Editor’s note: Vermont By Degrees is a series of weekly columns written by representatives of colleges and universities from around the state about the challenges facing higher education at this time.

A paradox of life in 21st century America is we simultaneously experience a hyper-connectedness facilitated by digital technology, yet a hyper-disconnectedness from a place, a community, from nature and perhaps, from a purpose. This experience can be all the more poignant for young people. Sterling College, a small liberal arts college in Craftsbury Common up in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, seeks to challenge this paradox of the modern age through an experiential education that provides students with the tools to do good work within, and for, a community and place, all informed by ecological thinking.

What is ecological thinking? At Sterling, we recognize the natural world is the backdrop for, and facilitator of, everything we do. It is also a teacher. Ecologists know that to study the functioning of the natural world, is to embrace complexity, thinking of relationships not as a sort of linear cause-and-effect but as a complex network of interconnected ties. Pulling on one tie causes all the connected ones to respond in some way. Of course, we take “ecological thinking” literally, with all students at Sterling gaining a foundational understanding of ecology, the science. But we also recognize ecological thinking as a way of approaching an understanding of human systems: the education system, the agricultural and food systems, and our cultural systems, for example.

Ecological analogies are easy. In Vermont, one could consider local businesses each to be a “species” within an economic community, each dependent on the others for the supply of their goods and the market for their goods, potentially facilitating, potentially competing. Within a community, farms, factories, shops, garages, hotels, public schools and colleges are all part of a network. When a college closes (goes extinct? is removed from the food web?) the ripple effect among the other community members can be profound and unpredictable. Of course, the reverse is true. The presence of a small college in a rural community has profound effects. Thus far in the analogy, we are only considering economic linkages. However, at Sterling College, with its place-based experiential curriculum, it is not only the economics of the institution that are interwoven with the local community, but the curriculum, too — another layer of complexity that ties the college to place.

Let us take the example of the new woodshop at Sterling College. At first glance, this woodshop presents as a well-organized, slightly dusty space capable of supporting around 10 students in a woodworking class. But hear it like this, instead: Sterling College recently acquired the space from Craftsbury Academy, the neighboring public high school. Through the agreement made at the time of transfer, the college now, and hopefully well into the future, will provide classes in which the local teenagers can learn woodworking alongside Sterling students while gaining academic credit that can be applied to an undergraduate degree. The shop has been outfitted with many machines gifted by local community members, and by other tools purchased through a fund created from an auction of hand-crafted items made and donated by Sterling College alumni.

The wood used in the shop is harvested off the college campus, felled by students learning the skills of axe and chainsaw, of forest management and how to read the landscape. The timber is pulled off the land by the heft of the college’s draft animals, again, an educational act, as the work is embedded within one of the classes of Sterling’s Draft Animal Management program. The wood is sawn by a local sawyer, then worked in the woodshop by those aforementioned students. Their culminating work is presented in the annual Wood & Art Show, an event open to the public and celebrated with a community dinner, a dinner highly likely to comprise food produced from the college farm and other local producers. With that context, you can see a woodworking class becomes far more than just a woodworking class. It is, instead, a facet of a network of ecological thinking and action that ties a community together and to its place.

This is a model of education that could be, and should be, applied anywhere. It is not by chance Sterling College was the chosen partner of The Berry Center in Henry County, Kentucky, to launch the Wendell Berry Farming Program. This program takes the template of the Sterling College sustainable agriculture curriculum and rebuilds it for the particular place of rural north-central Kentucky. The curriculum experientially teaches farm-based skills of animal husbandry, pasture management and draft animal power and places them into a context by examining the intersections of landscape, food and culture, and using literature as a window into the rural experience.

Relationships with the wider community are developed through classes in community organizing and rural leadership. Our vision is one shared by The Berry Center, that these students upon graduating put down their roots in the rural community and farm, and connect with people, place and nature. It appears to be working here in Vermont — although only around 20% of our graduates hail from Vermont, around 40% of them stay in Vermont.

When learning can be like this, you revel in the possibilities …

Dr. Laura Spence is dean of academics at Sterling College.

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