Beyond Book-Learning

Working hands earn degrees at Sterling College

| May-June 1999

Remember when you had to drop out of college to go hike the Appalachian Trail? Or what about when you decided you wanted to learn how to milk a cow and grow your own vegetables? Probably the only options back then were joining a commune, or maybe a kibbutz. Either way, when you were finished, you walked away with a lot of knowledge and plenty of stories, but no degree to put on your résumé.

Now there’s a place where you can get that back-to-the-land experience and a bachelor’s degree to boot. Sterling College, a former boys’ boarding school located in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, recently earned accreditation for an alternative four-year degree program that blends a mix of practical skills—like woodworking, camping, and handling livestock—with more theoretical “book-learning” courses like plant and soil science, forestry, and literature.

Sterling had offered a two-year associate of arts degree since 1982, but, taking heed of the millennial generation’s much-hyped interest in all things environmental, college administrators two years ago decided to expand the program to offer four-year bachelor of arts degrees. Next year, enrollment should reach the goal of 140 full-time students, says Sterling’s admissions director, John Zaber.

Students pick from degrees in wildlands ecology and management, outdoor education and leadership, and sustainable agriculture. As part of their studies, they complete a one-semester “bounder” program, a series of courses focused on outdoor adventure. They also take a whitewater rafting trip—using paddles they’ve crafted from trees harvested at the college woodlot. Academic courses include classes with titles like “Literature of the Rural Experience” and “Triumphs of the Human Spirit.”

It’s a unique academic path, Zaber admits, but it’s a way of learning that’s been going on for centuries. “We don’t want people to think there is only one way to learn,” he says. “Here at Sterling, our motto is ‘Working hands, working minds.’ When you’re busy in the woodlot, for instance, you can make new connections to books you’ve read or mathematical problems you’re working on. It’s a satisfying way of understanding things.”

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