Interview with Jacob Hundt, Founding Member of Thoreau College

Thoreau College

by Ernesto Estrella

Thoreau College

In the year of his 200th anniversary, Thoreau was celebrated in all possible ways we could expect and desire. Books, articles, symposia, and even a game based on Walden appeared, trying to make his work visible (and audible) in the noisy context of a tumultuous 2017. 

Particularly encouraging, given our pressing current challenges, is how Thoreau has been woven into educational projects throughout the country and across all levels (K-12 and beyond). Thoreau inspires us to undertake the task of teaching and learning the core values of democracy. And this inspiration has even brought the creation of ambitious educational projects, such as Thoreau College, a strong and beautiful idea that has taken root in Viroqua, Wisconsin. 

In June 2017, I had the chance to have a lengthy conversation with Jacob Hundt, one of the founding members of Thoreau College. It may come as no surprise that such an initiative was born in the land that saw Organic Valley go from a small farming community into a large-scale company. But I wanted to know the details of their Thoreauvian background, other educational influences, the college’s current status and their upcoming future steps. 

Thoreau College hike

EE: Why Thoreau?

JH: Thoreau, his model as a person, is an example of what we would like our graduates to be. And by that we mean a person who is indeed engaged with the great ideas and books of East and West civilizations. But also someone who is an artist, poet, builder, gardener, musician. In addition, we are talking about a person that is practically skilled. Beyond this, the rootedness of Thoreau is also very important to us. He is someone interested in nature, but nature in a very particular place.

EE: Why in Viroqua, Wisconsin?

JH: We are located in a small town of 4000 people, a couple of hours away from the university in Wisconsin, Madison. But there are a lot of artists here. And, of course, an incredible organic farming scene, one of the most important in the country. We are interested in giving our students a sense of place, and when you walk around here you can get into private valleys, rich hilltops, places that are like their own little world. There are many spots that have their own personality. I am sure Thoreau would have liked it here.

EE: What will Thoreau College’s place be in the context of higher education in the U.S.?

JH: We envision a very small college. We want students to be really immersed within the community. Deep Springs, on the California/Nevada border, is an existing example and an inspiration of what we are trying to do. What we are creating is micro-college, with a total enrollment of 25 to 30 students at any given time. So rather than having a campus that is its own bubble, we want to have the small town as the actual campus. We want students to be involved in the things that are happening with the farms, schools, and artists in the community. And we want that kind of interaction to be an important part of the curriculum. 

EE: So you are planning to create a team of “Thoreaus” and let them loose to help the community in their daily toils, like he used to do!

JH: Yes, that is right, something like that!

EE: Will the class cycles follow the usual semesters, 4-year time frame, etc.?

JH: Well, roughly. We are envisioning a Bachelor's degree that will unfold over three distinct phases. During the first couple of years spent in residence--the “Foundations Phase”--students will engage in a shared set of grounding, archetypal experiences in academics and the arts, physical labor and service work in the community, and participation in shared governance of the college. This will then be followed by the “Contemplations Phase” consisting of a period of private reflection and immersion in nature: a Walden pond experience, if you will. This in turn will lead to the final phase of the Thoreau College program, which we are calling the “Mission Phase.” During this time, students will craft their own individual course of study focused on a major project intended to have a real impact on the world in some way, and which could take place in Viroqua or anywhere else in the world.

EE: I am curious to know are you going to proceed with the recruiting and selection of the student body. Where are the students coming from? Are you looking for them? Are they looking for you? 

JH: We are now in the process of recruiting what we call the Founding Fellows. These first students will be like a prototype class. This is a group of people who are just finishing their college degree somewhere else, some are in their 30s or 40s, others have not gone to college yet. So it is a wide-ranging group of students coming from very different backgrounds. We are selecting five as the Founding Fellows that will initiate Thoreau College.  

As we were gathering feedback, we got a lot of interest from people that feel they did not get what they wanted from their university experience. So they have contacted us looking to expand their humanistic education, or excited about the engagement with the community, nature, or with learning practical and manual skills of some kind. And that is really part of what we think education should be. 

EE: Did you have any surprising, interesting candidates or see any trends in the applications?

JH: Well, yes, the biggest surprise has been a large interest coming from China. There is a growing Waldorf school movement in China and a lot of interest in Deep Springs. 

EE: I want to hear about the educational methods that you are planning to use in Thoreau College.

JH: Well, a big part of our inspiration, at least for the academic side of this project, has been other Great Books schools, so the Socratic method is important for us. The Waldorf model is also key to us, for it involves active use of the arts as a tool for exploration and for understanding of the world. Also from Waldorf and Deep Springs, we want to insist on engagement with the real world as much as possible. This means, of course, participation in the community. But also working on the organization of the college, figuring out how to fund it, how to recruit students, how to promote the college to the world, budgeting, etc. For us, another piece here would be teaching or assistant teaching with elementary and high school students. So that kind of active engagement with real life is what we are looking for.

EE: Where are you now in the process? You mentioned you have done a summer program?

JH: Last summer [in 2016] we had about 60 people and some 12 instructors and since then we have had a small group of people who have been working on the project. Our focus now is to select the 5 Founding Fellows. [As of early 2018, the Founding Fellows have been selected. There are six, and among them is long-time Thoreau Society volunteer Magdalena Bermudez.] 

EE: Surely other people have thought about creating a Thoreau school or college, and there are already some educational institutions that have his name as part of their core identity. But how did Thoreau College actually come to life and what is your own personal take here? Has Thoreau been an inspiration in your life too?

JH: I grew up in this area. I grew up on a dairy farm here in Southwestern Wisconsin. My parents were very much involved with a Waldorf school, so I ended up going there as an elementary school student. Around that same area in the same community, the organization that would become Organic Valley started. Many of the people that I had around me had this spirit of starting things, so there are a bunch of organizations and communities in the area that have had similar trajectories. They move fast from having an idea to saying, “Let us give it a shot.” So the core group at Thoreau College has been local people who came up in a similar way. Thoreau’s idea of going boldly is something that I always found true from my own experience, just by looking around in the community where I was raised.

EE: That is a very thrilling narrative, which brings me to the next question. You mentioned the small companies that grew big overnight. Mostly, I like what you said about bringing ideas into reality, which is a very Thoreauvian attitude in life. So there seems to be a strong entrepreneurial spirit in the area. Will there actually be connection to these organizations in terms of collaboration or funding?

JH: A core value for us is to allow people to have a rigorous, robust education without having to go into debt. Deep Springs is again our example, the golden standard for us: zero [cost for] room, board, and tuition, 100 percent full scholarship for everyone there. So if possible, we would like to do that. How? One thing is limiting expenses, living simply, following again Thoreau’s lead. Another thing is, of course, building partnerships with local organizations. Maybe it is a work-trade relationship with a farm for food, maybe with a carpenter or builder for work on infrastructure, sometimes it will be a financial relationship.

EE: That sounds like a well-knit networking community system, and I am sure students will appreciate the no-debt solution. What about the professors? Where will they be coming from?

JH: This is one of the most essential question we need to answer. We are interested in generalists and people who can think across disciplines. We also want people that have some familiarity with the ideas of Thoreau, Steiner, and the deeper inspirations of our project. We hope to have a core faculty in residence, but also many people who come as guest speaker, or come to teach for a month or a semester. 

EE: Finally, as we move on in this Thoreau bicentennial year, you have probably found partner institutions and organizations related to Thoreau and to the general spirit of Thoreau College. Are there actual connections to other organizations, nationally, internationally?

JH: One of our founders is now in China, at this region where the Waldorf movement is happening. We also have close relationships with Deep Springs and other initiatives that are following their model. One of them is in Alaska, called The Outer Coast College. Another one is Watson University, in Colorado, focused on students that have a big project they want to undertake. There have been a lot of conversations with them in relation to the last phase of our program, the one in which our graduates go into their individual projects. Finally, there is also the Youth Initiative Program in Sweden that we have been talking with. So yes, there is wide network and we are planning in expanding it as we move on. 

EE: For a Thoreau scholar and educator, your project seems like a perfect celebration of Henry David’s 200th anniversary. I want to wish you and the whole Thoreau College team and community the best of luck. Hopefully, our next conversation will have Viroqua, Wisconsin as a background!

JH: Thanks a lot. It has been a pleasure to share this time with you. 


Ernesto EstrellaErnesto Estrella is the founder and director of the Nomadic School of the Senses (NoSoS), an organization devoted to bringing innovation to the global education movement. With a PhD from Columbia University, he has worked as Assistant Professor of Contemporary Poetry at Yale University and as executive director of The Voice Observatory, a music and sound-art platform funded by the Senate of Berlin.