The Needs We Serve
Mending Our Civic Fabric
It is no secret that our society – both nationally and globally – has fractured deeply along lines of identity, ideology, and income. These cleavages indisputably threaten the integrity of our civic fabric, the institutions of our democracy, and our international relationships. Despite their many blessings, technological innovation and social mobility have only abetted these trends, allowing us to ensconce ourselves within comfortable echo chambers where we need not engage with people or ideas different from us. Too often, educational institutions encourage this profoundly anti-educational tendency.
Yet educational institutions were once held to be the guarantors both of harmonious civil society and strong democratic institutions – precisely because they socialized students in diverse settings and taught the skills and knowledge required for good citizenship. The erosion of required civics coursework and the increasing homogeneity of many schools have attenuated the ability of educational institutions to perform this vital role.
The Arete Project provides an educational antidote to this social fragmentation. We start by bringing together diverse cohorts of students and instructors small enough to encourage the growth of real human relationships. We then ask these cohorts to co-create an educational experience in a remote setting where they must democratically share space and resources. We thereby foster a nurturing, generous space where students can have the difficult conversations that are the first step to real social change. We craft academic coursework that gives students new and innovative ways to approach these conversations. We focus attention on these matters by alleviating students’ technology dependence. And we ask students to take responsibility for one another as fellow learners and fellow human beings.
After a session of bunking together and dining together, chopping wood together and studying together, taking hikes together and making decisions together, our students emerge with a newfound ability to create human bonds across boundaries of difference.
Stewarding Our Shared Earth
We live on an ecological precipice, in a world where climate change, pollution, and mass extinctions threaten the wellbeing both of humanity and the natural world. In cities and high-rises, surrounded by freeways, it can be difficult to remember that we too are part of an ecosystem – wholly dependent upon natural resources, empowered with the ability to control many of them, and thereby invested with the responsibility to manage them well.
At the Arete Project, our students feel palpably their interdependence with the natural world. We eat from the land: students spend time each day in the garden, cleaning fish, foraging for wild plants and berries, preserving their harvest in the kitchen. We are powered by the land: hydroelectric and solar power – their stations immediately accessible to the campus – provide clean energy for our operations. We are sheltered by the land: students use locally-sourced lumber to build and maintain our campus infrastructure. We learn from the land: coursework in field ecology and environmental humanities provide diverse disciplinary approaches to the study of nature. We give back to the land: litter cleanup, habitat restoration, and invasive species eradication are part of our service commitment.
Yet being a good steward is challenging, with many interests at stake and many values in play. The rural locations of our programs provide the opportunity for students to consider the complexity of conservation decision-making. In North Carolina, the species diversity of Appalachian balds is preserved by crews armed with weed-wackers. In Alaska, the explosion of the recently-reintroduced sea otter population has decimated the intertidal ecosystem and imperlied local economies. Faced with the consequences of these and other real examples, students prepare for the challenges of responsible stewardship through a broad array of scientific, humanistic, and experiential enquiry.
Reimagining Our Educational Institutions
Modern educational practices – both at the university and K-12 levels – have created an academic culture that values achievement over learning, knowledge over wisdom, research over teaching, and frills over substance. While engaging and partnering with existing educational institutions, the Arete Project creates spaces for living and learning that stand apart from this culture. Students are invested with responsibilities that extend far beyond their GPAs; instructors are valued first as teachers and mentors and second as scholars; and education is takes place as a communal enterprise in a setting of rustic simplicity.
Our educational model engages students in body and mind, rejecting the false dichotomy that severs the two in most academic environments. Each day students spend roughly half their day in physical labor: building and maintaining our physical plant, tending the garden, preparing meals, and chopping firewood. Some of this work is directed inwards towards the campus and student body; some of it is directed outwards towards the community. For many students, especially those on elite academic pathways, the experience of digging a ditch, hoeing potatoes, or using a screw gun may be totally foreign. Our labor pillar encourages the habits of mind that arise from working with your hands: problem-solving and creativity, team work and solo work, perseverance and humility.
The other half of the day students spend in study – inside or outside the classroom – exploring in theory the questions presented by their labor, their natural surroundings, and their human interactions. A fraught self-governance decision might be illuminated by a passage from Plato or James Baldwin. A dying shore pine might spark investigation into ecological niches, succession, or climate change. A foray to harvest beach asparagus might incite a heated debate about the ethics of subsistence foraging – or a public reading of Mary Oliver’s poetry. At the Arete Project, we pursue intellectual activity both for the sake of solving real problems and for the pure joy of exploring and discovering.
Regular self-governance meetings round out the experience, requiring students to make democratic decisions that ensure the wellbeing of the campus, community, and institution. The scope of student decisionmaking is tailored to the length of the program and the age of the students. Short-term students might be asked to manage their own living spaces, to assign their own labor rotations, to take responsibility for leading a class discussion, or to set their own community code of conduct. Gap year students begin to take on responsibility for the organization as a whole, helping recruit and admit new students, hire faculty, set the curriculum, and run short-term programs.
Arete Project students undertake an education that has real stakes. We believe that education must draw the student out of himself and into the world; this cannot be accomplished in an educational system that prioritizes superficial ambition and encourages solipsistic achievement. Grades and transcripts hold little value here; what matters is the dutiful performance of your responsibilities to the community – and the wisdom you gain in the process. If students don’t show up for a milking shift, the cow will sicken and the kitchen will go without dairy products. If self-governance falls apart, crucial decisions will be left unmade. What the Arete Project provides is no simulation – it is real leadership, real service, and real education.
The mission of the Arete Project is education towards its highest ends: the cultivation of wisdom, the living of a good life in thought and action, and selfless devotion to world and humanity.
Arete builds this education around three central pillars: rigorous engagement with the liberal arts, physical labor undertaken in service of the land and community, and student self-governance over each other and the organization as a whole.
Arete conducts its programs in a human context and on a human scale: in small, close-knit communities and rural and wilderness settings; through meaningful relationships between students, faculty, and staff; and through demanding intellectual and physical work on which the community depends.
Arete regards its students as beneficiaries, rather than consumers, of their educations: tuition and administrative expenses are kept to a minimum, and no student is turned away for inability to pay.
What is arete?
The term arete (AH-reh-tay) designates a thing’s highest potential, excellence, or virtue. The concept of arete emerges from ancient Greek philosophy and literature, and is found throughout the writings of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and their intellectual descendants. In relation to human virtuosity, the term has been associated with bravery, cooperation, justice, loyalty, intelligence, compassion, diligence – while ultimately transcending them all. The Arete Project takes an expansive view of human excellence, balancing together the uniqueness of each student’s potential and the flourishing of the community in which they live.
The Arete Project provides an educational opportunity for young people that emphasizes intellectual intensity, democratic participation and leadership, connection to the natural world, and personal and communal responsibility. It combines a top-tier liberal arts academic programming with a practical education in stewardship and citizenship, supported by the three pillars of academics, labor, and self-governance. All participants will be held to the ground rules: (a) isolation on campus, encouraging introspective and intensive engagement with the community and (b) a strict policy forbidding the use of drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. Apart from these foundational regulations – along with required engagement with the three pillars – the task of self-governance will see all participants active together in creating and maintaining their own polity.
What We Offer
- Liberal education in its highest form. Through the three pillars of academics, labor, and self-governance, students spend all day, every day learning with body and mind. Academic coursework fosters intellectual engagement with the questions students encounter in their daily lives: questions of nature and its forces, questions of human relations and action, questions of meaning and purpose. Labor draws students into responsibility for one another and their community; whether by hoeing potatoes, chopping firewood, or repairing roofs, students are stewards of their own lives and educations. Self-governance completes the triad of living and learning, requiring student to form a political community, to govern themselves, to make decisions collectively and democratically across boundaries of difference. In all pillars, intellectual and physical rigor are expected and encouraged.
- Commitment to service (without lip service). Our mission is to prepare young people for lives of service to humanity and the world. But we leave open what that service may look like. Deep inquiry and debate into the nature of service is expected of all students. Each student will participate in daily service to campus and community. This service may take on different forms, should frequently be led by students, and is built upon real relationships that obviate any possibility of “voluntourism.”
- Connection to place. Many young people today live lives of extraordinary mobility and transience. Even those who don’t rarely get to know their own homelands with intimacy. We provide the opportunity for students to live deeply in a place: to work the land, eat from its bounty, learn its flora and fauna, investigate its natural forces, harness its energy, grapple with its history, manage its resources, traverse it on foot and by kayak, read under its trees, meditate upon its beaches, find inspiration in its heights and depths, and share its goodness within the community. Here, humans are a palpable part of an ecosystem that sustains and embraces them. We offer an immersive educational encounter with this uniquely wild terrain.
- A close-knit community of inquiry. True education flourishes best in small cohorts where trust and intimacy can grow naturally. With student groups capped at eighteen and a high faculty-to-student ratio, our educational programming rests upon the human bonds that develop naturally between members of a community. Those bonds of fellowship create a safe space for dangerous conversations: the heartfelt sharing and frank debate necessary to get students thinking beyond their own horizons.
- Freedom from distraction. Our rural campus provides a haven from the social and technological distractions that permeate modern life. Here there are no bars or movie theaters, no shopping malls, no arcades. Though limited internet and phone service are available, their scarcity permits students to make intentional decisions about technology use that otherwise would be second nature. Absence of such distractions create an increasingly rare space for deep concentration and contemplation, and for the formation of similarly deep relationships.
The Arete Project does not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, national and/or ethnic origin, citizenship, marital status, sexual orientation, mental or physical ability, or gender identity/expression in the administration of any of its educational programs, admissions policies, financial aid, and other related policies and programs, as well as volunteer and employment-related policies and activities.