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.
Some spent one Sunday afternoon binding books, playing cards and, as one student put it, “wandering aimlessly.” In the studio, Emily Dueker attempted to thread a Singer sewing machine with the help of Ardes Shea, the “camp grandmother,” and YouTube.
“Close your box,” the video instructed them. They squinted at the machine.
“OK, we did that,” Dueker said.
Tucked into the center’s corners and windowsills are little “libraries” stocked by the instructors and apprentices. In “Steve’s Library,” Kosowski shelved “The Long Loneliness” by Dorothy Day, among others.
Philosophy majors have signed up for the camp envisioning dense, daylong discussions about theory, said Nance Longley, an instructor and graphic designer. “Which can happen — but not in the way they’re used to.”
The course’s fluid structure is meant to mirror 19th-century Danish folk high schools, which practiced education “that takes care to respect, draw out and build on the experiences of life that students bring to the learning setting,” the syllabus says.
At Philosophy Camp, that drawing out happens during daily “story circles.” Each morning, the community of about 30 people splits into smaller groups and settles into their collection of chairs. A recent prompt: “Tell about a time when music deeply impacted your life.”
Wallace, a longtime philosophy professor, crossed his legs and reminded people of a few rules. “Silence is OK,” he said, gently. “You contribute as much by listening as by your speaking.”
Then they each told a story. Wallace, too. One woman shared a piece from the Japanese film “Castle in the Sky,” playing the track on her pink iPhone. Another described the songs a music therapist played in the hospital room hours before her grandmother’s death.
At Philosophy Camp, “you get to know each other backward,” said Wallace, who dreamed up the course with like-minded instructors and graduate students. Usually, a stranger asks about your major, maybe where you grew up.
“We do those introductions, too. But immediately, you know something about a friendship. A time when hope shifted. A place that has meaning.”
An impromptu lesson
Through those discussions, “you learn that everyone is really important,” said Anna Lohse, 24, one of the course’s apprentices.
At the start of camp, Lohse finds herself judging the other participants. But “by the end of four weeks, I’m completely surprised by who I’m close to, who I’m the most interested in,” she said. “It works every year.”
The sky had darkened by the time the students arrived back from their walk. A few squinted their way to the observation deck, leaning their heads back to look at the stars.
“It’s so peaceful. We should meditate,” joked Dueker, a sophomore.
“I could lead us,” replied Tiffany.
He asked the students to get comfortable. After some giggling, they quieted, crossing their legs and closing their eyes. The prairie’s noises — chirping crickets, groaning frogs, gentle wind — grew. Tiffany spoke slowly.
“Use your five senses to connect with the moment,” he said. “Smell the air around you. Hear the frogs in the distance. This is a time to be in your body, to be here in the present.”