Step Back: Michigan Folk School Teaches Old Skills With A New Purpose

Sometimes a step back in time can be a step into the future. A lesson in bee-keeping is ageless, yet urgent at a time when bees are disappearing.
 
The arts and the crafts of the past inform the future at schools like the Michigan Folk School in Superior Township. Similar in spirit to the "back to nature" movement of the 1960s, current interest in folk education is both traditional and a reaction to the dominance of technology in modern life. 
 
Jason Gold, who co-founded of the Michigan Folk School with wife Julia in 2010, led an eclectic career path that included investment banking before discovering that there was something wrong about the food he was eating and the life he was leading. Gradually, he became more attuned to the American folk tradition as a suitable alternative. He and Julia tried homesteading in Alaska, but realized the "rugged individualism" culture wasn't for them. Gold's early fascination with socialism evolved from developing communes to organizing "a community of like-minded individualism" centered around an organic farm. Both Golds are educators by profession.
 
The Golds attended the John Campbell Folk School in North Carolina where they had a "conversion" from being "artistic, intellectual" to "Earth Day, craft-oriented" people. Returning home to Ann Arbor, they focused their lives on working "with our hands and minds and see what kind of creative spirit we could conjure up. ... We started to meet people through conversations. We found a community of like-minded individuals, people who are willing to express how they feel, how they do things but are also willing to listen."
 
The school actually came about by "happenstance," Gold says. The Golds' interest in homesteading outgrew their Ann Arbor home and led them to their Superior Township farm, where they recruited "people who really knew what they were doing (and had been) doing homesteading for a long time." The idea of the school, Gold says, was to "build community first, educate second."
 
One of the people they recruited was Nate Ayers, principal of Chiwara Permaculture, an Ann Arbor-based research and education company. Ayers was teaching a class at Washtenaw Community College (WCC) on the Michigan Cottage Food Law  when he met Gold as a student. Ayers, now an instructor at the Michigan Folk School, sees the school as "a throwback to the educational system of old where the community took responsibility for themselves." 
 
The folk school promotes a philosophy of  "using yesterday to preserve tomorrow: yesterday's understanding of food and looking at it with a modern-day look." Its website represents that visually with old black and white photographs of pioneer farms mixed with bright color still life photos of fruits and vegetables, animals, crafts, and inquisitive children. Modern homestead skills taught at the school range from  preserving produce and raising chickens to solar energy and gray-water systems. 
 
Students at the folk school choose from courses such as "Introduction to Blacksmithing,"  "Simple Soap Making," and "Cheese Making 101." Courses are taught in instructors' homes, in a church, and on homestead farms.
 
Sue Sanch, program manager at WCC, recruited Gold to teach bee-keeping in the college's alternative urban living program this March.  Gold will also teach Homesteading 101, Cheese Making, and Earthoven Workshop at the college. 
 
The education offered by the folk school is timeless, Sonch says. Today's folk student is interested in self-sufficiency. They're concerned with conserving land and energy resources, and have realized the loss of generational learning around life skills. 
It's not mere curiosity, Sonch says. Students are applying what they learn in real life -- and are learning it in a real life environment. It's a little unusual for a college to teach beekeeping, raising chickens, or homesteading.  Course demand seems to be strong. The beekeeping class in March was filled. Summer courses are filling up.
 
"It's just a nice opportunity for an alternative learning setting," Sanch says. "There's something to be said for taking a class outdoors, where you have the beehive." One of the classes, she says, took place in the Golds' living room. "People are much more open to alternative learning settings not the traditional classroom."
 
The market for folk education has grown steadily in the last decade, Gold says. Some want to apply the skills and develop a homestead; others are curious romantic modernists who eventually return to cosmopolitan lives. 
 
Fear about ecological disaster and economic collapse has caused people to search for a more simple, sustainable way of living, he says. For example, students have referenced a recent article in the New York Times documenting "colony collapse disorder" resulting in 50 percent of the bee population disappearing as a cause for alarm
 
"We need to have pollinators," says Jason. But the greater need is for overall environmental consciousness.  "They're coming to us as a steward of some sort."
 
There's a lot of "desire" behind the interest in folk education. Students look at the lifestyle the Golds live as idealistic. It's neither idealistic nor totally removed from the troubled economic system. 
 
"We still have a relationship with the larger community," Gold says, noting that Julia's salary as an Ann Arbor teacher supports the homestead. "That's an important piece. So many people look at it as an ideal lifestyle... to live in the country, take care of animals... a true fantasy." 
 
People overlook the hard work and stress involved in homesteading. 
 
"Learning how to organically grow is simple," Gold says. "Learning how to preserve is the hard part. You have to be very creative when it comes to learning how to preserve that growth."
 
Folk schools originated in Denmark in the early 1800s. Founded by a philosopher, N.F.S. Grundtvig, folk schools grew into "a cooperative community of learners and teachers, promoting individual growth in a community matrix, according Kay Parke, one of the founders of the Folk Education Association of America. It emphasizes awareness of and appreciation for a shared background, through direct person-to-person interchange. The individual is seen as part of a community, connected to a time, place, and culture. 
 
Gold says what makes this era different from past cycles of folk education and environmental consciousness is the dominance of technology which promised a more informed and connected future but is fostering a disconnected, less literate, and information-anxious culture. "It has not done what it promised to do -- establish relationships...  Technology has also separated us from our ability to get our hands dirty.
 
"This back to the land movement -- homesteading -- is an answer or a reaction to multiple things. I also really believe that it's a reaction to technology. Technology can't fill this hole that we have, that we don't necessarily understand. Something else has to do that."
 
As a cyclical phase, Gold says the pendulum will eventually swing away from folk education. Will that render his school extinct? No. Just as the John Campbell Folk School, established in 1925, has survived, Gold believes his school will have a permanent place in Michigan folk culture. But not without prudent financial planning, a knowledge-base he's likely to draw from his past. Gold envisions the school to eventually become non-profit with sustainable funding.
 
"We are growing it organically. ... The point of this is to grow it as a community. It will grow in the direction that it needs to grow in. I have my own concept, desires, aspirations. That doesn't necessary mean that that's what will happen to the folk school. It means that I am a teacher. I am one mind."

Dennis Archambault lives in Detroit and writes for Metromode, Concentrate and Model D.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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