I am Nathaniel Williams

750 500 World Social Initiative Forum

Born in 1979 in the US, I co-founded Free Columbia. I stand up for ideas & initiatives I believe hold promise for the future. 

Nathaniel Williams interviewed by Nicole Asis on Sep 29, 2019 | Photos: Caleb Buchbinder, Laura Summer, Craig Holdrege, Felipe Garcia, Nicolas Tuff, and Nathaniel Williams [Free Columbia]

Social Theory and Action project. | Photo: Caleb Buchbinder

Nicole Asis: Why is it important that as an art school, Free Columbia includes Social Theory and Action and Goethean Observation in the curriculum?

Nathaniel Williams: Even though it started as an art school, there was always a feeling that all approaches to learning, knowing, and experiencing can be accessed through Anthroposophy. That was really what the inspiration was. I had colleagues at the Nature Institute who are seasoned Goethean phenomenologists, particularly Craig Holdrege and Henrike Holdrege. I also got involved with a group of young people in New York who were studying Social Threefolding [1]. There I met Seth Jordan, Sarah Hearn, and Peter Buckbee who introduced me to Social Theory. This inspired me to pursue a Ph.D. in political science. It is also largely through my encounter with Think Outward that I tried to structure Free Columbia in such a way that becoming social is an important part of our work. 

Nicole: What gap in the American Educational System is Free Columbia addressing?

Nathaniel: We strive to avoid relationships based on contracts of service or commodification related to culture and teaching. 

We don’t sell art. We also had many performance tours without a fee. Instead, we make it feel like a community project. We give the work away, invite everyone to donate to support the art we are offering, and we make everyone feel that the community becomes a better place because of this exchange. 

We have also pioneered a similar approach to tuition fees. There is no fixed fee even for our full-time programs. The first question we ask is “is this the right thing for you to do and come work here?” Period. Everything else is easy. 

Class at the Nature Institute | Photo: Craig Holdrege

Nicole: How do you make your school sustainable?

Nathaniel: We start by making our work transparent- that is, by listing our expenses. We have done 7 years of full-time programming where we have a conversation and an interview with students before we start. They ask their questions, we describe everything in detail. 

If they come back and say “yes”, then we accept them. After that, we present the expenses, divide it among the number of students in the current program, and how much they could contribute. That is one way to orient them in terms of financing the program.  Then we could talk to them about what they can do and their income. 

Some can pay everything right upfront. Some make a pledge of what they can every month. Some will not pay anything until afterward. We are surprised that some become pledgers and support Free Columbia with a contribution in the following years. The variety of ways of supporting is as individual as the financial situation of the students. There is no contract. This is all spoken word.

Nicole: So, it is all built on trust.  How do both parties keep commitments then?

Nathaniel: We have managed for 10 years and we are growing. I feel that we could improve on many fronts. We need to pay teachers more. We need to take care of questions of insurance, benefits, and retirement for faculty. But the whole conversation about how to make sure that culture and education are not commodified is interesting. We are offering that in our thinking and in our failures and our successes – that’s one.

2020 MC Richards Program Cohort | Photo: Felipe Garcia

It is also joyous because we give everything to the community. There are no paywalls, but we are neither a commercial venture nor are we government-supported. We are a public cultural institution. But we are not related to the state at all. We have nothing to do with the state nor with any commercial interest.

Nicole: Why is there a conscious decision to be an independent entity and not be affiliated with the government or with corporations? 

Nathaniel: Independence means I do not have to ask any bureaucrat for permission to do anything, nor a corporation, who might not know anything about what we are trying to do or who might have some profit motive. It would be unfortunate if they had to give us advice. That is pretty much the bottom line – to have freedom but at the same time, not to be a private individual and serve one’s interest. 

The second thing we are doing is that we are contributing to conversations around pedagogy for the next century. There is a crisis in how we do higher education in the United States that is connected to the financial part.  A typical way to finance higher education is through debt. It becomes a huge part of a post-graduation budget, which means it is influencing at least a third of all graduate students how they pursue their ideals. Let me tell you, do you want to pursue your ideals in your twenties? Of course. And it is a time in your life when you would not necessarily need a great deal of money. But a need to pay back debt changes everything. 

This is a very sad story because it means that the most idealistic people in our society are being put in a situation when we hope that they would change the world for the good. But they just become little, and when they hear Pink Floyd ask, “Did you exchange to work on part of the wall for a lead role in a cage…?”, they might have to answer yes. This is a dynamic that encourages you to sell-out. 

What is it to learn? Is it appropriate in higher education to tell the stories of Plato and really believe in them? Or are they just fairytales? There is a whole movement called “Contemplative Pedagogy”, which was started by Arthur Zajonc. All over our country, mostly in independent colleges, people are integrating moral questions, meditation, and knowledge as love. Free Columbia is trying to contribute to that discussion: first-person experience, value-imbued learning, and contemplative practice. We have a lot that we could improve on, so it is a great research field.


Another innovation is understanding Aesthetic Education. Aesthetics is really about perception, experience, feeling, memory, and expressive judgment. 

Goetheanism [2] is probably the most amazing discipline in this light of aesthetic judgment, scientific aesthetic judgment practices. This is the significance of collaborating with the Nature Institute.

We also work with Action Research, which is much more common. We are also situated in a public social context. We have a partnership with the village that involves turning a public building into a community cultural center. As mentioned above, we try to view and frame our work as good for the community. 

Community Puppetry Performance | Photo: Nicholas Tuff

Nicole: How do you measure that the goals you have set for your school have been achieved?

Nathaniel: It is interesting that we have consciously decided not to use accreditation and measurement approaches that are typical in higher education, which are surveys, tests, and grades. Instead, we look for reflective essays where we can draw out the moral significance of the learning experiences of our students. This is something hard to talk about, hard to measure. The real judgment of the fruits of our activity will be in 50 years. I think it is good to think like that. I know that it may seem like an evasive answer to some people but that is something that will do for today.

Nicole: Why is it important for Free Columbia to focus on “Contemplative Inquiry”, “Aesthetic Education”, and “Action Research”? How do these three spheres work separately and as a whole?

Nathaniel: Action Research is people finding out what is real and what is true through action. But I think the most important point is to seek not only what is true, but what is good and can become real.  If they are good, then fight for it. Make life a testing ground. What are you going to fight for? What is worth living for?

Aesthetic education is about perception, memory, imagination, and feeling. The typical way we unfold our education nowadays seems to oppress this palate of experiences. This palate of experiences is really important for living on earth. It involves people feeling deeply connected to the experience of the elements, to the earth, to the plants and animals, and the possibility of sustainability becoming a reality. 

Contemplative Inquiry is a more comprehensive notion. It is also the most profound. There are forms of contemplative inquiry and meditation that have been cultivated for many centuries. They are understood in small circles and extremely promising. It is very difficult to find, especially in academic settings,  people who have the openness to discuss these themes. 

At Brown University, there is a contemplative studies program. If you study a Buddhist text, like the Dhammapada, you also have a lab. You have to meditate for two hours every week. You cannot just read it. The writing obviously says it is practice. How can you say that you understand unless you do it? 

Course on studies of place | Photo: Nathaniel Williams

If we get that far with knowledge practices that are meditative, Contemplative Inquiry will be more meaningful and profound. It will show more of what it is capable of. 

Nicole: Why is it important to bring Anthroposophy into the field of education and social work, especially into the community in its various forms?

Nathaniel: That is a great question. I can illustrate it through one example. One individual who stands out culturally in the United States is Marilynne Robinson – a gifted writer who became well-known as one of Barack Obama’s most revered public intellectuals. One of the things that she is always pointing to is that the best part of the culture of the United States is connected to a reverence for the human being. 

She points out that there is a divine dimension in connection to every living being! And everything else should be framed in connection to that – like our laws, for instance. 

Historically, this was connected to the movement to abolish slavery. No one could be property when viewed in this way. This is connected to an interpretation of the human being that was strongly rooted in the North. In the South, we had a different legal culture, one directly imported from old Britain. We had slavery and a view of the human being not reaching into this dimension and focused more on property and class identity. 

She also wrote a beautiful short study on materialism and self-consciousness called “Absence of Mind” [3]. She takes apart neuroscientific materialism, Darwinism, and third materialism. She points out how typical it is for people to think that consciousness is not actually a core component of the universe, but also that this is not justified. It is dogma. 

She presents this in an extremely interesting way. But she always goes back to religion. She goes back to Calvinism and Christian theology. And one senses she is always suggesting Christian faith as the way into the future.

Morphology and sculpture course| Photo: Laura Summer

I do not think it is possible. I do not agree with her on that. I do not want to be misunderstood, that I have something against this, I just feel like something more is called for. 

In the contemplative practices of Anthroposophy, you have ways of bringing to view spiritual experiences connected to the human constitution that are not simply matters of faith, dogma, or religion. They are related to certain ways of concentrating and thinking, and allowing experiences to become evident. It can transform our connections in social justice, economic reform, the pedagogy of our schools, our relationships, and how we care about the earth. I feel differently still, that we have to go a different way than a return to religion.

I believe the impulses that Steiner was wrestling with and his other colleagues are good and important. And in our small way, we also want to contribute.

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1 Steiner, R. Lecture in 1919. The Threefold Social Order – GA 23. Translation: Heckel, F. 1972. https://wn.rsarchive.org/Books/GA023/English/AP1972/GA023_index.html.

2 Steiner, R. Lecture in 1919. Goetheanism as an Impulse for Man’s Transformation – GA 188. Translation: Watkin, E. https://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/GoeTrn_index.html.

3 Robinson, M. 2010. Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. ISBN-10: 0300171471.

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