University without walls

Outside of sex (and, possibly, food), is there anything more exciting than learning? And even eating is often set aside (or at least delayed) in favor of some sufficiently compelling diversion. Who among us hasn’t hung on to finish a chapter, listen through to the end of the news from Lake Wobegon, wrap up a gossipy phone call, or watch the end of a video before attending to a growling stomach?

And what better learning environment than small classes in a comfortable setting, with instructors teaching what they know best? Given the demands of modern life, the only conceivable improvements might be a limited time commitment and modest cost.

Welcome to Blue Mountain Schoolhouse.

This new entry into WNC’s continuing-education arena offers four-week classes, ranging in price from $40-$80, that cover a wide (and soon-to-be-broadening) diversity of subjects. Sessions are held in homes or small businesses, and the arrangements are as flexible as students and faculty care to make them. Instructors and pupils alike make only a month-to-month commitment, and course offerings will be updated and published on the same schedule.

Modeled on the Apple Skills Exchange, a free university created in New York City in the 1970s, Blue Mountain Schoolhouse is the brainchild of Zhenya Gene Senyak — an ASE co-founder, writer, community organizer, visionary and mechanic who recently discovered Asheville and decided it felt like home. “A combination of Woodstock and Berkeley,” as he put it. “I lived in Woodstock in the ’60s and have kids living there still. I spent pretty much the rest of the 20th century in Berkeley and the San Francisco North Bay and have kids living there today.”

Back in 1977, Molly Ivins, writing about Apple Skills Exchange in The New York Times, observed: “As is the custom with participatory education, students often become teachers and vice versa. Some come to learn macrame and wind up teaching accounting. And the classes become groups of friends who stick with one another even after the one-month courses end.”

Does this sound like Asheville, or what?

A scholar and professionally certified Volkswagen mechanic by trade, Senyak is the author of the Hebrew Book of the Dead (Tiktin Press, 2003), an exploration of Kabbalah (see “Everybody’s Doing It,” March 24 Xpress). He’ll offer a course on that esoteric subject during Blue Mountain’s first session, which starts Nov. 1.

But as befits a man with a resume that seems to span the full scope of American culture in recent decades, Senyak’s vision for the school casts a wide net. A writer for alternative grande dame The Village Voice as well as a stringer for The Wall Street Journal, a copywriter for Apple Computer and an apprentice mechanic at the Bradley Clark Porsche Volkswagen shop in Berkeley, Senyak subsequently returned to NYC to spin wrenches at Bristol Motors while completing a master’s degree in psycholinguistics. He later toured his book across the country (including a stop at Malaprop’s). Indeed, Senyak would seem to embody Buckminster Fuller’s observation that “Nature loves generalists.”

Blue Mountain’s first session features classes in subjects as diverse as claw-hammer banjo, mending and sewing, iridology, silversmithing, mask-making and African drumming.

Technical writer Denise McGruder told Xpress about her course in resume development, designed to help students learn how to authentically reinvent themselves by viewing life experiences in a new light. Learning to read ads is the first step, and McGruder says her class “will be starting with analysis of personal ads” — surely the most intimate exemplar of the “help wanted” genre. “It’s really a fun way to learn that what an employer needs may be different from what they want,” she explains.

Offering music-making with wooden spoons and washboard, John Mulholland says his students will learn “how to make as well as play these traditional instruments.” They’ll also discuss a wide variety of styles.

Hope Spragg is teaching a course in self-portraiture. “One month is a good time frame,” she observes, adding, “It doesn’t stretch on forever.” Accem Scott, on the other hand — who’ll offer a class in “pa kua,” a traditional Chinese martial-arts discipline — might argue for learning that stretches on forever. (In Chicago, Scott studied under his master for three years — daily, except Christmas — before becoming a teacher himself.)

To help acquaint prospective students and teachers with the Blue Mountain mojo, Up on Blue Mountain, described as a “learning fair,” will be held at Green Life Grocery in Asheville on Sunday, Oct. 17, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visitors will be able to preview the school’s initial monthly catalog and learn more about upcoming classes directly from the teachers themselves, in between shopping for jewelry, quilts, handbags, weavings and more made by local artisans. Music, food and a giant participatory collage promise to make this as much a celebration as an educational event, although on-the-spot registration for classes will be encouraged.

For more information on teaching or attending classes, write to Blue Mountain Schoolhouse, 775 Haywood Road, Asheville, NC 28806, or call 253-8650 (e-mail: teach@bluemountainschoolhouse.com). Watch for the school’s first catalog in the Oct. 20 Xpress.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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