other people - Home

Subject: From England, through Russia, and Back to Vermont
Date: Tue 9/11/2001 6:34 AM


Dear Friends!

Let's start out with the party invitation. You are hereby invited to a harvest/equinox/friendship/dancing/nature/worship party at my home near East Randolph, Vermont in two weeks - the afternoon/evening of Saturday, Sept. 22.
Wanna know more? Follow this URL:


Prepare yourself for some finger-licking-good stories from my trip to England and Russia. Realize that this is a long and dense email. We've got enough facts and laughs to survive a nuclear winter in here - something for everybody! We'll hit England to crash a party at Summerhill School, then fly to Russia for a 10-day educational conference.

This recent trip, as readers may remember, was part of my volunteer work with the alternative education nonprofit AERO (educationrevolution.org). Jerry Mintz (Director of AERO) and I first touched down in Heathrow at the end of July, and quickly managed to locate Stephen, a charming highschool student from Montana who traveled with us. After seeing all London's greatest sites in one day, our entourage headed west. First real stop: Albert Lamb's. Albert is an alumnus of Summerhill School and editor of the magazine The Education Revolution published by AERO. At Albert's, discussion centered around future directions for AERO, organic gardening in England vs. Vermont, and whether "axer" is a legitimate scrabble word.

Armed with my folding meditation bench, and guided by Albert's wife Popsy (also a Summerhill alumn) we then proceeded to hunt aliens in several English crop circles. All we found was barley, oats, oilseed rape (source of canola oil), and wheat. Notably, the crops were often laid down in very interesting patterns "as seen on TV." The force was with us. Jokes aside, fond memories of eating rape greens with farm king Joel Gruver prompted me to smuggle a handful of rape seeds through Russia and back to Vermont, where they have now sprouted and are growing vigorously.

Following these adventures in the English countryside, it was on to Birmingham to meet with homeschooling activists then to Summerhill School. Finally, after years of anticipation, our taxi turned into the driveway where "Summerhill School" was printed in colorful tilework on a low brick wall. In an attempt to dampen our spirits, rain threatened. However, miraculously, this was the only day it rained on us in England the entire trip - otherwise it was always sunny and pleasant.

It was about ten years ago when I first read the book 'Summerhill' by the school's founder A.S. Neill. Here I was standing in the doorways, in the halls, in the cafeteria, where students and teachers had been running a democratic school for almost a century - a school which has inspired thousands of schools around the world, and which has been a significant presence throughout my own education. When we arrived, the 80th reunion was well underway. There were one or two hundred smiling people; ample skateboards, chess boards, bulletin boards; alumni from all over the world - especially England, Japan, Germany, and the U.S.; and hardly any activities planned.
There were current students and alumns. There were parents, former parents, teachers, and former teachers. There were even a few alumns who had been at the school around the time of the second world war, when the school had been operating out of Wales rather than the precarious coastal village in southeast England where it has otherwise existed.

The Summerhill reunion was mostly a time for friends to hang out, with a toast to the 80th anniversary thrown in one night. The truth is that, though I met a few interesting folks there, I really didn't fit in to the social atmosphere.
I certainly hadn't been invited, and I was only allowed because I am working with Jerry, the international networking guru of alternative education. One day, Jerry was able to get us access to an internet computer at Summerhill, where I updated the web page for one of AERO's new initiatives, Action Groups, designed to coordinate the formation of new schools and homeschooling resource centers (see educationrevolution.org for more details on Action Groups).

The highpoint of the event for me was at one of the few organized meetings.
Zoe Readhead is the current director of the school and daughter of A.S. Neill.
Together with other members of the community, she described the past few years of intense scrutiny from the department of education relating to Summerhill's
practice of not requiring students to attend classes. After many years of
ever-increasing tension, in the past two years a dramatic court case was brought before the high court in London, to determine the fate of Summerhill.
Parents, students, administration, and alumni banded together and engineered a remarkable victory, enlisting the help of an extremely qualified legal defense team as well as broad political support from elected officieals and homeschoolers nationwide. At one point, the entire school was in London having a school meeting in the high court chamber to determine how to respond to an offer from the state to drop most charges and grant the school increased autonomy. Apparently, that offer was accepted. Perhaps Summerhill shall always shine on as the beacon it has become. I brought back an A.S. Neill mug: "I'd rather have Summerhill produce a happy street sweeper than a neurotic prime minister." (To learn more about Summerhill, read Albert Lamb's newly edited publication of A.S. Neill's writings,

A day later we deplaned into the Moscow Airport, and for two hours we waited in line at customs as tall men lit up cigarettes under no smoking signs. Then, after our paperwork was deemed in order, we were quickly whisked off by four patient souls who had been waiting for us those same long two hours. Two personalities among these four became important to us on our trip: Artium, publisher of the Russian educational biweekly 1st of September
(www.1september.ru) and Olga Leontieva, a leading-edge Russian teacher and writer. Artium explained that we would all be staying at his apartment for the night, then waking up at 5am to drive 300km to catch up to the cruise boat housing our conference, which had already left Moscow without us.

Artium gave us a tour of an amazingly well-lit Moscow that night. Apparently in the past few years, a huge amount of capital has been invested in Moscow.
You can tell - fancy restaurants and shops; hotels; modern apartment buildings; church restorations; new cars flying by on wide streets. Jerry and Artium talked about the vast differences between the facade of Moscow of five years
ago versus today. The lights and glimmer weren't what I had been expecting
after the Russian currency and bond crisis several years ago when hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign and Russian investments had been reduced to pennies. Then I remembered a fact I had recently heard about ski resorts in New England: they generally have to go bankrupt two or three times before enough capital has finally been invested for the business to cover its debt load and break even. The same thing could have happened in Russia. As I learned more about the cash economy which exists in Russia to avoid the corporate income tax (on gross income), I realized how everything fit together. Those millions of dollars of invested capital five years ago had been quickly transferred to the bank accounts of wheeling-dealing Russian businessmen.
Then, following the bankruptcies, the cash still exists - much of it still in Russia - and has been invested in more private businesses. Russia, I believe, may be a great place for Russian businessmen to get very rich; but it offers very dubious prospects for foreign passive stock-holding and bond-touting investors! Will Russia have to go though another round of bankruptcies? Maybe or maybe not; I suspect it's mostly a question of opportunity - if dumb money is offered available, someone will certainly capitalize on it.

The next morning, as promised, we drove to the ship, and joined the 10-day conference. Officially, it was the 10th anniversary conference of the Festival of New Schools of the Soviet Union. That original conference, with 400 participants, took place in Crimea in the fading days of the USSR. It resulted in many new connections among an emerging group of alternative schools throughout the republics and western alternatives; and, I was told, it facilitated the formation of hundreds of Montessori schools throughout the former Soviet republics. Somehow, the conference was here reincarnated on a river boat (far from the standards of what would pass as an American cruise ship), 10 days traveling on the Oka and Volga rivers.

From Summerhill's ambiguous party, the world was turned on its head. The schedule was printed daily; the activities were intense and numerous. We visited cities every day, and did the normal activities organized by the cruise
company: touring fortresses, monasteries, museums, more monasteries. But we also added in visits to schools in many cities, where some of the conference participants gave presentations to local teachers. And finally, we had daily workshops on the boat. All told, there were about 75 Russians, 15 Dutch, and a small handful of others, including our American contingent. Among the group were teachers, researchers, reporters, students, alumni - all with some interest in personalized education.

Incidentally, one of my favorite books is Margaret Meade's _Culture and Commitment_ - one of her last books and also her shortest. Aside from the person who introduced the book to me (Yash Owada of the Johnston Center), I've never met anyone in the U.S. who has mentioned it. But on this Russian ship, there were two presenters who explicitly mentioned it in their presentations.
Buy it now used from Amazon.com for less than five bucks by following this URL: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0385041128/peterchristophes

One of the difficulties experienced on the ship was the language barrier.
Three translators did amazingly well in this job which really called for twenty. And yet there were not twenty. As a result of the lack of translators, it was difficult for the Russian-speakers and English-speakers (Americans and Dutch) to interact informally and come to a common set of goals for the conference. Oddly, an additional related issue is that many of the participants did not share my interest in developing common, cross-cultural goals for the conference. The Russian contingent devoted substantial energy to developing a model for future educational environments in a project called "The Virtual School." At one point, I suggested to the Russian organizing committee and to the Russian virtual schools group that instead of developing specific models, I felt it would be more powerful worldwide to try to incorporate the views of all the participants of the international conference and come up with more general, but commonly-held educational values. I explained that a document expressing these values could prove useful in the efforts of reformers worldwide to articulate the value of non-industrial, humanistic education.
However, the Russians knew what they wanted to get out of the conference, and what I was suggesting was not it. (For whatever reason, they seemed perhaps a bit suspicious of working together with the international community. Go
figure!) Interestingly, since the conference has ended, work on this "virtual school" project has been continuing in Russia.

Another communication obstacle was the rules in the dining room. Due to the regulations on the ship, it turned out that whoever we sat down with for our first meal would be our dining companions throughout the 10-day cruise. While this may be appropriate for most family cruise trips, I felt it was a further obstacle to the informal intercultural mixing which might have nourished intercultural trust and understanding - perhaps the missing pieces to recognizing common purposes.

All in all, the conference was an impressive success considering the limited budget, small organizing staff and complications of international participation. Any readers who would like to become involved with helping to fund and/or organize a future conference to further develop this international educational community, please contact me. I believe that the international educational community which is developing through the work of AERO and at conferences like this has the potential to elevate the humanity of education worldwide. Or perhaps you would like to participate? You can read more about the conference and support the movement by subscribing to The Education Revolution, the magazine published by AERO - sign up on the AERO website educationrevolution.org.

Back in Moscow, Jerry and I had dinner with Alexander Tubelsky and Olga Leontieva, two of the people behind the 1000-student School of Self-Determination in Moscow, where students have the constitutional right to leave any class at any time without explanation. Olga explained that she had completed a book (in Russian) about her educational model, "Park Schooling",
written as a dialogue with A.S. Neill. In describing Park Schooling, she
emphasizes the importance of a feedback model like Summerhill where students need not attend classes. She also explains that within the context of classes, she encourages different approaches to the the conservatively-structured lessons A.S. Neill advocated. For instance, in her own field, biology, she noted the importance of week-long trips from the urban school to the countryside.

With my new friend Nina from the conference, I took the overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg for a two-day visit. It was a continuation of my crash course in Russian language, Russian economics, and chess. As promised, St. Petersburg was a blatantly European city. I felt like I was walking near a dreamy Louvre, slightly misshaped and painted an unfamiliar green. Pictures are worth a thousand words, so check 'em out from the links below.

Here's some pictures I took in Russia:


And here are some taken by Jerry:


Finally I've now been back at home for two weeks. And I am staring at two letters received during my recent three weeks abroad, both from the United States IRS (tax collection agency). The first one states that I will be receiving a check this week for $300 as tax relief for 2000. Gee, thanks. The second one states that I mistakenly under-reported my tax for 1999 (and owe some yet-to-be-computed amount plus interest since 18 months ago). Coincidence? Perhaps. But I prefer the conspiracy theory in this case: the IRS knowingly stuffed my possible "underreporting error" in a box labeled "rainy-day fund" because 18 months ago cash was still flowing like zucchini at the end of summer. Yet everybody knows that eventually even zucchini returns to dust.

Isn't returning from travels great!

News on the homestead. The new terraced garden is progressing slowly; only one of the two terraces has been leveled so far - the one for the movable greenhouse. The lower (and slightly larger) open terrace is still hardly a terrace at all.

And finally, if anyone has actually read this far, in spiritual developments, I'm ever more confident that I am in the right place now, living on my own in Vermont, spending this time getting to know my mind and my emotions and my dreams. Some days are pleasant, some are painful; some are ostensibly productive; some are less so! The future in several years could contain more full-time participation on my part in directly making the greater world more beautiful and joyous, yet I expect that in these upcoming few years I will increase my dedication to experiencing my own somewhat removed beauty here on Hurricane Hill near East Randolph, Vermont.

See you at my party on Sept. 22, at Sky Meadow Retreat October 5-8, at the NMH Pie Race October 14, or at the Raleigh Marathon Dec. 2.

All the best,

Peter Christopher


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