The Liberal Arts Value of Going Off-the-Grid

By Cheyanne Cierpial

If education continually pushes technology and innovation, is there value in disconnecting and giving it all up in order to learn? Imaging waking before your morning class in Cabin Atlas, where you live with eight of your peers. You’ve left enough time to cook yourself breakfast, two eggs you’ve collected from the chicken coop outside, before you bike the mile to main campus to join the hustle and bustle of college life. Located on Denison University’s campus, Cabin Atlas is part of the Homestead, an experiment started in 1977 to create an “agriculturally based self-reliant democratic community.” Each year, a dozen students choose to live a simple, socio-environmentally ethical lifestyle that differs greatly from the traditional dorm or apartment style living most American college students experience.  The Homestead is comprised of Cabin Phoenix, Cabin Bob, Cabin Atlas, and community gardens, and it is situated on the university’s 360 acre Biological Reserve. Students living at the Homestead share responsibilities of cooking dinner, taking care of the chickens and cats, chopping wood, tending to the boiler center, composting, and more. 

Denison University is not the only liberal arts school that has embraced an experiential living and learning community based on sustainability and nature. St. Lawrence University offers an Adirondack Semester for students interested in studying nature and human relationships through academics and direct experience. During this semester, students opt to live off-the-grid in the Adirondacks. Like the Homestead, students live in “a materially simple, close-knit community in close connection to wild nature.” In today’s technology obsessed world, it is hard to imagine students letting go of their laptops, tablets, cell phones, television, speakers, and radio for an extended period of time. Without these devices, participants are able to focus on their academic courses, the power of nature, and the beauty in being together. Two students, Julia Callahan and Maggie Bolger, wrote on the Adirondack Semester Weekly Updates blog titled “Gratitude”: “As the days become shorter and our time here dwindles, we are jumping on any opportunity to be together. We all shared gratitude for the moments spent here.”

Earlham College’s eleven acre Miller Farm is yet another example of experiential education through sustainable living, described as a “not-for-credit residential student cooperative.” A 1975 article from the Earlham student newspaper explains the importance of student involvement with agriculture at Earlham: “We need to be oriented not only to the service of humanity, but to the ability of students to more fully understand and participate in the world which we will have to live most of our lives in.” 

In the liberal arts, learning takes place beyond the classroom. Students are taught to interact with their surroundings, whether it is engaging in discussions or getting their hands dirty, knee deep in mud to collect samples. Connecting with people and places is one of many ways the liberal arts help construct autonomous, critical, curious citizens. As the 1975 Earlham article highlights, these homesteads, eco-villages, and off-the-grid experiments give students the opportunity to understand the world in a unique and sustainable way. These intentional living conditions put emphasis on self-discovery, community, and hands-on learning to reinforce the traditional liberal arts education. The Denison Homestead is where building, research, academics, documentation, and experience become integrated. Simultaneously, it is where students give up Wi-Fi for wood stoves and dining halls for potlucks and bonfires. A semester in the mountains enriches the college experience with memories of rock climbing, kayaking, weekend expeditions, and conversations around a dinner table without constant interruptions of cell phones.  

Bolger and Callahan write in the weekly blog of the Adirondack Semester, “After every adventure filled day as the sun sets behind the trees, we retreat to the front dock to watch the stars appear overhead from the comfort of our sleeping bags. Lucky are we to be able to wake up in the middle of the night to catch a shooting star or to see the early morning sunrise and fall back asleep until the smell of coffee fills our noses. We are finally settled into the rhythms of Arcadia and feeling as if we are right at home.” Students walk away with what is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience and happy college memories, that just happen to be intertwined with their education, in order to go out into the world with the tools to leave the world better (and more sustainable) than they found it. 

Cheyanne Cierpial is a senior at Denison University majoring in English Literature and minoring in Psychology. Denison University is home to the Theta of Ohio Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.