catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 9 :: 2011.05.06 — 2011.05.19


The Saxifrage School

Almost exactly four years ago, I graduated from college and, as is my habit, I immediately started thinking about how it could have been better. I began to wonder about its value: what was so intrinsically worthwhile about the experience that we should spend four prime years of life and over $100,000?

Now, I went to a really good school, had no debt—due to scholarships, it was paid for by other people’s money—and really enjoyed my professors and course material. Nonetheless, I knew I was an unprepared graduate with no real marketable skills, few career prospects, and, frankly, little idea what I wanted to do with myself. The story for many of my peers was worse; in addition to my problems, they were $10,000 to $80,000 in debt and learned a lot less than I did. None of us felt confident that we could start businesses, make anything useful, provide for our essential needs or speak another language. Most of us had generalized intellectual skills and were bursting with angst and eagerness to be applied to some good work somewhere.

At first, my critique of college was unfocused, because, I realized, I had yet to even define its purpose. Its purpose slowly became clear as I attempted to live the life it was supposedly preparing me for. It sounds cliché to me to talk about college as a time for life preparation, but that is usually what it amounts to. This, I came to find, was part of the problem.

My first main critique was college’s artificiality: why did it have to focus so much on preparation for life?  Why couldn’t it be life? I had spent four years talking and writing about how important everything was, but had never experienced it for myself. My senior year honors poetry project finally exploded everything; poetry, I decided, was a narrow and selfish pursuit unless it was actually working to help us comprehend reality by constantly giving suitable names to our complex, often irreconcilable actions. Poetry, like college, existed in an ivory tower—a lofty cathedral of learning—and did not involve itself often enough with the dirty problems of the street. College, in fact, is probably a worse transgressor in its isolation than poesy.

I started to think about what a truer college life might entail and then became struck with three particular verses from the New Testament (1 Timothy 6:17-19). In fact, I am still stuck here:

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

In short order, I cancelled my plans for law school or a literature PhD and decided I wanted to learn to truly live. More schooling just seemed like a lot more preparation for a life I had no experience with. Moreover, it was me looking to provide for myself, putting my hope in some future wealth, and not thinking about sharing or serving anyone. While I thought law or graduate school would have been successful for me, for some reason I fled the obvious path and was liberated into a path of indecision, relative poverty and rediscovery.

It has been a strange but excellent path, filled with trials and errors and culminating in my current massive and slightly foolhardy endeavor: a college redesign project. It began with a few simple goals:


  • The college should not en-debt its students to the world.
  • Graduates should have both technical skills and academic ones.
  • Students should really learn a language, not just pretend for a couple of semesters.
  • The college should integrate into a real neighborhood without taking it over or hiding away.


What if we could graduate with money in our pockets?  What if we could build houses and grow food, and write poetry and discuss philosophy?  What if we spoke fluent Spanish?  What if college was learning how to do life as we live? College should be a resource for living better in place, rather than a place you go away to.

To be honest, most of the ideas for this project come from my ineptness. After graduating, I realized the things that I needed the most—food, shelter, transportation, the dollar bill—I was ill-equipped to provide. There I was at 22 years grown and I couldn’t grow a single tomato, fix my car or bicycle, or maintain my house, let alone build my own. I’ve slowly been learning, but it hasn’t been easy. Granted, our economy has made it possible for us to not have these skills, but if we want to serve our neighbors, often the things they need the most are these kinds of essential services. My new friends could use a working toilet more than a new advertising campaign; my elderly neighbor would rather have a basket of tomatoes than have me write him an essay on transcendentalism. Having these skills not only makes us better servants but also participants in a truer economy that values conservation, quality and community.

So, The Saxifrage School is well on its way. Here’s the gist of it: students will pay $5000 tuition plus a $1500 administrative cost every year.  They will rent houses or board in a specific neighborhood at a cost roughly one-third that of the average college’s room and board (here in Pittsburgh, my hometown).  Classes will take place in underutilized spaces within that neighborhood (bars, churches, cafes, museums, libraries, etc.) and we will support those spaces by giving them business, or helping them with upkeep costs and maintenance.  Every student at the school will study Spanish, and even faculty and staff members who are not yet fluent will start to learn, thereby creating a quasi-immersive bi-lingual community.  The administration will be small, but sufficient.  Students will work closely with faculty, but will be encouraged to have independent goals and interdisciplinary projects that address real problems and meet needs in their own lives or in the neighborhood.

Essentially, we will encourage and enable students to figure out what life they want to lead and then to live it earnestly, with the help of expert mentors, a bit of structure and excellent learning resources.

To go back once again to my post-college frustrations: they were founded in the conflict between everything the world (and my consistently greedy self) had asked me to pursue and everything I was learning about following the way of Jesus Christ. I am convinced that I would have been a great lawyer so that I could have purchased myself a huge house and an orchard and pay an orchard tender (I actually remember voicing these thoughts once); but Christ seemed to say that I should make my own humble home and grow my own fruit, rather than having the less fortunate labor on my behalf.

My frustrations were also founded in the simultaneous dualistic conflicts of both academia and Christianity. Academia wrestles between the humanities and the sciences and disregards the really hard work as “trade school” material. Christianity fights between an emphasis on the spiritual and the corporeal: should we focus on evangelism, prayer and theology or justice, poverty, economy and service? Strangely, in my work on this college project, many of the problems I have faced are very similar to the problems of present-day American churches.

The name for the college we are founding comes from a poem called “A Sort of Song” by William Carlos Williams, who reminds us that there should be “no ideas but in things.”  Williams, though not an apotheosis in any kind of way, was both a poet and a doctor, echoing the life of Christ in his work of poetry and medical practice: the great physician addressing both the spiritual and physical needs of people. This example of Christ as the healer of both souls and bodies permeates our identities and, therefore, our needs as humans, as learners and as servants who are meant to perpetuate the work He was doing.

Our bodies yearn not to sit in chairs all day writing and processing data and they weary if we work all day in the fields. Likewise our minds find work toilsome if we cannot see beauty and purpose in our labor, but grow sick of our own intellectual musings if they have no matter in reality. When I graduated, I found I wanted to truly live and do as Christ was doing, but was only half able. I could and did speak and write often about the value of tangible service, but would have failed to do it well myself.  We must have both faith and action; we ought to be farmer-poets, builder-designers, philosopher-scientists, carpenter-politicians and doctor-pastors.

The Saxifrage School college redesign project is slowly becoming a reality; we will be hiring our first full-time staff in the coming year. To learn more about the work or get involved, e-mail or visit our web site.

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