Mount Madonna Center is a spiritually-focused community and retreat center located in the Santa Cruz mountains that form Watsonville's eastern border. While working in the area I was very graciously hosted by a family friend, a longtime resident. The Center is located on an extraordinary property with beautiful views overlooking the agricultural fields and town center of Watsonville, with Monterey Bay beyond. Town is only a few miles away as the crow flies but the drive (hairpin turns through redwood forests) takes about 25 minutes.
Mount Madonna Center also sponsors the private Mount Madonna School (MMS). The School enrolls approximately 185 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
aerial photo courtesy Mt. Madonna School
The high school at MMS includes an impressive "Values in World Thought" program, a two-year program of courses and visits which aims to "develop our capacities of self-awareness and to support an ongoing inquiry into the values that inform our actions and our life purpose. We do this in order strengthen our ability to engage in positive and mutually beneficial relationships with each other and with our communities. It is our intention to support the development of the citizens the world most needs now; those who can respond with creativity and care in these changing and challenging times, and those who can balance their own needs in relationship to the needs of others in the communities of which they are part" (MMS Values in World Thought website).
As part of the Values program students participate in Learning Journeys to Washington D.C. (a "Government in Action" component) and either South Africa or India. The School has very good connections; photographs on the classroom walls and school website show students meeting with the Dalai Lama, Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu, Bernie Sanders , John Lewis and other leaders. In South Africa and India students also participate in activities with children and others.
(Images of South Africa, India & Washington courtesy MMS website)
Teacher (Sadanand) Ward Mailliard created and is the longtime leader of the Values program. When I contacted him about teaching at MMS he wrote encouragingly about the Talking Capitalism intention to encourage questioning the "cultural meme" (his term) of capitalism, and that he applauded "approaching this as an inquiry that starts with what people know and feel, rather than as an attempt to colonize them to a point of view. Helping people become curious without predictable outcomes is a great accelerator to learning. Then if they through research and reflection come to their own conclusions they can act from their own center." (correspondence)
Ward generously allowed me to spend 90 minutes working with his 11th grade students (although we were, as at Watsonville H.S., interrupted by a drill - important preparedness training, hard on flow of a class). The group of about 20 students was the only one I encountered on the trip that sat in a circle. This was one visible difference between MMS and the other schools I worked with on the trip. As compared to other schools the students generally also seemed more comfortable speaking during the class period. It was clear self-expression and engaging actively with ideas is an important value at MMS.
As I do at the beginning of class, before sharing the capitalism diagram, I asked students to write a response to the question "What does the word 'capitalism' mean to you". More students than usual wrote a description (only two wrote "I don't know") and their responses were generally more developed than those of students at other schools, for example:
"I think capitalism takes control of your life and controlling all of it if you are speaking to yourself. It is based on business of life or arc of goods and services"
"Business owners control the economy instead of having the economy mainly government influenced. It makes the economy more competitive because it is not very focused on group performance."
"Capitalism (which is the way the U.S. system works) is the idea that 'fend for yourself' government does not control how wealth is distributed."
"A system where individual success is valued over group success creating a competitive economy."
"Individual success over group success."
"A societal system where some form of currency is the reward and incentive for work where work is mostly in the private sector".
"Capitalism means to me when a government or high official abuses its powers to benefit themselves and the people!"
Another difference between MMS and the other schools I visited is economic. This was the only private school I worked with. Tuition in the Upper/High School is $20-24,000 (MMS website). As described on the website, enrollment has expanded since 1979 when the school was founded to serve the families of the Center. Initially, other nearby families chose MMS because they"found the School a wonderful alternative to local public schools, which were both further from home and less aligned with their own values." in more recent years, enrollment drew from communities that are significant distances from the Center both “ocean side" and “inland-side" of the mountains (History & Founding Principles, MMS), including the city of Santa Cruz and areas that border Silicon Valley. There is significant School-related traffic on the narrow, twisting mountain road up to the School at the beginning and end of the school day (bus transportation costs $2,000). The Board of Directors includes parents and others in management positions at various technology and related companies. The School does offer financial aid and presumably not all students come from wealthy families. As throughout the U.S., there is significant overlap between economic status, race and ethnicity; the student body of MMS is largely European-American.
The relative privilege of the MMS students (as compared to the public schools I visited, including Watsonville H.S.) and differences in their experience of capitalism was apparent in several ways including the wonderful school facilities, small class sizes, and international Learning Journeys trips.
Student comments and their written responses to questions also suggested a general difference in their experience of capitalism. For example:
When I asked where capital for investment comes from, the first response I got was "inheritance", the only time a student ever volunteered that connection.
While a few students said they had worked for money, no one had worked at a fast food restaurant, the standard employment for students in other schools. The jobs mentioned involved child care or camp counseling. One student did write that she is "a worker in the capitalist system."
Students showed awareness of the so-called "knowledge economy" I hadn't encountered before, referring to "entrepreneurship" and to businesses based on ideas (as opposed to selling goods or more concrete services like car detailing or barbering).
In response to the question about how they see capitalism in their lives students indicated notable familiarity with the concepts of capital, investment and profit:"many adults in my life often participate in capital", "I see capitalism in people that start their own business by themselves, like artists", "It is the foundation of work + business. When people talk about turning profit, it directly implies capitalism", "My dad works for Apple, and my parents are divorced. Apple gives him money which he invests and gains profits on, with those profits he pays my mother child support, and gains more capital", "Working in jobs, getting paid, investing capital in ventures."
Perhaps reflecting the spiritual orientation of the Center and School, but also an attitude less common in poorer communities, students also suggested a critique of consumerism I hadn't encountered at the public schools. For example, students spoke of the negative social and cultural impact of marketing and wrote,"I see many consumers buying things that they want or think they need" and "capitalism is part of what pushed our consumerism causing us to value expensive things and that money can put value on our lives and defines our social standings."
I very much enjoyed the time with the students in the Values class! I found them thoughtful and engaged and was very impressed by the spirit of dialogue and inquiry Ward has created.
After the class I went to lunch at the Center. A couple of the residents asked me about my impressions of the School. Among other observations, I mentioned the privilege differential. One person said, "Yes, that's a key issue, how to keep privilege from becoming entitlement". I said that, in my experience, spending time with people who aren't privileged could help with that and he responded, "Oh, we do a good job of that; we take them to South Africa or India for two weeks". When I said the trips seemed very nice, but were maybe also a form of privilege, he agreed.
The relationship between the Mt. Madonna Center and School and the largely Hispanic and (largely) low-income population of the town of Watsonville is notable. Both the Center and the School hire local Hispanic people in kitchen and maintenance jobs but there did not seem to be a Hispanic presence among the students or the residents. As I later confirmed with Ward, the School doesn't interact with the Watsonville schools.
The lack of interaction between MMS and the majority population of Watsonville shouldn't surprise me - or make me feel virtuous. I graduated from a private high school in New York City that also didn't interact with the local public schools or the larger non-private school community. My own children were educated in a public school system that serves an economically, racially, and ethnically-diverse community but is still segregated in important ways.
Differences in positions in capitalism are certainly not the only basis of social division. But figuring out ways for people who experience capitalism very differently to interact and become familiar with each other's experience seems critical, not only for discouraging entitlement but also as a key part of addressing capitalism's destructive tendencies.
Thank you Ward, Shannon Kelly (Director of Upper School) and Supriya Mary McDonald (Head of School) for the opportunity to work with the students at Mt. Madonna School and - especially - to Sudhir for making it all work!