Saxifrage School: A University Without a Campus Teaches Theory, Practical Skills, and Community Involvement
Tim Cook of the Saxifrage School / photo: Ben Filio
The system of higher education is rethought and reconstructed as Saxifrage School designs a program based on their philosophy of learning and doing what is difficult and valuable, engaging the community, and, believe it or not, graduating with both practical and theoretical skills.
Almost two dozen places of higher education make their home in the greater Pittsburgh area. Four-year colleges, two-year, public, private, technical, state, liberal arts.
Well, make room for one more.
Actually, you won’t have to make room—that’s part of the point of the burgeoning Saxifrage School.
First and foremost, Saxifrage will be part of a community. Come August, the school will be picking its hopefully permanent home after test-runs in Millvale, lower Northside, and Garfield. Students and faculty alike will live in the neighborhood. They will be involved in the community and the community will be involved in the school.
The current Nomadic College Design Headquarters is in Garfield, in a beyond-modest one-room office tucked into Penn Ave. There are shelves filled with books on the state of academia, several chalkboards—some of which offer inspirational quotes that serve as the basis of the school’s philosophy, some with checklists and random thoughts—and one table in the middle of the room with a half-finished drawing that provides a visual representation of what four years at Saxifrage might look like.
Founding Director Tim Cook said the idea for Saxifrage “came from my own ineptness” during his senior year of college. A literature major at nearby Washington & Jefferson College, Cook was really good at school—pontificating theories, critical thinking, getting good grades—but, as many literature majors bemoan, he lacked practical skills. And, as has been much discussed in the media, he could see the seemingly insurmountable debt of a college education. On the flip side, technical schools offer very usable skills but don’t push their students to consider the theories behind the work they’re doing.
Two years ago, Cook took his theories of higher education and started working toward a practical application with about a dozen other people. Nine months ago, they received 501c status further propelling thirty-three founders and seven advisers to make Saxifrage a reality. Currently, Cook is the only full-time employee with Andrew Heffner working part-time as Director of Campus Partnership (which means he gets to hit the streets and talk with people who are already established in the neighborhoods). Between thirty and thirty-five people volunteer each week.
The idea is this: five hundred students will be under the tutelage of fifty instructors with $6,500 in yearly tuition and administrative costs. Students will pick a major study in criticism, rhetoric, research, health, social practice, or art. All students and faculty will partake in a Spanish language program. In addition, students will pick a major skill in computer science, building design and construction, or organic agriculture. This is where the community comes in: they’ll apply these skills to the chosen neighborhood. Saxifrage will also make use of unoccupied or underutilized buildings already in the community as opposed to the traditional college campus or following the increasing trend of online education.
Cook thinks Pittsburgh is the perfect environment for a school like Saxifrage (aside from the fact that he’s a Bethel Park native). He says neighborhoods like Garfield have a balance between development and lack of development. People are community-oriented. The cost of living/space isn’t prohibitive. “There are great buildings,” Cook says, “and great potential.”
Mac Howison, Program Officer at The Sprout Fund, says of why Saxifrage won a Sprout Seed Award, “We don’t see a lot of progressive adult educational proposals. People thinking about taking a shared responsibility outside of the university setting isn’t something we see often. Another appealing thing about the proposal and the project in general is that it’s representative of a movement or a collective or an aspect of what makes Pittsburgh an interesting place.”
Jess Wilton, a graduate student and instructor in Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Seed Award Committee Member, was so taken by the project that, after funding was awarded, she decided to reach out to Cook about participating.
“I see the Saxifrage School filling an important gap between secondary and higher education in Pittsburgh,” says Wilton. “The higher education institutions in Pittsburgh aren’t always in touch with the needs of the community. I think it will be really cool to have a school that’s just in the community.”
As part of the academic world, Wilton often discusses trends toward part-time, adjunct faculty in university systems, which offers instructors little motivation to fully invest in their teaching, which then feeds into the loop of grade inflation and lowered student productivity. She, Cook, and others are also all-too aware of the ever-threatened status of the humanities, which don’t bring in nearly the same amount of money as the hard sciences. One of the ideas behind the smaller overhead costs of a campus-less college is that Saxifrage can run entirely on the set tuition rate, rather than suffer at the fate of the economy, endowments, and other funding sources.
A fully functioning school complete with accreditation is a ways off, but Saxifrage is already building momentum. Through August, they are offering Tuesday night Pie and Pedagogy, which are community discussions about the state of higher education and why people would benefit from a complete overhaul of the system as well as the application of these theories in different vocations.
At a recent talk, Pittsburgh-native Demian Aspinwall discussed doing prop work on locally shot movies. Art and film schools, he said, often focus more on theory than hands-on experience or practical business insight. “You need all kinds of education,” he said. “You have to know film, but you also have to know the world in general.” For instance, rookie and veteran police officers wear their belts differently, something Aspinwall could not learn in an academic setting, but would nonetheless need to know when collecting and disseminating props.
In the fall, Saxifrage will offer its first class, a three-month, three-hundred-dollar course called Web Development 101: Hacker Theory and Practice. Students “will explore the history and philosophy of hacker culture” as well as “engage with the hacker praxis and open-source web community.” The spring semester will bring Organic Agriculture: Philosophy and Practice with a 1.5 acre urban farm as a classroom and topics ranging from “the history, philosophy and practices of organic agriculture” to “composting methods, soil preparation and preservation, bed preparation, companion planting, crop rotation, and planting.” Though still in development, there will also be a Carpentry and Design course. If all goes well, Saxifrage will then move forward with the beginning of the four-year program.
Cook says word of mouth has already resulted in an abundance of course proposals, especially from people in the humanities. Proposals for skill sets have been harder to come by, but Cook has no doubt that they will eventually arrive.
As the Saxifrage philosophy states, “We should learn and do that which is difficult, not determining our study by what is comfortable, but by what is valuable.”
Written by Amy Whipple