At Mycelium school students grow, absorb, and latch onto new ideas

The Mycelium School, planned for Asheville, N.C., will use hands-on learning, community service, and a social entrepreneurship curriculum to help students build self-reliance and confidence.

Courtesy of
Matthew Abrams, founder and CEO of The Mycelium School. 'The school is meant to be a meeting place for people around the world who want to see change in their local communities,' he says.

Mycelium are the vegetative part of a fungus, through which mushrooms absorbs nutrients from their environment as they spread out, latch on to the roots of plants and trees, and collect information about deficiencies in the forest floor.

The Mycelium School is built on this model of learning: that students can come together and give to their environment and each other, while learning skills and nurturing their personal growth needs.Other ecological principles, such as diversity, integration, and systems-thinking will serve as the backbone for the school, set to break ground in Asheville, N.C., in 2012. Through hands-on service-learning projects and a social entrepreneurship curriculum, the planners of Mycelium hope that young adults will build self-reliance and confidence.

Dowser: Why is the Mycelium School needed and who is it targeted toward?
Founder and CEO Matthew Abrams: The school is meant to be a meeting place for people around the world who want to see change in their local communities. They will come to gain skills that they can then bring back home to effectuate the change they envision. But initially our student body will be largely domestic while we are becoming more financially stable.

You spent years traveling around the world before entering graduate school and beginning this project. Did you have experiences working with organizations which helped you form your ideas about the limits of Westerners going abroad and helping?

I was absolutely transformed by my travel experiences. When I started going abroad, I was working as a talent agent in New York City. But the more I traveled, the more it opened my eyes and inspired ideas to pop up in my head about changing the world.

I worked with a natural-living organization in Costa Rica, founded by people from the United States, that inspired me. They spent time there first doing nothing but listening to what locals told them about their needs and concerns, before deciding how they would contribute to that society. They had an integrated leadership structure and the decision-making process occurred in open circles every day.

But I’ve also seen naive projects that fail to account for local needs and interests. Those projects do not succeed, and instead they waste time and money.

What really strikes me about the school is what you said about how it focuses on life design. Students will be growing their own food, learning permaculture, and even building the space itself. What led you to include this in the curriculum?
Physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being are all intertwined. When we develop self-sufficiency, we become more capable of contributing to the world, and also less likely to take basic services for granted. Also, the students are going to be learning different ways of doing things from each other while they are working together on these projects.

There’s a lot of emphasis on community in the curriculum at Mycelium.
But also a strong focus on the individual. It’s not an either/or; both are so important. Our main pedagogical principal is that self-exploration and world-exploration can occur at once, and the school aims to provide students with the tools to connect the two, along with a sense of purpose. That’s why we want students who are leaders, who are looking to grow and willing to make changes.

The program sounds like a lot of fun, and it seems like enjoying experiences to their fullest has been a big part of your life as well. Does fun have a role in the curriculum at Mycelium?
One of the greatest tragedies in our current model of education is how laughter has been stripped away. I remember being sent to the principal’s office once for laughing in class.

Meaningful education is a balance between freedom and structure. Education is not always fun, nor should it be. Sometimes it’s appropriate to push participants - and educators - to the edges of comfort.

Who is someone that’s influenced your thinking or way of working?
Design pioneer Buckminster Fuller was an advocate of doing more with less, and that’s what we really need as a society right now. He focused on looking at things as they are and the services they provide, and then asking how they could be, what they could do. Also, late 19-century American artist Robert Henri saw critique as the downfall of innovation. I believe that critique limits the truths that live within us. And Brazilian education activist Paulo Freire also comes to mind. He talked about how education was seen as a system of 'banking': the teacher makes a deposit in the student’s mind, and the student spits it back out during a test, leaving her with nothing left. The aim of education is to grow, not regurgitate.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

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