Ideal College

Notes Toward an Ideal College

by Gerald Grow

Reprinted from California Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 1, No. 3. May, 1973.


This idealistic, exuberant vision for college education is characteristic of the humanistic fervor of the late 1960’s. Even though some of the article now sounds naive or lost in California-talk of the late 1960s, many of its points remain worth thinking about today.


1. The world goes by much too fast for thought; that is why we have feelings. But the world changes faster than our feelings do; that is why we have thought.

Considered separately, feeling actually embodies a higher level of integration than thought. Deep body-feeling can include dozens, perhaps hundreds, of simultaneous processes in extremely complex interrelationships.

Thought excludes and simplifies to attain a greater clarity: clarity which can educate and adjust, or adjust to, the deeper feeling responses. In moments of crisis, excitement, creative joy, and illumination, thought and feeling can merge into a total body-mind state which we then recognize as “normal”–and rare.

Directly intuitive, feelingful thoughts are the norm for human beings, and contain our greatest accumulated wisdom. Learning becomes integrated into the person only when it penetrates to and becomes infused with feeling, when it becomes second nature, as if the student had himself created the knowledge out of his own experience and inner urge.

2. Truth, identity, and society are interdependent, ever-changing human creations and are always subject to the test of experience.

3. Truth is characterized by

(1) intensity and variety of contact, and

(2) range and depth of integration.

4. Each person is potentially capable of self-regulation. Authority, law, tradition, and even truth are human creations. Our task is not to follow them, but to generate the kinds of authority, law, tradition and truth that fulfill the circumstances of our lives. If a tradition is valid, an inquiring student will re-create its essentials for himself. If a tradition is invalid, hopefully, over time, inquiring students will gradually replace it with a newly-created tradition that more fully meets human reality. Everything is subject to one test: does it, in the long run, lead to a fuller life?

Since most students, by the age of 5, have already established limiting and perhaps destructive patterns of behavior, self-regulation must be carefully developed.

Freedom is not enough. Sudden freedom may lead to chaos and a comforting dictatorship. Therefore, a college devoted to continuous renewal must include two focuses: (1) how to alter self-defeating attitudes and behavior; and (2) how to prevent them.

5. Since human beings have basically the same perceptual, neural, and physical equipment through which to learn the truth, and since the same basic experiences are available to everyone, the truth is one. That is, all persons living openly and fully will find a wide area of common understanding.

6. The goal of a teacher is to teach people not to need teachers. The best education culminates in self-education.


To cultivate the human center from which civilization springs: a center of identity from which students may securely experience change; a center of strength to which they may return for renewal; a creative center from which they may generate solutions to new problems; a center of securely grounded learning by which they may judge new experiences; a center of simple innocence with which they may approach the world freshly; a center rooted in the wisdom and energy of the body as well as the mind; a center of verve, vitality, and deep joy through which they may live a rich and varied life.

One of the most important functions of college is providing a setting for HUMAN CHANGE. Here, people who wish to change may come to try a wide range of techniques, from great books to creative arts to religion to various therapies — or simply a supportive environment in which people can wander about and, in their own ways, rediscover themselves and redirect their lives.

In an atmosphere where the essentials of life are continually explored, felt, and emphasized, change could be more secure and less chaotic than among the groundless variety of half-solutions in society at large. College could be a place where people come to re-connect with their deepest selves, to re-experience their deepest feelings, to dissolve constricting patterns, to explore the best of the past, and, in general, to renew the kind of inner direction, vitality, joy, and commitment that make life worthwhile.

According to current estimates, 85% of the products to be on the market by the year 2000 have not been invented yet [written in 1973]. This is only one index of the unimaginable rate of change ahead of us. We must prepare ourselves and our students to meet this change by developing a firm physical and mental center, an openness to experience, a sense of adventure, and a tested respect for one’s own creative capacities.

Problem and Potential

Each person is born with the potential of living a life that, by his own terms, is fulfilling and joyful. Tragically, much of this potential becomes locked into unproductive patterns, and the person lives mainly among the unresolved problems of his past. Some patterns are imposed by social conditions-such as poverty. Some are-or soon become-internal in origin, such as limiting personality traits.

But even in his most constricted state, each person is capable of re-establishing contact with that relatively pure center from which his life springs, and in which his real identity lies, surrounded by organic processes larger than consciousness.

Basic Processes

1. Centering

Centering is discovering who you are, what you value, what you feel. Learning to recognize your own experience and value it. Finding the still point in your mind and body. Becoming “clear” enough to be open to experience and action, free of unresolved thought or inappropriate habitual responses.

Developing a personal, body-oriented, mental and physical and spiritual sense of oneness, integrity, worth, existence, being, energy. Finding a point you can return to when all else fails. Discovering first hand the ground of your being, the essential structure against which all experience is measured, through which the world is assimilated and created, from which needs are felt and met, by which contact is made with other people, through which you understand, learn, feel, and grasp what, under many names, has been called God.

Searching for the roots of being: a condition at once personal and transcendent. A prerequisite for perception.

2. Exploring

Or, the Art of Getting Lost. We are only just beginning to understand breathing, let alone the mind. Each person re-creates the entire universe inside. The best place to start: realizing that “reality” is largely a human, cultural invention, that we live in an environment designed by the human mind and executed by human hands; that we carry around a symbolic universe in our heads, through which we process all experiences, thus making the new and raw into the cultured and known.

Knowing the unknown, however, can do violence to the mystery of things. Our “knowledge” is usually inadequate and only comes as a glint of light on one wave in the ocean of experience. Few things are as important as giving up “the known” and submerging into mystery.

You must relearn the capacity to see the world again as if for the first time. Only such “innocence” can free you from boredom; only such re-seeing can save lovers from shrinking into the opaque kernel of the known. Artists and scientists alike cultivate this fundamental ability to question the obvious, to rely upon their own perception more than any given explanation.

And courage: you need courage to unbutton the comforting familiar and enter, naked, a world of unknowing, a world of experience, a world where each discovery uncovers the extent of our larger ignorance. Every night, we go to sleep in such a world of innocence and mystery. We must learn to wake up in that world, too.

3. Grounding

Relating learning, experience, explorations, work, relationships, and creativity to, your center. Personalizing knowledge. Testing everything against your own experience. Returning to essentials again and again, and maintaining a sense of the relative importance of things.

Establishing fuller, richer, and more varied connections between your deepest self and the world.

Example: learning in the body what certain words mean, as “hate,” “anger,” “love,” “trust.”

4. Integrating

Not separate from Centering and Grounding, but with a different emphasis. Integrating is the process of assimilating experience into the self and interrelating experiences.

Dreams perform a vital integrative function in life, as do feeling and creative work. In life, there are no separable categories. A curriculum should reflect this by continuously attempting to connect separate “disciplines.”

Integrated knowledge is grounded in each person’s body, feelings, values, and needs. Analysis and rationality can be important steps in integrating, as long as they are not treated as ends in themselves.

5. Creating

Creating takes place at a level of living at which life is continuously created, thought, felt, renewed. Creation is not a particular activity, but a way of living, a way of being and doing such that your basic center is expressed in all things possible, your needs met through a continuous contact with self and world, and your life renewed through a constant testing and remaking of personality, habit, tradition, society, and relationships. Creativity is what bridges the gap between your human center and the (at times) intractable universe.

Schools stress intellectual honesty at the expense of emotional honesty–which is more fundamental. Creativity depends on expressiveness, authenticity. Usually we live out a “conspiracy of niceness” or a “conspiracy of silence” which defines certain feelings as “bad” or “non-existent.”

Why not be honest about all levels of experience? Honesty is usually grim, punitive. Why not instead think of an emotional honesty expressed with verve and joy? We know how we should respond, usually. We need to pay more attention to how we actually do respond. And in the process, re-test all the “shoulds.”

A special division of creating is the “creative compromise.” Life is like a sonnet: limited, bound by certain rules and limitations. Yet a great poet can express an unlimited amount of life in that limited form.

Similarly, the Art of Imperfection saves us from pining away after the unattainable and allows us to celebrate What Is, and life through the limiting forms available to us at any moment. Thus, two imperfect people can have a perfect relationship.

Small, limited, oddly shaped, the cup of life, when filled, keeps and keeps on receiving, as if its fullness made it infinite (which it does).

Work is one of the most important things in life. I mean creative, expressive engagement between a whole human being and a complex world. In studying, most students only take in; they do not express. They do not engage, they do not transform.

I believe the traditional four-year full-time program of study harmful to most people, because it locks them into a position of inferiority (“student”) at a time when they need to be asserting their individuality and meeting their own needs in the world they will have to live in. Work can be one of the best ways of self-discovery. Human beings seem to have a “competence drive” that urges them to get their hands on the world, and explore and change it.

Full-time students are deprived of the satisfactions and self-discovery of work. Besides, with more knowledge of the outside world, students might have a better perspective on the value and limitations of college.

In addition to being a retreat, I think a college should also be a bridge to the world and concern itself with the problems of the world. Students should be given the opportunity to explore a wide variety of fields. As it is now, a student might decide to become, say, a lawyer, without ever meeting a lawyer, and knowing nothing more about the profession than Perry Mason shows.

6. Letting Go

In times of experiment and change, nothing is more important than the carefully cultivated, practiced, and valued ability to let go: to let go and relax into restorative body states; to let go impermanent relationships; to let go of creative solutions so you can face new challenges; to let go old habits and limiting ways; to let go fear and timidity; to let go your demand for permanence and accept the provisional, ever-changing movement of life.

Centering is a vital step in letting go. Without being centered in your body, letting go may be a trauma. Currently, the search for a way to letting go is leading many to drugs, which, however, may fail to provide the centering which is so essential in letting go.

7. Love

In a sense, love is the basic emotion. Anger, aggression, curiosity, might be seen as ways of reaching out toward love. Fear, hurt, and crying might be seen as ways of protecting one’s ability to feel love. Love–that state of full-functioning, glowing, radiant wholeness and relatedness–is the single great reward of living.

An ideal college would seek ways for students (and teachers) to love more deeply and widely. A book is fully assimilated only when students feels for it something like love, and when it gives them richer ways to love. Deep feelings lie behind all great human creations–whether art or philosophy or mathematics. In studying these things, we should not just treat them on the cognitive level, but also seek to feel them–and to feel the depth of experience that gave rise to them. We should not only try to see Shakespeare, we should try to see like Shakespeare.

Falling in love is a vital part of the experience of most college-age people. Colleges should study human relationships, and offer various kinds of formats where successes and difficulties among friends and lovers can be shared. Where pain can be transformed into growing pains.

We should recognize that marriage is undergoing a radical transformation right now, in our times. We should support experimentation. Indeed, we should prepare people for a life of experimentation. And we should seek ways to prepare people for love–especially since so many forces work to make people incapable of loving.

The future will always look horrible until we develop the courage to face the present. If marriage is a viable form of human relationship, experimentation will confirm it. If not, experimentation might find something better, provided people learn to live from their centers, rather than from the desperation of abstract sex.

Unexpressed love can be deadly and tragic. We must abandon all substitutes for the real thing–even if it means giving up certain compulsions we habitually reward: as in the coldly-driven overworker and the soulless thinker. Colleges, in their timid pursuit of “knowledge” are sometimes loveless and inhumane, and reward with success those who have sacrificed their ability to love to a lesser ability to think, or to write, or to manipulate, or otherwise to specialize their whole, feeling softness into sharp-edged, efficient fragments. Let’s–please!–find another ideal to follow: one that fosters human wholeness.

8. Contact

These Basic Processes can be summarized in one word: contact. Thinking, feeling, work, creating, even sex can be done by only a part of the person. Contact is a whole-self function. Indeed, contact is the whole-self function.

Deeper than awareness, more inclusive than thought, broader than concentration, contact is a state of continuous communication between the various parts of the self, between mental and bodily processes, between the self and others, between the self and the world.

A person may create a work of art, work, or carry on a conversation while in touch with only certain parts of himself. But the only authentic actions are whole actions. In a state of contact, a person doing a task is in touch with his inner signals, with the world around him, and with his plan.

Contactless people might bludgeon their way through a job, or create works of soulless precision. Contactlessness is typically characterized by feelings of deadness, fragmentation, vague and pervading anxiety.

Contact may be reestablished through any of several routes: through focus on contact with the self, spreading out to the world and others. Or focus on work, spreading out to fuller contact with the self and with others. And so on. Under conditions of generous contact, out is in, and in is out. The external world reveals us to ourselves; and the better we know ourselves, the better we can know the world.

On a practical level, students living in an atmosphere where people value contact will not write a mechanical essay, “fulfilling the assignment,” but will seek ways to express and develop themselves through everything they do.

The Centering Core Program

All good education teaches people to be increasingly self-educating. Educational–and personal–maturity is a process of increasing inner-direction and decreasing dependence on external authority.

However, the educational system as a whole seems geared to produce a divided student:

  • one who on the one hand is highly dependent on external authority, because he has gotten so good at following directions he can’t stop;
  • and on the other hand is deeply resentful, sometimes openly rebellious toward these authorities.

By the time most students reach college, they have had many years of learning to be clean and neat and write their names in the upper right hand corner, last name first, followed by the date, and so on and on. This is not bad in itself. But by itself, this kind of education undermines an individual’s ability to reach the relative freedom of mature interdependence.

The ideal college would start in kindergarten, helping teach students to make their own decisions and learn from their own experiences. Unfortunately, we can’t do that; but instead have to start with freshmen–already deeply formed by an educational philosophy often at odds with the ideal of self-regulation.

Therefore, the core program of my ideal college would consist of a series of courses and programs and experiences aimed at grounding each student sufficiently in his own physical and psychic center; attuning him sufficiently to his own values, feelings, and needs; acquainting him sufficiently with his own talents, capacities, and motivations-that he will begin to be in a position to choose an education for himself.

This calls for an active program. Doing nothing about this (as we do now) means endorsing the dependency and timidity that the school system currently encourages.

How would such a program work? No one knows. Yet I think for the first time there is enough educational and psychological–and human–knowledge available to create such a program. It requires the best, most humane experts doing their best thinking-and testing their plans against the experience of students in the pilot program. I can’t say what the final version would look like. But I can offer some general ideas on what I think it might do.

In the first place, the Centering Core Program would focus on developing human beings. Our goal is for each student to become–not a student or an employee or a sportsman or anything else–but a person in his own right. This is not easy.

Much in our thinking and in our institutions encourages half-people. They follow directions better, make fewer waves. And live smaller, more nervous lives.

One of the basic steps in the Centering process is to bring students increasingly into contact with their emotional lives. This may sound trivial next to the older ideal of teaching the Great Minds of the Past; but in the long run, I believe this is far more important.

We need an atmosphere in which students are encouraged to experience themselves on more and more levels. Students might participate in exercises designed to put them gently into contact with unacknowledged parts of themselves-so that these many wandering selves may contribute their energies constructively toward the person’s mental-emotional-bodily self.

This involves two basic procedures:

(1) a strengthening of the students’ energy and expressiveness; and

(2) the removal of blocks to their experience of themselves and the world.

As more blocks are removed and as more authentic experiences emerge, students will find themselves more fully alive, more interested in explorations, and less in need of orders.

This process can be long and difficult. No one really knows how to do it on a large scale–yet. I am not proposing encounter or any other present form of therapy, but something much larger: an attempt to gather together under one roof many of the now-dying functions of the church , the family, the traditional college, and the community. There, we can attempt the basic task of cultivating whole human beings who, hopefully, will begin to create a self-perpetuating society of health and human fulfillment. By transforming people, education could help transform the world.

This program would seek a vital balance between personal security and personal risk. Present educational institutions seem to complicate a student’s insecurities in order to make him more tractable. If we worked to make people genuinely themselves, secure in the experience of their own lives and needs, we would have to re-face the questions of:

  • What is Important?
  • Why do anything?
  • Why read Plato?
  • Will a vibrantly alive person even bother with Shakespeare?
  • Can history contribute anything to a life of richer experience?

I suspect that active, growing, exploring students, expanding from their felt centers, will seek knowledge much more actively than traditional students who read because they are told to. A well-centered student could risk liking something out of the ordinary because he could test it against his own needs and experiences. Such a student could also risk liking the classics without feeling intimidated.

The Core Program would also try to bring students into contact with the most important things in life-not just books. People would be brought to consider birth and death, making a living, old age, childhood, illness, politics, the natural world, technology and the media, the nature of the world they will have to live in and transform, sex, love, the family, the nature of change, the human body, the life-cycle, the possibilities and limitations of their lives, the parameters we live and work and love in.

Student-Centered Programs

Institutions do not spring from a deity, nor do they come to us with a perfect wisdom from the past. They are human creations. They are designed to meet human needs. People live in them and through them. Some of our basic institutions are now undergoing rapid and radical change (education and marriage).

The unusual growing pains now experienced in our culture arise in part from our helplessness in the face of human institutions, our inability to see them clearly, our habituation to established ways of doing things, and our over-respect for the past. All must be tested against the basic criterion: does it foster a fulfilling life?

Much of life consists in designing, modifying, and/or living in human institutions (like schools, families, and governments). College could be a place where people gain practice in forming, testing, and changing the institutions which shape their lives.

When a student designs her own curriculum–alone or with a group of friends–she may not devise the most efficient way to learn, say, urban problems. But she will probably do fine. And, more important, she will gain experience in the basic human skill of creating institutions for herself to live through. Similarly, a student-organized commune can be a powerful learning-situation where people come to grips with the problems of social and individual life.

Teachers probably shouldn’t have much to do with such student-run programs, except to act as consultants.

  • The first task of a teacher is to lead a fulfilling life.
  • The second task is to teach.

And if that life is whole enough, students will seek the teacher out, in order to learn how to live better. And even one lost in the wilderness can be good at teaching survival skills.


A good education is grounded in

(1) personal identity,
(2) human relationships,
(3) deep relationships with the living past, and
(4) a life in the world.

Books are not enough. Students need to do, to work, to risk, to fail, to meet real situations outside the classroom and pit themselves against them. Therefore some kind of work-study program seems best. Here, students would periodically return to the college in order to ground and integrate their experiences to test themselves against the past and against art’s vision of human possibility, and to re-center.

A college could become a place where one question is foremost:

  • “Are you living as well as you could?”

–And College could cultivate old and new approaches to enriching life.

 Role of the Great Books

The goal is not to study Great Books for their own sake, but in order to re-activate those levels of human creativity from which the Great Books sprang. More than the past, we need a renewed capacity for generating our own Great Books and great solutions.

Great Books programs traditionally suffer from teaching too much respect. They tend to cow students. They produce critics rather than creators. They focus too much on the recorded experience of another person, not enough on the student’s own.

Any program, including Great Books, Humanities, Sciences, Art, Social Sciences, or even professional training, is good if it can be used to discover and strengthen the student’s center, his capacity for experience, and his creative living.


An ideal college would be full of alternative ways of growth. At one time, the church or a professional program might have been enough. A liberal-arts curriculum might have been enough. But no longer. Now we need active, well-grounded explorers in all areas:

  • Eastern thought,
  • humanistic and somatic psychology,
  • growth groups,
  • the bodily arts,
  • the creative arts,
  • the roots of religious experience,
  • the natural world,
  • performing arts,
  • humanistic sciences,
  • human relationships,
  • even just plain work,
  • just plain reading and writing,
  • just plain traditional disciplines (treated as means, not ends),
  • even just watching a flower unfold or the sun rise and knowing this is as important as Aquinas.

–What have I left out?

 The Role of Experience

Some remarkable individuals, such as Emily Dickenson, have lived rich lives within a seemingly narrow range of experience. Most of us, however, would be better off to seek a certain nutritional variety in our experiences. What we are and what we think is largely determined by what we do. Students should have available a wide range of vital life experiences, human beings, and modes of living. Much that there is to learn cannot be learned from books.
For example, students should not study religion, but actively seek and cultivate religious experience. Then they will know that all theologies are attempts to make sense out of something simple, direct, and real in human life.

Students should not only study literature, but also seek literary experience: the experience of feeling, needing to express something, expressing it, testing that expression, and celebrating the process. They should come to view great art as a valuable celebration of their own potentiality, a higher ordering of experience.

Students should not only study scientific law, but also scientific method: the actual human activity of discovery and testing, intuition and failure, law and revolution. Whenever possible, students should rediscover basic physical laws, and come into contact with scientists who, are working on the murky forefront of knowledge, far from the misleading certainties of textbooks.

Genuine experience is rare. Most of what we call “experience” is mere repeating of established patterns, filling in categories, or punching buttons. Real experience contains a strong element of uncertainty; it demands a personal, creative response; it may be almost invisible; it may seem trivial. In the long run, though, experience is all there is.

  • Learning is good when it leads to richer experience of one’s self and the world (not that the two are separate).
  • Learning is bad when it constricts experience through inducing too set patterns, too much “respect,” or a general timidity.

Above all, college should seek to cultivate that class of experiences which are integrative, generative, personal and social, individual and cosmic. “Peak experiences” are not accidental. They are accessible to everyone, as recent humanistic and somatic psychologies have shown.

Great Books and great art are only one way to approach peak experiences. The goal is for the student to generate, in the course of his ordinary living, peak experiences and creative responses that are comparable to the best of the past. Or which, at least, fulfill in the student’s own life the same function writing Hamlet must have served for Shakespeare.

Authentic creation, whether or not objectively “good,” can sometimes serve the ends of individual growth better than the great classics. The goal is wholeness, not applause.

Final Premise

All premises and processes in this paper are hypotheses. Any or all of them could be wrong. Their value lies in how much can be learned from thinking them through and testing them.


Articles and Creative Work