Minnesota college students mull life's big questions at 'Philosophy Camp'

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 9, 2013 - 4:51 PM

In a course like few others, U of M students go to “camp” to discuss Plato and other big ideas alongside faculty members and guests.


The students trekked toward the sunset, feeling the strange crunch of prairie grass recently shorn by a burn. They waved off June bugs trailing them as they talked neuroscience and drunkenness. A farm kitten, too, tagged along, nudging their ankles when they paused to snap photos of the sky.

“The cat! He came.”

It was an impromptu hike, late on a Sunday, but in a way, those University of Minnesota students were attending class.

For one month each summer, students, instructors and a few curious folks turn a farm and retreat center in southwest Minnesota into a philosophy classroom. Or a “community on the prairie,” as the syllabus puts it.

Together, they discuss life. What is a good life? How might a person create such a life?

Philosophy professors ask such questions in lecture halls. But there’s something special about discussing Plato on the prairie. Cooking Sunday dinner from scratch with classmates. Meditating beneath the stars.

The course’s title — “Lives Worth Living: Questions of Self, Vocation and Community” — refers to Plato’s notion that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” But its nickname — Philosophy Camp — hints at a residential experience more important than any text.

People are caring here, “and I think that’s a product of living in the same space,” said Ted Tiffany, a senior and course apprentice who first came to camp as a sophomore. “Even if you see the same person every day for a semester, you’re just with them for an hour at a time. Here, you cook a meal with someone, you do the dishes together, you go for a walk.”

A bit of magic

The instructors attribute part of the course’s power to the place: the Shalom Hill Farm, two dirt roads away from a major thoroughfare and 12 miles north of Windom, Minn. Nestled into the side of an uncommon hill, its buildings let light into unexpected places and lead to patios with prairie views.

“They almost cling to [the location] as soon as they get here,” said Steve Kosowski, 65, an architect who became a member of the course’s “community faculty” after the course shifted his daughter’s perspective on school and life. “It’s so other for them, for all the students — international students and even the ones from Minnesota.”

On a recent Monday morning, just after 7:45 a.m., a rooster crowed at Prof. John Wallace as he led a few students to the white henhouse to gather eggs. The hens’ clucking intensified as the volunteers pulled open the screen door. The students, too, squealed as they considered the possibility of being pecked.

“I thought their rear ends were going to be sticking out,” said Harvey Yang solemnly, assessing the situation.

Yang studied Wallace’s technique, then took his turn, easing his hand beneath a hen. “Thank you, lady,” he whispered as he drew out an egg.

Afterward, Yang beamed at the plastic pail they had filled with warm eggs. The U junior had never been on a farm before, much less inside a henhouse. “I always thought I’d be an animal person,” said Yang. “Turns out I actually am.”

Tell about a time …

A clanging cowbell announces dinner. But much of the students’ days are unstructured.

  • related content

  • University of Minnesota students enrolled in a spring philosophy camp course walked toward the fading sunlight on an impromptu prairie walk.

  • U of M philosophy camp students Zach Benson, left, and Liz Vocasek enjoyed pre-dinner banter at philosophy camp.

  • Chun Zhang, an international doctoral student at the University of Minnesota from China, was elated after plucking an egg in the henhouse.

  • Ardes Shea, the “camp grandmother,” attempted to thread a donated Singer sewing machine as U of M philosophy camp apprentice Anna Lohse, middle, and student Dawn Jiang, right, tried to assist. In the end, Jiang brought out her iPad for a YouTube tutorial and learned the machine was missing an important part.

  • During a morning University of Minnesota philosophy camp meeting, hands of instructors and students go up for those wanting to participate in a nearby town’s summer festival parade.

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