The learning community

Among the wide-ranging skills on offer are how to make a cardboard mountain dulcimer, cook New Orleans style, lower yourself gently into a shamanic trance, or design your own home.

The name Blue Mountain Schoolhouse conjures images of potbellied stoves and Laura Ingalls Wilder types doodling on slates; the BMS catalog exploits that idea with its archival images of old-time Western North Carolina fiddlers, stern grannies knitting up a storm, and kids posed in front of clapboard one-room schools. While those structures served as vital centers of learning in yesterday’s rural communities, alt-educator Gene Senyak aims to offer today’s knowledge seekers something equally effective, intimate and unpretentious.

“We’re about connections, about getting people face to face,” says the Blue Mountain founder.

Senyak first rolled through Asheville two years ago on a book tour promoting his translation of The Hebrew Book of the Dead (Tiktin Press, 2003) and quickly fell in love with the city. “I didn’t think places like this existed anymore,” he says. But that first flush of romance soon gave way to a dilemma familiar to many Asheville newcomers: “I wondered what I would do for a living if I moved here.”

Asheville, Senyak felt, was home to loads of talent. What was lacking was a community-based educational system to feed it. And to the founder of the Apple Skills Exchange, an alternative learning system based in New York City, the solution seemed obvious.

A man with a mission

The decade of the 1970s produced almost as many concepts as it did beards, and education proved no exception to the rule. One of the most influential thinkers to go mano a mano with the status quo was Ivan Illich, whose influential book Deschooling Society (Harper & Row, 1971) argued that education, as practiced by modern cultures, served to institutionalize rather than teach the learner, to narrow the possibilities for growth rather than expand them, and to corrupt the mind with form at the expense of content.

Although many of Illich’s ideas are today dismissed as quaint and time-locked — gone the way of pet rocks and bicycle-powered blenders — others have proved evergreen. In fact, his theory of “learning webs” is widely acknowledged to have influenced today’s decentralized, interactive source of shared knowledge: the World Wide Web.

Flush with Illich’s theories and 1970s Zeitgeist, Californian Gene Senyak showed up in New York City in 1975, intending to find work as an auto mechanic. Instead, he wound up founding a school-without-walls.

“There was a lot of energy in New York then,” Senyak recalls. “The concept of free universities was going around, and here was a chance to take that concept and run with it.”

Senyak landed a job as creative director of advertising at The Village Voice. In his free time, he put his insider status to work in service of a larger vision: establishing a center for cooperative education. In July 1976, the Voice ran a two-page advertisement for the Apple Skills Exchange. Next thing Senyak knew, the project had mushroomed, with 12,000 students taking classes at a slew of locations around the city, as well as at a farm and learning center in upstate New York.

“It just blew up. It was booming, out of control,” he remembers.

Apple Skills Exchange lasted two-and-a-half years before an exhausted Senyak returned to California in search of a quieter life repairing Volkswagens. Since then, he’s been a freelance writer, a business consultant and an advertising executive, but cooperative education never lost its lure.

A virtual university

The closest thing Blue Mountain has to an actual, physical schoolhouse is its headquarters in the Bledsoe Building on Haywood Road in West Asheville, above the Westville Pub. There, Senyak — the de facto headmaster (though in the spirit of cooperation, he would probably shrug off the notion that he’s the “head” of anything) — shares a spartan office with his spaniel, Jenny.

But the best place to look for Blue Mountain Schoolhouse is on the Web, where prospective students can scan the course offerings and register for classes (visit www.bluemountainschoolhouse.com). The sessions are held in the instructors’ homes or in cafes, bookstores and other venues around town.

Now in its second year, the teacher cooperative offers short-term classes in everything from real estate to knitting, stained glass to chakras. The spring 2006 term begins this month, though a few courses are already under way. Among the wide-ranging skills on offer are how to make a cardboard mountain dulcimer, cook New Orleans style, lower yourself gently into a shamanic trance, or design your own home.

The emphasis is on affordability and diversity of subjects. Instructors, recruited from the community at large, are encouraged to teach things they’re passionate about. Tuition typically runs about $60 for four weekly sessions.

Many Schoolhouse offerings fall outside the mainstream, picking up where bigger institutions, bound by funding and accreditation concerns, tend to leave off — things like biblical Hebrew, astrology, deep body wisdom, self-hypnosis and belly dance.

The program’s flexibility and inclusiveness are what set it apart for Blue Mountain instructor and board member Tom Sherry, who says he “couldn’t go to a community college and teach sustainable agriculture. I don’t want to get involved in that sort of bureaucracy.”

Sherry, who owns Whistlepig Farm in Candler, will teach a class this spring titled “Grow Your Own Food!” A year ago, he presented a well-attended course on sustainable agriculture but found the focus on farm-scale operations too ambitious for some of the students and somewhat constraining for him. This time around, the class will be aimed more at what wonders gardeners can work in their own back yards.

Healing-arts practitioner Suzannah Davis got involved with Blue Mountain Schoolhouse a year-and-a-half ago when she and her husband, Tebbe, moved to the area from Connecticut. This spring, Davis will teach a course called “Introduction to the Chakras,” illuminating this ancient yogic tradition as a wellness system.

Like Sherry, Davis says she enjoys Blue Mountain’s open-endedness. “It’s very experiential, very hands-on learning. There’s no structured, institutional setting. I enjoy not having those constraints.” And the classes, she notes, are also a good vehicle for referrals, helping her build her own practice.

Growing pains

As befits its countercultural vision (Senyak calls himself “an old hippie”), Blue Mountain remains very much a work in progress. His first idea was to offer traditional skills and crafts long associated with the mountains. During the initial teacher drive, “We asked for people who were fiddlers and carpenters,” he recalls.

But that strategy didn’t work. “Crafts, oddly enough, have never been big for us,” Senyak explains.

Sherry witnessed many of the school’s initial challenges in his dual roles as instructor/board member. He saw those early mountain-crafts classes flop. He watched the inevitable financial struggles unfold. And on more than one occasion, he saw Senyak on the point of giving up.

“The Schoolhouse was conceived as this real cooperative endeavor where people would just jump on the bandwagon; that didn’t exactly happen,” notes Sherry. “Maybe it’s that independent mountain spirit you always hear about.”

Still, in a mere year-and-a-half of operations, more than 1,200 students and 108 teachers have sampled learning Blue Mountain-style. So far, the biggest draws have been vocational and practical subjects such as real-estate investment, eBay auctioneering, conversational Spanish and computer skills. The biggest single class was a one-time biodiesel workshop sponsored by Blue Ridge Biofuels that drew 40 students.

The financial arrangements have also been retooled. Originally, Senyak fronted the money for administrative costs and advertising, the instructors shared the work, and the Schoolhouse and its teachers split the revenues 50-50. This year, the 24 teachers kicked in $95 apiece to cover administrative and advertising costs, and they’ll keep the proceeds from their classes.

Meanwhile, Senyak keeps on learning — and tweaking his vision as he goes. Last year, for example, he hired a staff of three part-time workers to help with registration and clerical duties, but he has since let them go. Other expenses have also been trimmed.

Some might view those moves as a kind of scaling back. But to Senyak, who’s been through this sort of thing before, they are simply steps toward a purer form of community-based learning.

“The less physical we are, the less materialistic we are, the less focused on making money we are — the better we do,” he says.

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