Earth College (Omni 5/81)

Earth Day this month will officially mark the ecology movement’s eleventh birthday. But, like most utopian movements that emerged out of the cultural and political upheavals of the late ’60s and early ’70s, the ecology movement produced as much chaff as wheat. It gave us Earth Day, and it gave us Earth Shoes. It generated worthwhile legislation and a lot of legislative pollution. Earth still looks pretty sick. So what’s to celebrate?

Ten years ago, at the movement’s outset, a disgruntled ex-dean from Harvard and a handful of relatively wild-eyed environmentalists retreated from the university to found their own alternative college in Maine. They called their school the College of the Atlantic (COA), and, armed with an untested, unaccredited degree program in something called human ecology, they set up shop.

“People thought I was crazy to come here,” recalls COA’s president, Ed Kaelber. “It was an era in which the alternative academic institution was becoming something of an endangered species.” But to everyone’s surprise, “Earth College” or “Backpack U” began to attract bright, serious students to the isolated beauty of Mount Desert Island. Enrollment is still growing.

In order to survive, the college’s founding fathers adopted their new home’s frontier spirit; they chose to refurbish existing buildings, rather than spend themselves broke on a brand-new campus. And the community, usually suspicious of strangers, was quick to recognize an affinity with the college and offer its support.

“But the main reason we have survived,” Kaelber says, “has been the dedication and involvement of all elements of the college itself. We are truly a democracy.”

When the college applied about four years ago for accreditation, the New England Association of Colleges and Universities dispatched an examiner to Maine to look the school over. “Here is a humanistic institution,” he reported, defining the essence of human ecology, “which seeks to study man in relationship to man, and man in relationship to his environment.” The college won accreditation from the association in the record time of four years.

Ironically, it was an ecological catastrophe that gave this unusual institution its original impetus. The great fire of 1947 destroyed most of the oceanfront mansions that once made Mount Desert Island the “Newport of the North,” and much of the summer industry disappeared with them. An island-based college seemed a good replacement, particularly one that would make use of the island’s open-air natural museum. It remained only for the ecology movement to supply a theme, human ecology.

Over the years this holistic philosophy has been translated into a curriculum that stresses the relationship between carious disciplines. Students take courses in three areas calculated to impart both an appreciation of nature and an advanced set of independent thinking and research skills. Applied Human Studies includes the humanities and social sciences. Field sciences such as ornithology and ichthyology are covered in Environmental Science. And Environmental Design focuses on man-man environments, energy-efficient designs, and low-impact technology. “We emphasize hands-on experience here,” says Harris Hyman, one of the instructors of the Environmental Design course, 3-D. “That’s the main reason why I came here myself.”

COA’s special curriculum is designed to enable students to come up with imaginative solutions to complex, interrelated problems. “We’re not trained as scientists, economists, or poets, but as all three,” says one recent graduate. “Students bring to biology a knowledge of design, and to their environmental studies an understanding of economics.”

Visiting the college can be something of an alternative experience in itself. To a casual observer, student life seems to consist mostly of hugging, knitting, and defining one’s terms. Scanning the bulletin boards only reinforces the feeling of being lost in educational space. Here is a complicated poster on how to distinguish between a blowhole or a sperm whale and a minke whale’s. Next to this is an apocalyptic-sounding invitation to a film called “Survival or Suicide.” And next to this is a flossy color portrait of Kermit the Frog.

Despite offering such course titles as Whitehead and Whitewater and Plant and Human Affairs, the school has managed to avoid the superficiality that undermined other alternative academic institutions. The Bureau of Land Management thought enough of marine biologist Steven Katona’s course, Whales of the North Atlantic, to award his class a contract for the Mount Desert Island Whale Watch, supplying valuable data on the behavior of whales.

Last year the principal assignment in the 3-D course had students design and construct ten pieces of playground equipment for the public elementary school on Mount Desert Island.

The college has already had an impact on the state’s ecology. COA students were largely responsible for preserving from peat miners the Great Heath, an ecologically unique 5,720-acre sphagnum bog. COA also sponsors the Harbor Seal Project, which rescues abandoned or stranded seals in the area. And faculty member Ernie McMullen introduced the first solar technology into the state.

“We couldn’t really come out and say it, but we came out here to save the world,” Vice-President Sam Eliot recalls with a shy smile. “Now we’re basically concentrating on Maine.”

When a minke whale washed up on a nearby island, students decided to use it for a mobile Whale-on-Wheels project to teach their fellow Mainers about mammalian biology. Other college outreach efforts have included a Chautauqua-like fair, Pride of Maine, which celebrated the traditions of the Acadian, Native American, and Yankee cultures. Students have used their senior projects and independent study for such far-flung pursuits as observing turtles in the Galapagos Islands and apprenticing with the Lobo Wolf Foundation.

Given such training, students seldom worry about their job prospects. “If the deterioration of the environment keeps going the way it is now,” says senior Glen Berkowitz, “people will have to use COA graduates in five or six years.”

So far the employment history in the college’s 106 graduates has been promising. Jobs they have found include positions as a museum naturalist, a census worker for the Bureau of Land Management, a director of the Maine Audubon Society, and an alternative energy coordinator for Santa Clara County, in California.

To be sure, the college needs a gymnasium and a student center. The food, strictly vegetarian for energy efficiency, could be better. But the College of the Atlantic is alive and well. That in itself is something to celebrate.

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