Midland School‘s Director of Admission, Derek Svennungsen, spoke with AdmissionsQuest boarding school blog about the school and progressive education. Midland, located in Los Olivos, CA, is an all-boarding, co-educational college preparatory school. If you’re not familiar with the school, here’s a brief description from their site:
“As other schools get larger and build more buildings and create more overhead, Midland makes do with redwood classrooms and cabins, an intentional and profound educational philosophy, and a belief that students, and adults, benefit greatly by living close to nature. As our students learn to do more with less, they also live–on a daily basis–the values of independence, interdependence, and stewardship of the land. As we continue to stay close to our mission and philosophy, Midland remains a powerful antidote to society’s excesses and materialism.”
We thank Derek for participating in our Q&A series.
Question: How is Midland a classically progressive school?
Derek Svennungsen: Connection is core of Midland’s program. Academic classes connect students to the land in powerful ways. Freshmen take Midland 101, a class where students are on the property at least once a week. Students learn how to use maps and compasses, study the school’s geography and history, learn the native and non-native flora, and take several camping trips whose purpose is to connect their learning to their lives.
Other classes, such as Writing with a Sense of Place, Geology, and Naturalist Studies, all make extensive use of the outdoors. Sophomores, in their chemistry class, install a solar array to help power the school. And as a culmination of their academic experience, each senior writes and presents a senior thesis, an extensive paper based on some question they want to answer.
Our facilities further contribute to the experience; classrooms are simple redwood cabins, one of which has only three walls, and are wood heated. This simplicity connects students to the natural world, and to each other, because there is nothing artificial to interrupt the specific and unique learning experiences that Midland offers.
Beyond the classroom, Midland’s job system puts kids in direct control over the running of the school. Midland hires no custodial or wait staff; all campus jobs are done by students, and the job program is overseen by senior job heads. When a 14-year old is learning how to do dishes with a 17-year old, and they work together every day for an entire semester, an invaluable sense of pride, empowerment, and connection emerges.
Even in our rusticity and labor-intensive approach to living and learning, Midland is steeped in progressive values.
Q: What does progressive education cultivate in students?
DS: Today’s youth don’t spend much time working on the behalf of others. In our “do this for me” society, it is rare to be of genuine service. Midland counters this attitude by directly involving students in the academic and job programs. So instead of looking for others to solve problems, Midland students learn to be active and engaged, and look for ways to contribute.
What occurs, then, is a unique combination of independence and interdependence. Students learn how to do things on their own, but most of what they do at Midland is done for the greater good of the community. This is a powerful lesson that can only be taught experientially and on a daily basis.
The best example of this is our Shower Fire system. The student showers are heated by wood fire, and each day, it is a different student’s responsibility to make and stoke the shower fire. So the student is sifting ashes, cutting wood, and starting and maintaining a fire, all on his or her own. And every other student benefits from this one student’s efforts. There is very little resistance to these job requirements, because it is the way the school is run, and the seniors are in charge of all these systems. So being of service becomes a natural, even a welcome, part of each student’s experience here. It gets in the blood.
Q: How is progressive education valuable today?
DS: Most schools present themselves as places where a wide range of things will be done for the student. The promotion of this value has dangerous effects on students, who learn to expect things to be done for them and available to them.
At Midland, we look at it the other way: if you come to Midland, think of all the things you can do to benefit the school. This is a progressive and student-centered way of looking at what education is really for. And the results are students who don’t expect to be pampered, who are accountable, and who want to be connected. This is why progressive education, and The Midland Experience, are so valuable today.
Q: It seems like understanding and connecting and sharing with others is a Midland cornerstone?
DS: We have two all-school assemblies each day, run by the two senior head prefects. Everyone has a chance to contribute during these assemblies. Five nights per week, we have family style dinners, in which faculty and students are mixed together by the senior head prefects, and each student stays at that assigned table for the week. This nightly chance to talk, eat together, and teach appropriate table manners is a centerpiece of our community. There is always something from our garden in the meal, often harvested by students earlier in the day or week. After dinner, many students study in faculty homes, which further connects students and adults.
It sounds like empathy is one the qualities that Midland students grow to understand?
Midland is a tough place to go to school. The daily demands of academics, jobs, athletics, the environment, and living in a small community pose challenges that no other school offers. Midland students, having made the choice to be a part of this unique experience, are naturally empathetic. They understand that it’s difficult, and they understand that everyone is making sacrifices here as we work against society’s “me first” attitude. They’ve made the choice to be here because they believe in connectedness, in hard work, and, whether they know it or not, progressive education. We think John Dewey would feel right at home here at Midland School.