M.C. Richards Program

    M.C. Richards Program


    • Listing Type: Gap Year Programs
    • Destinations: Unknown
    • Program Delivery: Residential
    • Credit Awarded: None
    • Program Length: Academic Year
    • Start Month: August
    • Category: Self-Discovery
    • Selective: Yes
    • Gender: Coed
    • Ages: 18, 19+, 19
    • Housing: Other
    • Minimum Cost: $10,000 - $20,000
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    Free Columbia began ten years ago as a community-supported, community-oriented, cultural and educational initiative. It is located in the heart of Columbia County, New York and offers full-time, residential programs for people 18-35. The M. C. Richards Program is a one year, full-time course in transdisciplinary learning.

    What kind of learning centers do we need to cultivate in a century of unprecedented environmental and social challenges, globalization and digital revolution? One spokesperson from the rising generation recently said:

    “Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

    The urgency expressed by Greta Thunberg reflects our best knowledge of the current pressures on the finite planet. There is an urgent need for economic and technological change to meet today’s environmental challenges. There is also a much more fundamental demand to understand why current ways of learning and thinking can prove impervious and destructive in the world in which we live. Are there ways of cultivating understanding that connect us to the rich particularity of the world and that does not blur its limits? Are ways of learning that support sensibilities of interdependence and connection? There are, and these knowledge practices are at the center of the M.C. Richards Program.

    The program will begin In the fall of 2020 with the first cohort of 20 students. Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis starting in September 2019.

    Who is the program for?

    People looking for a program where education is approached as a process of developing capacities; those who are seeking a more vital and living experience of knowledge, those who feel that moral questions should not be separated from questions of knowledge, those looking for deepening and maturing experience; or those looking for a broad and general foundation that might spark a vocational interest, or further studies, could find what they are looking for in this program. The program is intended for individuals between the ages of 18 and 35. Regardless of whether one intends to work, pursue further learning at another college or university, attend a technical or vocational school, the program could be a meaningful next step.
    Areas of Activity

    Activities include the study of texts, experiential learning in biology, mathematics and physics, work assignments, studio work in the visual, practical and performing arts, and explorations of social theory and practice. Faculty have recently led courses in practical morphology, the design of complimentary monetary systems, projective geometry, contemplative approaches to painting with color and to the performing arts.
    The Place

    Free Columbia is located in the very center of Columbia County, NY. The area is known for its rural beauty, small farms, many artists, and cultural organizations and initiatives. We are situated two hours north of New York City and one hour south of Albany. The train runs from New York City to Hudson, which is a 15 minute car ride away.

    Most of the facilities are located in the village of Philmont. It is a small village of around 1,200 people that was first developed two hundred years ago as an industrial site known as “factory hill.” It is here where the local Agawamuck Creek quickly drops 250 feet in a series of beautiful waterfalls. Water was harnessed and directed into various holding ponds to be used to power the mills. Free Columbia has used multiple facilities in Philmont and is currently developing two new sites to host expanding programs. One of the sites is a public/private partnership involving a building belonging to the village.


    The faculty is comprised of artists and researchers who have developed rich and engaging approaches to fields as diverse as mathematics, biology, political theory, visual art, performance, and literature. The curriculum will be developed collaboratively, taking into consideration the interests of the first cohort.

    Cost and Housing

    Admission to the M.C. Richards Program is not dependent on one’s contribution of tuition. After completing the admission process the tuition contribution is decided in a conversation. The suggested contribution for the whole year is $12,000. Some students make a contribution up front, others make monthly contributions, and still others pledge contributions in coming years.

    This does not include room or board. In the village there are multiple rooming options in private homes and houses that are shared by students. It is also possible to rent apartments in the village. For a room in a shared house the monthly cost for rent, including utilities, will be around $500 per month.
    Principles and Practices for this Learning Community
    contemplative inquiry

    1. Contemplative Inquiry and Contemplative Pedagogy

    Contemplative pedagogy strives to root learning and education in an integrated first-person experience that and to understand the intangible as well as the tangible horizons of experience. Questions of understanding are not separated from ethical concerns. It involves tending to the subtle forms of experience. This striving has been captured and described by one of the elders of the movement as Contemplative Inquiry.

    “We desperately need to extend the sciences to include disciplined contemplative inquiry…the sciences of economics government, environment, business and medicine, as well as the arts, can all be extended fruitfully to include the spiritual. This requires us to embrace the fuller and therefore more adequate conception of the world available through contemplative inquiry and knowing.”
    - Arthur Zajonc, Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry

    2. Why Aesthetic Education?

    Aesthetic education, usually associated with art and the humanities, is much broader. The origin of the term aesthetic has always related to experience and insight derived from perception. Aesthetic education involves the cultivation of observation, perception, memory, feeling, and expressive dimensions of judgment and knowledge. In the M.C. Richards program biological morphology, projective geometry, and physics, alongside the humanities and the studio and performing arts, foster these capacities. As we face unprecedented ecological and social challenges, aesthetic education offers us a type of thinking sensitive to the finite world we inhabit. It also compliments some effects of the digital revolution, for instance that our attention is increasingly directed away from rooted, terrestrial insight toward a virtual horizon of experience.

    “The healing powers that proceed from the cultivation of the aesthetic judgment can bring about an unanticipated intensification of daily experience. It will heighten the intensity of contact with appearances in the natural world, and enrich experiences between people.”
    - Adolf Portmann

    3. Action Research

    The M.C. Richards Program strives to offer a practical and value-driven approach to social research. Action research is especially crucial for social theory. The fundamental question is “How can we think and arrange life so that it is good?” What we think becomes our theory and the results of the actions inspired by our theory, or ideals, are the outcome. The question is not simply if they are true, but if they lead to the good. Social life is not an objective, outer process that is independent of our own thinking and actions. We can only truly explore new possibilities through enacting them and then judging them by their fruits.

    4. Transdisciplinary Learning

    One symptom of current approaches to learning is isolation among various disciplines. In order to grasp the whole and to connect to interdependence and holism, it is important to evade narrow and traditional confines of subject areas and fields. This is not the same as resisting expertise. Rather, transdisciplinary approaches involve focusing on questions and projects where many fields intersect and interrelate. The scientists, artists, researchers, artisans, and teachers in the program have expertise but the programs and explorations are designed to encourage big pictures and interconnections that cross traditional boundaries of subjects and fields of study.

    5. Accessibility

    The way that tertiary education has been organized and funded in recent decades is seen by many as a failed social experiment. Free Columbia’s funding is organized out of the conviction that through removing all programs and activities from the market, and avoiding transactional mentality, we can foster a more social and engaged financial culture. This makes the M.C. Richards Program financially accessible, and it also supports attitudes that are most conducive to learning, service and creativity. Accessibility relates to both students and society at large. There are never minimum tuition or material costs for programs and events. The fruits of the most in-depth projects at Free Columbia, which include research, conferences, programs, classes, concerts, exhibitions, and performances, are regularly carried out into the surrounding towns, villages, and cities. Free Columbia is supported by patrons, pledgers, fund drives, grants and a wide array of other giving opportunities. To read learn more about this organizational structure and the reasoning behind it click here.

    “Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods, they also express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged… Auctioning off seats in the freshman class to the highest bidders might raise venues but also erode the integrity of the college and the value of its diploma.”

    — Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy

    6. Independent: worthy of doing, worthy of supporting.

    Free Columbia is structured to encourage and support independence among faculty and students. While it is an incorporated nonprofit dedicated to education and social-cultural work, it is not accredited as a college or school, allowing for creative freedom among students and faculty. It is also a small initiative. This allows for great license for students and faculty to pursue this innovative experiment in tertiary education.

    Teachers, artists, and researchers can follow their best ideas and engage the interests of individual students. This places the burden on the faculty and students to make the work meaningful in itself, and worthy of support.

    7. Learning in Context: Work and Service

    Another way that learning becomes disconnected from context and life is through being largely relegated to classrooms and campuses. The M.C. Richards Program is situated in the post-industrial village of Philmont in rural New York. The main facility of the program will be a re-purposed warehouse that belongs to the village. Free Columbia and the village have entered into a public private partnership through a 21-year lease. An important aspect of the program involves service-learning and work embedded in community. Besides service learning opportunities, another aspect of the program includes choosing a practical, work-related focus area. Students will work in one practice, two times per week, throughout the whole year. The areas of work that will be offered will be determined in part through gauging interest in each cohort. Possible activities include: leather work, care work, ceramics, working with horses, food processing, local development and studio arts.

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