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Befriending the Genius Loci: Bruges


Not all those who wander are lost;

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring


The idea of Buckminster College departs from several principles according to which high school education tends to be organised. Some of these departures reflect the interdisciplinary and accelerated character of our curriculum. For example, instead of the traditional division into courses and grades, we opt for the accommodation of diverse learning trajectories and styles within continuously accessible spaces. Other departures are more of an organisational nature. The most prominent of those is the formula of a half-boarding, half-online education, which is radically different from the cultural hallmark of the 20th century’s institutions: the ‘eight-to-five’ daily routine to live by.

At Buckminster College the periods of online real-time instruction and home-based activities are interlaced by regular, intense, immersive residential periods in Bruges. By instilling the mental and emotional discipline necessary for self-directed inquiry and adventure, we wish to teach our Students and Players to move! We want them to cultivate this deep human instinct of tracing and threading across various modalities, spaces, and places.

Evolutionary neuroscientists claim that it is precisely that —motion!— to what we owe the existence of the brain in the first place. Journey is the mind’s first and best teacher—a primordial school. It is also a miraculous formula for transforming companions de route into friends.

The teams of Buckminster Students and Players are thus formed in movement: between the residential and the online modes, between one space and another—and along the cobbled streets and picturesque walkways of Bruges. ‘Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior’ wrote Marshall McLuhan whose city as classroom concept (McLuhan, 1977) combined with the rich paradigm of experiential learning (Kolb, 2015) underpin the designs of our programmes. Submerging our students in the city is an experience that involves all their senses, as sound, touch, smell and taste are often left to the unconscious.  We often neglect to see a city as a complex, living and dynamic system (Portugali, 2016) . In that, the city is far more than a location for the school. It is a school on its own: a complex, living, and dynamic system; a living multitude that interacts with us and shapes us. With their evocative forms, facts, and flows embedded in the city, the unique learning spaces of Bruges are awaiting exploration and inquiry. These spaces inspire us to step outside the limits of the conventional classroom and to learn to be meaningfully in touch with a larger, more complex human reality.

And why Bruges, one might ask. One reason is perceptible to anyone. It’s the beauty! Laden with Gothic architecture and home to early Flemish painters, Bruges is a medieval masterpiece that has been capturing creative imagination for centuries and continues to do so. Rich in architecture, art, history, and food, the city is brilliantly governed and continuously improved. It is beaming and alive.

Yet, another part of the reason why Bruges is as deep as its genius loci goes. Who knows how many mysteries we will need to unravel, how many attics and dungeons we will need to explore, how many towers to climb, and how many paintings to study before the spirit of the place reveals what we are searching for.

Or maybe it never will? Well, it is the journey that counts!

Gys Godderis