In my book Transfiguration, a kind of manual of practical Sophiology, among other things I propose the idea that what the world needs now is to take up the idea of the hedge school. Hedge schools were part of Irish society when that brave nation was under the domination of Britain and the only schooling available to the Irish was an Anglo-version that did its best to erase Ireland’s culture, history, and religion from the Irish imagination. The British educational model, much like modern secular schools that promote the “gender spectrum” silliness or the residential schools to which Native Americans were subject, was essentially a program of propaganda and “social engineering.” The Irish weren’t having it and ran their clandestine hedge schools—illegal until Catholic emancipation in 1829—in barns and other places outside the panopticon of the Empire.
The hedge schools were a prime example of what later came to be called a “parallel polis” promoted by Válcav Havel and other Eastern European dissidents under Communism and which also included the idea of “the flying university” in Poland that had also been in existence from the late 19th century. I have written on the parallel polis here and you can hear my conversation with Mike Sauter on the topic from last summer.
The time is certainly ripe for the regeneration of the parallel polis and the hedge school. I have been in education for the past thirty years, and it is a toxic, disorganized mess. And that’s on a good day. On a bad day, and there are many, it is an environment inhospitable to creative or original thought, or any thought that deviates from a very narrowly proscribed set of allowed opinions. Not only have the alleged concerns for social justice (usually neither social nor just) compromised the educational project, but the diminishment of the humanities in higher education has almost wholesale destroyed the search for wisdom so inherent in the young. A generation or two ago, the study of the humanities was the core of higher education, while now the humanities have been reduced to a tragi-comic level of irrelevance. Not only that, but humanities departments have been disappearing at an astonishing rate from most liberal arts colleges and their presence has been profoundly reduced at state and private universities. Prior to the COVID pandemic, the majority of us in higher education thought most liberal arts colleges in the United States would soon be shuttered for good, demographic winter, excessive tuitions, and diminishing returns on the higher ed investment all taking their toll on a model that has outlived its usefulness. But “quantitative easing” and a flood of COVID cash that flushed through the educational system via government decree postponed the immanent fall of liberal arts colleges for a time—but they are once again facing difficult decisions—removing even tenured faculty, condensing or eliminating entire departments of disciplines as they try to find new ways to avoid the inevitable. But inevitable it is. And everybody knows it.
The predicament some of my own children are facing has also inspired me to think of educational alternatives. My eldest son is in business and attended but did not finish college. My next two sons and eldest daughter did go to college, the boys studying automotive design and biology respectively and my daughter studying music. But the next one, a gifted young man of intelligence and initiative, dropped out of college at Detroit’s Wayne State University recently because of the dreadful quality of the education he was receiving in mathematics and physics and his being unable to justify the return on his investment. It wasn’t worth the money. But the situation with the next two, young women now 18 and 19, really caused me to rethink the educational opportunities available to them. Neither one wants to attend college, though both have strong gifts in music and writing and interest in the world. They could use a hedge school—or even a number of hedge schools—in order to nourish their innate desire for truth, beauty, and goodness. And that is where we find ourselves.
Outside of the Matrix that is higher education and beyond the tyranny of so-called “accreditation” racket, the hedge school offers a forum that would allow an organic unfoldment of the in-born human impulse to seek wisdom. This is really a project of self-development and entry into what John Keats called “the vale of Soul-making.” For an education that does not feed the soul is no education at all.
Of course, this idea is nothing new, but cultural conditions, I think, call for a reimagination not only of the hedge school but of education writ large. And, besides the educational projects of the past already mentioned, there have been other initiatives—some still in existence, some relegated to posterity, and some modified in mission and scope.
The Lindisfarne Association, for example, started in 1972 by rogue academic William Irwin Thompson and a number of colleagues and drew a number of extraordinary members, including Christopher Bamford, James Lovelock, and the poet Gary Snyder. In the mid-eighties, I remember buying cassette tapes (!) of lectures held at their gatherings by the great poet and Blake scholar Kathleen Raine and geometer Keith Critchlow. I learned so much. I think some of Raine’s lectures have since been digitized and are available on YouTube.
Likewise, Schumacher College, named after and inspired by economist E.F. Schumacher (author of the classic text Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as is People Mattered), has been around since 1990 and offers courses in ecology and horticulture in the quest to find more sustainable methods of integrating human flourishing with that of Creation.
There is also the Temenos Academy, founded by Raine and others under the patronage of HRH The Prince of Wales, now HRH King Charles. They have published a journal, given conferences, and regularly sponsor lectures in London, including by contributor to Jesus the Imagination Jeremy Naydler. Their bedrock is the perennial philosophy that Raine so passionately defended. They do a better job of teaching philo-sophia as “love of Wisdom” than probably any university or college philosophy department now in existence.
None of these initiatives would be able to survive without the generosity of patrons (I mean, come on, when you have the King as a patron you have probably arrived at the top of the patronage food chain), Lindisfarne, for example, was at times supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Schumacher College is fortunate to be underwritten at least in part by The Dartington Trust. I think the Fetzer Institute may also have supported projects like this in the past.
More power to them, but this is not the model I have in mind when speaking of the Hedge School. For one, who pays the piper calls the tune and I would dread getting into the awkward relationship with a patron who might threaten to pull the plug on funding such a project over a disagreement once I became addicted to the money. It’s happened to others. And I think “addiction” is the correct metaphor.
Also, I want the Hedge School to more flexible than these other projects, allowing me to respond to needs of participants and demographics. By this I mean being able to offer courses or seminars for school-age children as well as to college-age students and lifelong learners. For example, just this past week I have been asked to give a seminar in Sophiology here on my farm (more below), give a mini-course on Biodynamic farming for interested parties in my immediate community, and give an online course to high school students in Goethean-Sophiological science. And that is in addition to the online course I’m starting next week on Shakespeare, Religion, and Magic (still a few spots available).
In addition to responding to requests and needs, I also want to offer courses that I think should be offered, such as “Romanticism and the Meaning of Love,” “The Metaphysical Poets,” “The Poetry of William Blake,” “Mysticism,” or “The Alternate Modernity.” Eventually—hopefully sooner rather than later—I will bring in other teachers (actually, I need to find a better word, like “druids” or something) to offer courses in myth, woodworking, being human in a transhuman world, creative writing, the festival year (okay, I might do that one), mushroom hunting, broom-making, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Celtic spirituality, sacred geometry—and so on and so forth. There is no limit to possibilities in the Hedge School.
As for now, I have a few courses already lined up—and more to come. Stay tuned.
Shakespeare, Magic, and Religion
Online. Fridays from 1:00-2:30 pm ET.
February 3-March 24, 2023
The Heart of Sophiology
In-person at Stella Matutina Farm.
Friday, April 21, 2023, 7:00 pm & Saturday, April 22, 9:30-5:00
Biodynamic Farming and Gardening
In-person at Stella Matutina Farm.
Friday, May 19,2023, 7:00 pm & Saturday, May 20, 9:30-5:00
You can read more here.
Oliver Cromwell was the unintended founder of the Irish hedge schools.
Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: Flesh & Spirit and The Regeneration Podcast. Twitter: @Sophiologist_