and St James’s Piccadilly and through this route had come across Jim Lovelock’s GAIA THEORY, which I found to be an inspiring and revolutionary concept: I believed that understanding the science of the living earth system was a ‘must’ for anyone wanting to know how the environment ticks.  To come to a place where Jim Lovelock himself was to be the first teacher was a great draw. I also liked the mix of other teachers offered on this first course – Jules Cashford teaching the myth of Gaia, Peter Bunyard talking about the amazon rainforest, Alan Dyer leading walks in the woods and lots of practical and creative stuff going on to sandwich it all together -  printing, bookbinding, wood turning, dancing, music making, walks on Dartmoor.  I even liked the sound of working with other people to keep the place clean and the people fed.

If I look back on how the College has changed since that first jam-packed course on Gaia Theory, I can see that it has really matured and developed a backbone of serious academic study and focus, mainly through the development of the postgraduate programmes.  I was quite surprised that on the first course, there was no requirement to do any written work – every day was like going to a small Schumacher lecture.  There were opportunities to ask questions and have great discussions but I missed the real anchoring of my learning that, when at university, I had found came through writing essays.  On the other hand, I enjoyed the lack of pressure and this contributed to the party atmosphere.

This year some of the post grad students have showed a very particular and persistent interest in discovering how Stephan and I “got together”.   I couldn’t understand why they were so interested and I really thought they would give up probing us both pretty quickly, but they didn’t!  However, when I pondered over this surprising interest, I thought to myself “we’ve now been at the College for so long, that they could be our children – and doesn’t every child want to know the story of their father and mother’s romance”? Stephan and I met on the first course - and on the second course Stephan met Helena Norberg Hodge and was inspired by the work she was doing in Ladakh.  Helena invited Stephan to spend the summer working with her in Ladakh, and Stephan invited me to join him! For many years our time at Schumacher College was punctuated by similar long periods living aboard – up to 3 months a year, usually due to a teaching invitation given to Stephan as a result of the very international group that comes to Schumacher College, and still does.  We’ve had many plans to leave and once it was even printed in a newsletter that we were going to Australia!  But somehow we’re still here, and I feel that because we so nearly left on so many occasions, it is as if we have been re-born to our purpose in being here over and over again.   

Of course, it is more difficult to leave when you live somewhere, because it means leaving your home and job in one go.  At the beginning of the College all the five Core Staff (Brian, Karen, Helen, Guy and Stephan) lived on site – now we are the only ones left.  Satish always escaped back to Hartland after his visits to the College – or wherever else might be going in his very busy life of teaching.   Once I “semi-left” the College!  This was when our son Oscar was born, fifteen years ago.  However, because I still lived at the college, I continued to help out doing the rotas, making birthday cakes and such like.   After 3 years I went back to the kitchen joining Wayne Schroeder who had taken over from me as Head of Food – and for ten years  I enjoyed doing much less in the kitchen.  When Wayne left, I returned to full time work and we assembled the current kitchen team of Tara, Sarah and Ruth (with Liz and Cya as variable hours staff).  The next change may be coming soon when Tara moves to create a new community café at Dartington – and this will itself be an expression of Schumacher College values spreading into and embracing the wider Dartington Trust that gave birth to it, and whose own progressive values allowed Schumacher to be - for without Dartington’s continued financial support (and perhaps the enriching sense of place the Dartington context lends) the College would not be here today.

Schumacher College really is a magical place.  The people who come here to study are almost uniformly delightful and thoughtful – concerned about the earth and about each other.  Not only that, they are creative and funny! The people who work here (about five times as many as there were 25 years ago!), care about everyone and about the same things  - or they wouldn’t be here – so it is a lovely working atmosphere. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to see where work and the rest of life begins and end!  As a cook, I’ve had all sorts of learning to me brought on a plate – all sorts of culinary techniques.  Now, the great focus (that is to say the great challenge) is on cooking local , harnessing and optimising the great bounty of the expanded Schumacher Garden that is so wonderful to experience, brought and grown by Jane, Aidan and our team of horticultural students known as the Growers.  This situation would so deeply delight many of the most profound teachers of ecological education that have come to teach at Schumacher college over the 25 years we have been running, and who sometimes noted a lack of gardening as a significant absence.

When I was attending my first course one of the staff anticipated that the Schumacher College might last a couple of years – it was a typical Dartington experiment that would fizzle out quite quickly – but it didn’t and it hasn’t.  And the great thing is that Schumacher College seems able to adapt to changing communication systems and identify and embrace low-tech needs as well.  When I first came to Schumacher College there was no internet, no skype-calls,  no home-made bread, no bicycles to borrow, no vegetable patch, no compost loo and (as mentioned earlier) no qualifications to be gained from a stay at the college.  The courses were too long for people to get time off work, and too short to cover material for any qualification. The fact that Schumacher College has been able to gradually expand and diversify and package its educational offering in a form that allows people who seek a transformative education to be able to access it,  and list it on their CVs,   and also experience coherent richness during their stays, shows the College as a survivor.   I am sure that this will continue so long as all those who manage the College continue keeping tabs on what individuals and a sustainable society most needs.  The real secret is I believe that we all feel responsible for Schumacher College – because it has treated us well, we care about this place. We are its stakeholders and we do not feel separate from its management, or unable to influence the future of our Small-is-Beautiful College.

Julia coordinates the catering two days a week. Before the birth of Stephan and Julia’s son Oscar in 2001, Julia worked full time as the Catering Manager and put together the college cookbook Gaia’s Kitchen which won the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for best veggie cookbook in 2001