M.C. Richards Program

M.C. Richards

The program is named after M.C. Richards, a pioneer of Black Mountain College, a poet, potter, essayist, painter, and teacher. The program is one contribution toward her question: “What are some practices to strengthen and enliven living images, in contrast to mechanical and life-destroying images? And how may thinking itself be taught in ways that promote life, rather than estrange us from it?”

What is the M.C. Richards Program?

The M. C. Richards Program is a one year, full-time course in transdisciplinary learning. As the interdependence of life becomes increasingly evident and existential, there is a clear need for learning communities that consciously work to engender creative, open, and unifying perspectives, offering a balancing gesture to overspecialization. Jeffrey Sachs, in The Age of Sustainable Development, points to the immediate importance of being able to grasp the “emergent properties of a complex system, meaning those characteristics that emerge from the interactions of the components to produce something that is ‘more than the sum of its parts.’”

The program cultivates learning and growth in a way that encourages holistic thinking and an intensification and diversification of experience. The transdisciplinary approach is fostered through observation, perception, memory, and imagination. Through holistically developing capacities in ourselves, we better situate ourselves to approach the complex interdependence of phenomena in the outer world.

The program will begin In the fall of 2020 with the first cohort of 20 students. Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis starting in September 2019.

interdisciplinary learning at free columbia columbia county, NY

Who is the program for?

The course is for people who sense that the world is facing challenges that can only be addressed by an ability to perceive interdependence in life. The capacity to perceive such interdependence is fostered through transdisciplinary collaboration and exploration.

People looking for a program where education is approached as a process of developing capacities; those looking for deepening and maturing experience; or those looking for a broad and general program that might spark a vocation or further studies could find what they are looking for in this program. There are no age limits for those who would like to attend. Regardless of whether one intends to work, pursue further learning at another college or university, attend a technical or vocational school, the program could be a meaningful next step.

Areas of Activity

Activities include the study of texts, experiential research in biology, work assignments, mathematics and physics, studio work in the visual and performing arts, and explorations of social theory and practice. Faculty have recently led courses in practical morphology, the design of complimentary monetary systems, projective geometry, contemplative approaches to painting with color and to the performing arts.

The Place

Free Columbia is located in the very center of Columbia County, NY. The area is known for its rural beauty, small farms, many artists, and cultural organizations and initiatives.

We are situated two hours north of New York City and one hour south of Albany. The train runs from New York City to Hudson, which is a 15 minute car ride away.

Most of the facilities are located in the village of Philmont. It is a small village of around 1,200 people that was first developed two hundred years ago as an industrial site known as “factory hill.” It is here where the local Agawamuck Creek quickly drops 250 feet in a series of beautiful waterfalls. And so it was here where the water was harnessed and directed into various holding ponds to be used to power the mills. Free Columbia has used multiple facilities in Philmont and is currently developing two new sites to host expanding programs.


The faculty is comprised of artists and researchers who have developed rich and engaging approaches to fields as diverse as mathematics, biology, political theory, visual art, performance, and literature. The curriculum will be developed collaboratively, taking into consideration the interests of the first cohort.

There are more details about the faculty on their page.

Principles and Practices for this Learning Community

contemplative inquiry

1. Contemplative Inquiry

Contemplative inquiry involves developing knowledge practices focused on the qualitative dimensions of experience. It includes approaches that expand and cultivate attention to include the subtle and intangible that do not only relate to personal well-being and life style choices but are integral parts of research and creativity.

“We desperately need to extend the sciences to include disciplined contemplative inquiry…the sciences of economics government, environment, business and medicine, as well as the arts, can all be extended fruitfully to include the spiritual. This requires us to embrace the fuller and therefore more adequate conception of the world available through contemplative inquiry and knowing.”
Arthur Zajonc, Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry


2. Aesthetic Education

Aesthetic education is usually associated with art and perhaps the humanities, but at Free Columbia it stands for a much larger aspiration. Aesthetic education involves the cultivation of observation, perception, memory, feeling, and expressive dimensions of judgment and knowledge. Biological morphology, projective geometry, and physics all offer a particular way to foster these capacities. Aesthetic judgment in turn has the potential to add new dimensions in these fields to be developed.

“The healing powers that proceed from the cultivation of the aesthetic judgment can bring about an unanticipated intensification of daily experience. It will heighten the intensity of contact with appearances in the natural world, and enrich experiences between people.”
Adolf Portmann

action research

3. Action Research

In the social theory and social action program, Free Columbia has initiated a practical and value-driven approach to social research. Action research is especially crucial for social theory. The fundamental question is “How can we think and arrange life so that it is good?” What we think becomes our theory and the results of the actions inspired by our theory are the outcome. The question is not if they are true, but if they lead to the good. Social life is not an objective, outer process that is independent of our own thinking and actions. We can only truly explore new possibilities through enacting them and then judging them by their fruits.

action research in social theory

4. Transdisciplinary Learning

One trend of our time is interconnection and complexity. This is evident in both the emerging digital revolution and the global environmental challenges. In order to grasp the whole and to see this interdependence, it is important to evade the traditional confines of subject areas and fields. This is not the same as resisting expertise. Rather transdisciplinary approaches will focus on questions and projects where many fields intersect and interrelate. The scientists, artists, researchers, artisans, and teachers in the program have expertise but the programs and explorations are designed to encourage big pictures and interconnections that cross traditional boundaries subjects and fields of study.


5. Accessibility

Accessibility relates to both students and society at large. There are never minimum tuitions or material costs for programs and events. The fruits of the most in depth projects at Free Columbia which include research, conferences, programs, classes, concerts, exhibitions, and performances, are regularly carried out into the surrounding towns, villages, and cities. There are no fees, fixed costs or pay walls to experience the work of Free Columbia as a community member. Free Columbia is supported by patrons, pledgers, fund drives, and a wide array of other giving opportunities.

“Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they also express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. Paying kids to read books might get them to read more, but also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction. Auctioning off seats in the freshman class to the highest bidders might raise venues but also erode the integrity of the college and the value of its diploma.”
Michael Sandel

aesthetic interdisciplinary learning community

6. Independence

Free Columbia is structured to encourage and support independence among faculty and students. While it is an incorporated nonprofit dedicated to education and social-cultural work, it is not accredited. It is also a small initiative. Teachers, artists, and researchers can follow their best ideas and engage the interests of individual students. Free Columbia is supported by a wide network of donors and patrons who value the existence of experimental learning communities and innovative initiatives.


7. Work

Work is integrated into the schedule of the program. Work involves helping to build and maintain the facilities and grounds, community service, cooking, gardening, and teaching.

How to apply

An application will become available in Fall of 2019. Sign up for our newsletter to receive word.