Grow and knit your own muesli

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Emerson College is fast attracting students - for its courses in biodynamic training and eurythmy. Simon Midgley reports

At 11.30am an attractive, well-dressed Japanese woman is exploring the contours of my skull with delicately cupped hands.

In broad daylight in the same room ten other pairs of consenting adults are also feeling their way round one another's craniums.

Ten minutes of mutual discovery later, we move on to the main business of the lesson - crafting human heads from lumps of sticky grey clay.

It is a bank holiday and some students at Emerson College are getting stuck in, in the closing weeks of their foundation studies course. They are studying in a residential adult training college located in an attractive rural setting on a 15-acre site at the edge of Ashdown Forest in East Sussex. The group is on a one-year course that explores the arts and sciences through the lens of Rudolf Steiner's idea of anthroposophy - a Christianity-infused philosophy that, crudely put, relates the spiritual to the human.

According to Martin Hardiman, the director of the college's education course, anthroposophy, is essentially "an attempt to relate what is spiritual in a human being to what is spiritual in the whole universe".

This class is a typically touchy-feely part of the college's somewhat alternative curriculum.

The only college of its kind in the UK, Emerson is a self-financing charitable trust dedicated to promoting the philosophy of the Austrian scientist-cum-philosopher.

Based at Pixton House, a large Edwardian house in its own grounds, the college also has a series of surrounding buildings including painting, sculpture, metalwork and woodwork studios, and speech and drama huts.

Emerson is a curious hybrid - part agricultural training college (it offers biodynamic training, which is organic farming but more so), part Rudolf Steiner teacher training college (training people to work in the 800-plus Steiner schools around the world) - and part visual and sculptural arts college.

Gap-year students are offered the opportunity to discover what they want to do in life, as well as storytelling, creative writing and puppetry classes.

This autumn, the college is also launching a part-time course for those wishing to train as Steiner teachers.

Emerson is run as a community. Students and staff take turns chopping vegetables in the kitchen and washing up. Every week there is a communal meeting and once a year everyone takes part in a leaf-raking day. The 40 staff are paid according to their stated and college-agreed needs.

Some in education may regard its more esoteric activities such as eurythmy - an art of movement, and sculpting in bread - with a degree of scepticism, but the students here clearly love it.

Moiko Okamura, the lady with the delicately cupped hands who trained as an art teacher in Japan, says she is having an "amazing experience". Three years ago, she came to study on a nine-week English language course.

Since then she has enrolled on the Spirit of English course, exploring English history, language, history and culture, a Visual Arts course, and the Foundation Studies programme. Indeed, she so likes being at the college that she intends to enrol for two further years on its sculpture course.

"We don't have time for these sorts of studies at home. After university we have to work," Ms Okamura says. "Studies are much narrower in Japan. Since I came here, I have studied all sorts of subjects, including singing."

Ms Okamura is one of 25 Japanese students at the college. Emerson in fact is a veritable United Nations. There are some 40 nationalities represented here and many students love its internationalism.

The college has 90 student rooms in wooden residential blocks named after trees and also houses students with local families in the nearby village of Forest Row. With a turnover of around pound;1.5 million, the college just about breaks even every year. Fees for full-time courses range between pound;2,900 and pound;4,300.

The organicbiodynamic agriculture students spend three years studying the theory of farming and acquiring practical skills working in the college's market garden and on a nearby organic farm.

They learn to look after animals and about soil preparation, ploughing and harvesting. The biodynamic aspects of the course include using homeopathic preparations on the soil and planting broadly according to the cycles of the moon. The course also involves storytelling, singing and Goethean Science and botany, which involves observing a single plant closely for an hour a day for an entire month.

The course is validated by a Dutch training college and students receive a vocational level 4, EU-recognised diploma.

Liz Atwell, 43, a Newcastle university graduate who used to teach English in a northern secondary school, is now training to be a Steiner teacher.

Mrs Atwell says she finds in Steiner educational philosophy an answer to the question of why we are here and what our purpose in life is.

Not a question, perhaps, routinely asked in your average run-of-the-mill adult or further education college.

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