Bright College Days

More thoughts & recollections from my life as a learner.


As a college student, I was lucky; I did my learning through a now-defunct organization called Campus-Free College. Another CFC graduate described it nicely:

Campus-Free College unfortunately no longer exists. It provided a fabulous opportunity for self-directed students (seeking bachelor and master degrees) to design their own curriculum in coordination with professors at colleges throughout the world and professionals in their chosen field of study. It was the ultimate school for entrepreneurs.

Another student recalls:

“Campus Free College” was the place where I applied to work on an undergraduate degree. The school was later renamed Beacon College. It was a place where you could negotiate and design your own college level program and then recruit your own teachers and advisors.


Perhaps the most famous graduate of CFC was Mitchell Kapor, the guy behind Lotus 1-2-3.

Every bit of learning I did at CFC (which later changed its name to Beacon College) was coordinated with two individuals: Larry L_____, who was assigned to be my “Program Advisor,” and was responsible for regular conferences with me about my learning goals and progress, and Joseph S____, who was assigned to be the “Monitor” for Larry and me, and was responsible for cross-checking with us about the larger context of what we proposed. Overseeing this three-part relationship was a body called the Academic Council, which approved the awarding of grades and offered feedback as required.

When I decided I wanted to learn something, I first had to write a “Course Description.” I would outline the proposed activity and describe why and how it was integral to my learning goals. Then, I would describe who or what I would be using for learning resources, describe how my work would be assessed, and describe how the teacher or supplier of resources would be compensated.

For example, I wanted to learn about physics and acoustics; as a musician I thought it was crucial to know something about the physics of sound. The college rolodex supplied me with the name of a physicist who lived in the area who had expressed willingness to work with students. I called him and we agreed to meet. After discussing my thoughts, he made some suggestions for reading material, and we agreed on a price for his time. I wrote a Course Description, outlining what we planned to do, what books I was to read, how often I was to meet with Nigel H____, what I would do to demonstrate that I had done the learning I set out to do (write a paper, build an instrument to demonstrate overtonal tuning procedures and submit a recording).

Then — I did the project. After the work was done, Nigel wrote a very nice assessment of our work together, and I submitted my paper, his assessment, and photos/recordings of the instrument I’d built, along with another form, called a “Credit Request,” in which I described: a – what I’d originally thought I was going to learn; b – what I had actually learned; c – why it was worth the credits I requested; and d – what the completed project had taught me about my overall learning goals. A lot of paperwork (very much like what’s involved in handling grants and fellowships — excellent training for much of my future work!).

Sometimes the assessment would take a different form. A project on instrument-building, for example, would ab necessito be inadequately assessed with a paper. Instead, I submitted photographs, detailed descriptions, and recordings. Then I proposed another project, in which I would receive credit for coordinating and curating a gallery exhibition of handmade instruments by all the craftspeople in the community; my instruments were part of the larger display, and hundreds of people came to enjoy the exhibit in a local art gallery. I developed skills in event management, logistics, promotion and outreach…and I submitted an album of photographs, press releases, photocopies of the visitor’s book, and a statement from the gallery director saying that I’d done a good job. I didn’t have to pay anyone anything, but the learning was genuine and integral to my life-path.

Repeat this, in my case, thirty-six times over a four-year period (165 undergraduate-level credits). I only took one two-month vacation; the rest of the time I was engaged in learning.

Over the four years of my degree, I took a total of two university courses — one at Harvard and one at Tufts. In both cases I arranged with the instructor that I would be treated as a regular student and assessed identically with the rest of the class. Incidentally, both of those professors are still friends and professional colleagues, thirty years later.

By the time I finished college, Campus-Free-College had changed its name to Beacon College, and I was, most of the time, compensating my teachers by barter. I “paid” my singing teacher by producing concerts for her, using the skills in event management that I’d developed; I “paid” my composition teacher by building him a pentatonic marimba, using skills I’d developed when working with my instrument-building teacher two years before.

In 1981 I submitted a “Degree Request,” along with a final statement of what I considered my Curriculum to be. My Program Advisor wrote a beautiful letter of support, which included the following paragraphs:

“Warren is an academically brilliant person who would likely have done well in any educational program. But in addition, he and Beacon College were made for one another. Surely he has stretched every boundary, asked for every exception, and called into question every procedure designed to accomodate self-directed learning. His program is the most sophisticated intellectually, the most daringly adventurous, and the most completely fulfilled program I know of. It can be — and has been — criticized by the prudent (even by Warren himself) as having far more of this and somewhat less of that than programs should. But it floats above these critiques because it seems to be so much what Warren’s program ought to be.

“In carrying out this program Warren has, more than any other single student in my memory, achieved the self-direction and the high functioning of adulthood of which Carl Rogers speaks. Here, Warren has followed his own rhythms and needs, often turning conventional patterns of learning topsy turvy in the process. He has dared to do advanced things first and simpler ones later. He has used a very wide variety of resources, from peers to Harvard professors to street musicians, from university courses to self-directed readings to programmed texts to encounter groups. The patterns and directions his work has taken are commendable because of their appropriateness to his own developing personhood. Alas, they are not models for other students as the works of Frank Lloyd Wright or Sibelius or Titian are not; there is a uniqueness in how Warren expresses himself educationally — not a moral or artistic superiority — that makes him, like them, uncopyable.

Now at graduation time, Warren has a great number of artistic skills, a wide range of knowledge, a depth of understanding, and a set of carefully examined attitudes and values, that are unequalled, in toto, in other graduates I have known. There is a synergy in all these learning outcomes that makes the overall result greater than any list of detailed accomplishments. For this reason, perhaps, Warren exhibits the greatest sense of satisfaction and fulfillment I have ever seen in a graduating student.”

L. Lemmel, Final Program Advisor’s Evaluation, 10 May 1981

For what it’s worth, I can say with complete assurance that I use everything I did in college in the regular flow of my life as an artist, a teacher and a scholar. Nothing was irrelevant; no experience was wasted.

Lessons from my college experience:

Every learning is unique, and thus every assessment of learning must be unique.

Learning is genuine when it can be linked to an individual’s past experience, present situation, or future aspirations. Assessment is meaningful when it recognizes that these links are at the core of the learning process.

It takes time and patience to avoid self-deception in assessment, whether it is of one’s own work or the work of others.

You should contact Larry Lemmel, the founder of the college. He lives in Wiscasset, Maine. I’ll send you his email.

I am also an alum of Beacon College, got my M.A. in counseling, and like you, felt there wasn’t one second of wasted learning time, unlike my experience in undergrad where I felt almost all of my time was wasted. Unfortunately, for people who want credentials, there is scant info on Beacon out there, and nothing to prove it was finally accredited. Despite years of stellar work history, recommendations, and professional licensure, I just got contacted by my HR department telling me they have discovered I have a bogus degree because they can’t find any info on Beacon College anywhere!!! Sheesh!

13 Apr 2011, 11:33pm
by Shaun Bennett

As an original member of CFS’s Academic Council, I enjoyed reading this reprise of CFC. It was a remarkable experiment that did a lot of good and no apparent harm. Our culture at present does not seem to support or even tolerate such free thinking and independent excellence. But even then, I think that by organizing and “institutionalizing” these wonderful ideas, we insured their demise. If so, we need to create new ones on a regular basis.


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