Dec 3, 2009

The Teacher Was the Sea: Pacific High School

I am soon to finish my first semester of teaching at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and with this experience comes a heightened concern for making education a provocative investigation that invites a personal sense of agency and curiosity in each student. Likewise, with the initiation of PLAND, which aims to be a process-driven exploration of community and place, I am interested in models of experiential research through real, lived projects. How timely it feels to have encountered Michael S. Kaye’s book, The Teacher Was The Sea, which is a thoughtful retrospective about his involvement with Pacific High School.

Resulting from the brainstorm of several disgruntled parents and teachers who wanted a new educational alternative, Pacific High School started in the fall of 1961 with 11 students, one full-time staff member, and no place to call home. After an extended field trip to the Sierras, Pacific settled into a rented space above a law firm in Palo Alto and offered a schedule of courses that students could elect, but were not required, to attend. The goal was non-hierarchical progressive education in which everyone involved was responsible for his or her individual experience.

Within the following four years, the school moved eight times and struggled to pay bills, maintain enrollment, and practice some collective notion of student-empowered education. Of these early years, Kaye recounts the main struggle as a common but na├»ve faith that kids will go to classes because they want to, that learning is its own reward. He recalls thinking that “all we have to do is cook up a bunch of interesting relevant classes and that kids, after a period of adjustment will flock to them.” He talks about trying to “beat the sports news” but that “classes are an abstract, unnatural way of passing on information. When kids are not coerced, few of them will go regularly… They are too busy living.”

Faculty struggled to create a curriculum that adhered to a no-rules, no-hierarchy manifesto, often discontinuing classes that students didn’t attend or offering one-off workshops to test their feasibility. Students were invited to join long-term field courses to study ecology in Mexico, to work with legislature in Sacramento, to practice French in Quebec, even to Albania for “eight fun-filled months in the world’s most hated country.” This mosaic of curriculum was punctuated by frequent parties that, in effect, restored good feelings and a sense of shared freedom. Parties, Kaye claims, were “the redemptive saving feature of the school.”

In spring of 1965, as Pacific teetered on the brink of closure, the school was given a 40-acre parcel of land in the Santa Cruz Mountains (in truth, it was a trade: the land was commission for handling the legal work involved with acquiring 440 acres for a local conservation group.) Buildings were moved to the land and others were constructed. To aid in the school’s mere survival, classes were relegated to the morning while afternoons were given over to the building program.


The faculty was made up of a constantly changing cast of characters, voted on and invited by the community at large. Stanford professors taught pro bono courses, Ant Farm and Zomeworks initiated alternative building workshops on the property, musicians from the San Francisco Tape Music Center taught music with synthesizers and hand-made instruments, the radical art collective Videfreex brought cameras and new experience to the students at Pacific. Most people who taught at Pacific were not teachers by trade, but rather they knew how to do things that the community admired and were “hip” enough to the Free School experiment to readily participate.

With hands-on projects and visiting teachers, there was a sense of purpose alongside real, tangible life lessons. While building shelters, gardens, and instruments provided a sense of structure (both literally and metaphorically), a new director of the school introduced a vastly radical approach to the already alternative environment at Pacific that bred anxiety and a pedagogical groundlessness. Peter Marin wanted to create “a feeling to the place: a sense of intensity and space… a ‘guilt-free’ environment, one in which the students might discover or become what they were without having to worry about preconceived ideas of what they had to be.” Under his directorship, students were encouraged to go out and experience the world on their own (even experimentation with drugs and sex), knowing that Pacific was “a place to come back to.”

At one point during this period, the school received a call from a police offer who was holding eight kids he had found on the beach. His conversation with the Director went like this:

“You say they’re on a regular field trip?”

“Yup.”

“What kinda field trip?

“Marine biology and oceanography.”

“How come there was no teacher?”

“The teacher was the sea.”

By summer 1966, Pacific was in such economic turmoil that teachers were not afforded salaries; still many decided to continue teaching, and moved onto the land to live rent- and commute-free. Classrooms became bedrooms, tents sprouted up, teachers lived in their cars and through by becoming a live-in community, Pacific was brought back to life. Soon the faculty decided to stop bus service for students and invited them to live on the land as well. 15 students moved onto the property, each paying $5 a week, sharing cooking duties and other chores. All business was discussed in a constant string of community meetings, during which every student, staff, and faculty member had an equal vote. What to stand for and how to “STOP SUPPORTING PASSIVENESS” were regular items on the agenda.

That summer, Pacific decided to become a “live-in, community-school” but needed boarding facilities to bring in more students. In a spontaneous burst of brainstorming, the group decided to invite Lloyd Kahn, who was associated with the Whole Earth Catalog and was an experienced dome builder, to lead the construction of the experimental school. As the domes went up, more students seemed to materialize. Kaye says, “people were apparently so desperate for alternatives to conventional high schools that they were willing to try a boarding school with only ephemeral boarding facilities.” By the first day of school, 60 students were enrolled. Parents paid up to $3,000 a year in tuition, which included room and board.

Several student groups set about building their own dome homes. It’s hard to comprehend being 16-years old and living full-time in a structure of one’s own design and construction, but given the charge of student responsibility and self-reflection many of these collective experiences were recorded in photographs and journal entries. Kaye’s book includes a semi-daily log from a student group – four boys and one girl – who built a dome 1/3 of a mile from school on a hill they dubbed “Horny Mountain.” The Log is written with adult-like confidence and honest introspection, chronicling the daily “hassles” of chopping firewood, patching a leaky ceiling, smoking pot, wanting girls, wanting privacy, feeling adrift, feeling inspired.

As a community-school, life at Pacific was shaped by a trial-by-fire democratic process. Relationships between the faculty and students were increasingly intimate and rules were never put into writing. Kaye describes Pacific as “made up of people with an aversion to giving and taking orders. If we were not going to give orders, then the only way to ensure that the kids acted responsibly was for them to feel committed to the community. And the only way to ensure this commitment was for the kids to have power.” Getting the kids to take that power, to believe in it and use it to real ends was a different story. Education remained a certain focus, but as the community grew (and met incredible challenges) the politics increasingly took into account the daily function of meals, dishes, sanitation, and relationships. Kaye writes:

“We were all living together. The artificial distinctions that had for so long separated students and staff were blurring. Each morning we staggered into breakfast together. When the sanitation in the kitchen screwed up, we all had the runs together. The older and younger people were becoming friends – lovers. Kids and adults were talking openly about the school, themselves, and each other. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of this. It meant that the kids could be part of the very fiber of the place.”

Kaye’s book was published in 1972 when Pacific High School was at its height. With 80 students and constant calls from prospective staff, he writes about the school as a complicated mix of success and failure. The school was never intended to be a utopia or a model of free education. He says, “Beneath all of its changes and confusions there has always been a bedrock common-sense, a surprisingly consistent principle at work: to restore to the center of experience experience itself.” For Kaye, teaching at Pacific was not necessarily about training young minds, but about testing the limits of freedom, democracy, shelter, adolescence. For better or for worse, it was a shared experience in learning how to live, and also maybe one of living how to learn.

I don’t know what happened to Pacific High School. The book ends; time has passed and little has been written about Pacific High in the past 40 years. There is much that can be said (and much I haven’t shared here) about the legacy of Pacific. Instead, I’ll end with this quote from Oscar Wilde in The Critic as Artist, 1861:

“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”
*All quotes and photos from Kaye, Michael S., The Teacher Was the Sea. Links Press, 1972.

14 comments:

  1. Great write up, I am looking forward to reading this book.

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  2. I appreciated this soooo much!

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  3. Pacific High continued until 1983. By that time the community was taken over by a Buddhist group. Despite the death of their teacher, Kobin Chino, the Buddhists are still there as of 2012. A graphic novel was published in 2010 called "Strangest story ever told" which tells stories about the last days of Pacific High and some fictionalize events.

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    1. I was the secretary of the PHS board at the time the land changed hands. The community was not taken over, Jikoji was selected by the Pacifc Board as the beneficiary of the school's assets (and debts). It was the culmination of a years long and tortuous process during which responsibility for the stewardship of the land was always foremost. The final deal involved what was then Bodhi Zen Center in Santa Cruz, who splintered off Jikoji to take over Pacific, the Mid Pennisula Regional Park District and the PHS corporation. Jikoji paid about $60,000 in outstanding PHS debt and swapped land, including the pond and parts of the Ridge with the Park to help extend the Pacific Crest Trail.

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  4. I really appreciate this write-up. I saw the title in a book by John Holt, "Escape from Childhood," and looked for it on-line. Unfortunately, copies are rare and going for more than $30 on Amazon. If only it were a reprint and the world were given such a pearl again.

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  5. Loved this...thanks so much for refreshing my memories of Pacific...surely a HIGH point of my life. I spent much time there...knew Michael and most everyone else very well...especially Wavy and the Pranksters when they moved in...many more HIGH times than I can remember. Thanks Again!

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  6. I too spent a couple very formative years at Pacific High, 1971-73. We were, and are, an eclectic group... Our Reunions have been infrequent but very powerful and though we have more than a few talented writers among us, I don't think any of us feel the least bit qualified to judge the experiment. In fact the experiment continues. In hundreds of places, and it has grown and matured into a vital part of a larger culture to which we all have contributed. As humanity matures, if we are to survive, much of what we have learned about co-existence with the planet and our fellows must, and has to a large degree, become mainstream thinking. They are doing curbside recycling in Oklahoma... In the next few years hemp will again be grown for commercial processing. Last week I heard Sugar Magnolia in a Safeway, albeit in Santa Cruz, but it wont long... And did I mention that there is a black man living in the White House and the front runner to be his successor is well qualified woman who once worked with us on the McGovern Campaign...? It's no accident that Silicon Valley is exactly where it is... We built this City...

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  7. I was a student at Pacific in its first year of existence. I doubt if I could have handled the amount of anarchy that emerged in later years. But I agree that real self-government only emerges from real freedom. I remember with great affection Alan Strain, the founding father who was my 8th-grade teacher at Peninsula School, David Werner, who taught biology our first year, and Stan Bean who taught anthropology. A wonderful gentleman from Silicon Valley came and gave us a taste of the Binomial Theorem. Best of all was camping in Tuolumne Meadows in September and making drawings from the domes there.

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    1. You were very lucky to have experienced Pacific when it was still a "school" rather than after it morphed into just a hippie commune. But is was still a valuable experience for all of us at that time ('69 to '71). After that , when I visited in '73 and again in'74 it had gone way down-hill and I hate to think about how much worse it got before it finally closed down.

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    2. Oh, I didn't identify myself there.^ I am Noel Hedemark . My Dad was Pacific's lawyer. I was there when all those photos were taken and I was on that trip to the beach about which Mark Effross remarked that " the teacher was the sea".

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  8. Aaahhh the memories. Thank you for sharing. As a PHS 1969-71 alumni this means a lot.

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  9. I feel very fortunate to have been a student at Pacific from 1969 to 72. It wasn't so much the influence of classes, it was the place and the ability to make my own decisions and suffer my own mistakes and successes. I'm Melodie at the bottom of the bath tub below Michael Kaye.

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  10. I was Pride and my son still is Theus, 4 years grown when we lived & helped out at Pacific High from August to October, 1974.
    We learned so much at Pacific, such as what it's like to share land, 17 domes, & 4 (rectangular) buildings with people of like spirit and all ages. Daily we milked the goats, watered the huge sprouts box, fed the chickens, & gathered eggs. I took my turn cooking or assistin in the dining hall, and mended clothes on my sewing machine for fellow residents. I also -- as the sole token (tokin'?) certified teacher, served as the school's office secretary.
    By my time there, Pacific was a school in name only BUT was a wonderful "community" -- we all disdained the loaded name of "commune." We never refused tuition, however, when offered, so there were still some students whose parents paid tuition. Very helpful.
    I'd love to hear from any of my fellows from that summer, a time in my life I often look back on most fondly. Prudence (Pride) Hawthorne

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  11. I graduated from PHS in Jan 1974 but was not required to attend while studying organic farming on a New England farm. My diploma is signed my Michael S Kaye and Earl O. Hedemark, but I read above that Earl died in 1973. Is that correct? My name is Will.

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