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A “Boatload of Knowledge”: New Ideas in a Would-Be Utopia
Posey County occupies the southwestern tip of Indiana, where the Wabash River gives a delicate, curling edge to our mostly squared-off state. The green and gold fields, broken by ribbons of forest, are probably what most people envision when they think (rarely, I imagine) of Indiana.
Every year, during spring or summer break, I head for New Harmony, a small town in Posey County, with twenty-five honors students from Ivy Tech Community College’s Indianapolis, Gary, and Fort Wayne campuses. New Harmony was the home of two nineteenth-century attempts at utopia. In 1814, a German Protestant sect built the community of Harmonie. Within a decade, they returned to Pennsylvania and sold their community to Welsh industrialist Robert Owen, who was looking for a ready-made town in which to try his own utopia—New Harmony. The venture only lasted for two years, but Owen’s “Boatload of Knowledge” brought scientists and social reformers who remained after the experiment failed. My students often think the New Harmony tour guides are being dramatic when they use this phrase, but it was a literal boat, the Philanthropist, which brought a group of thinkers to the Indiana wilderness. Today, New Harmony’s preservation and restoration make it appealing for tourists interested in gardens, architecture, and history.
My interests in history, my home state, and the idea of utopia prompted me to research New Harmony as a graduate student and, later, to return there with my students. For my students, my New Harmony immersion course represents an affordable way to fulfill their travel course requirement. They participate in online discussions as an introduction, explore the town for five days, and then have two weeks to complete a research portfolio.
My students are accustomed to urban industrial and suburban commercial districts. Many are immigrants, and some young women wear hijabs. Before our trip, they worried that they might not be welcome in a town that boasts just eight hundred residents and a single flashing light at the corner of Church and Main. Parents asked to meet with me to discuss if the town would be safe. But for the most part, my students were skeptical that they could learn anything here. One was frank: “If I’m being honest, I had a bad attitude. I didn’t think I would enjoy it, I thought it was going to be boring. And I was a little ticked off that this is how I was going to be spending my spring break.” Another student reflected later that the Harmonists also must have felt “unsure” in a new land, being commanded by a leader with a not-quite-tangible vision.
Arriving in New Harmony
When my students and I arrived in New Harmony, we could see in one glance a modern visitor’s center, a trio of original log cabins, and someone’s garage sale. After a three-hour drive, my students were cranky and a little dumbfounded to realize just how small this town is. I had told them that it would be a thirty-mile drive to reach a Starbucks, but they didn’t believe such a thing was possible.
I started them off in teams of three with a scavenger hunt. They came back tired but feeling like a cohesive group. One related how his trio made slow progress but then “started working as a team. It wasn’t until we returned that night that we really started to bond. We talked about our majors, why we were here, where we were from, and what we planned to do after this.”
The next day, I scheduled an all-day tour, which my students dreaded at first. But once on the tour, they took countless pictures and asked the guides about ghosts, town scandals, and obscure historic publications. Before we struck out on our journey, I assured them there would be two days of follow-up tours to explore their favorite spots in depth in smaller groups. My jaded nineteen- and twenty-year-olds rolled their eyes, bemused that I would think they would want more time in historic houses and archives. But it turned out that they did. One admitted that it “was just as fun and interesting [as the full-day introduction tour]. We sat and talked and got a lot more questions answered.”
My history colleague, who joined the trip as a male chaperone, helped them to see the broader context: how this town had lasting influence as a center of scientific research and social reform. The two utopian communities experimented with shared property, equal housing, and shorter work days. New Harmony had the first US public school open to both boys and girls. One of my biggest student dissenters admitted that my colleague’s lecture “made me think, and I appreciated that. I wasn’t being a critical thinker like I wanted to be.”
From the Past to the Present
At first, my students wanted to know how utopias developed. But then they connected with the town’s residents and became more interested in the living populace. One of our guides was home from college on break—he was a peer in age, but his affluent, small-town background and East Coast undergraduate studies made him very different from my students. They convinced him to join them for dinner and stay and talk all night. A previously cliquish foursome met a foursome of retirees and went hot-tubbing with them three nights in a row. Through conversations with the community, the class made connections between historical and present-day concerns. One student went to the town hall to compare minutes from long-ago and last-month’s meetings. One pair spent a morning with the sheriff to talk about the opioid crisis in the region. Another student asked if he could cite Dave the Smoothie Guy on his references page.
My students became interested in the way a community reinvents itself and survives when so many small towns disappear. They heard how the closing of a two-lane toll bridge affected employment and tourism, and how a minor state legislative change shuttered the K–12 school and changed the makeup of the town. They were enchanted with the legacy of an affluent leader (and oil heiress) who married into the Owen dynasty and made the town’s restoration and revitalization her life’s work for nearly sixty years. After my students met her daughter, one wrote, “This made the whole visit more real to me because it was like seeing a living piece of history.” Another was awed that this “millionaire descendant of Robert Owen [was] riding through town on a golf cart and even with her financial status was still more than willing to stop and say hi. . . . Calling this a utopian community doesn’t do the beauty and togetherness of this town justice.”
Global Learning in Our Backyard
New Harmony is special because it isn’t just a place where something happened once—it’s a living community. People still live in some of the original houses. The Working Men’s Institute, established in 1838, is still a “disseminator of useful knowledge,” housing both an old-fashioned museum (featuring an eight-legged calf!) and the oldest continuously operating public library in Indiana.
When we think of learning from travel, we often think of foreign countries and languages. But although my students do not leave the state, this is global learning. As in any good global learning experience, my students consider other perspectives, value differences, and engage with the unexpected. New Harmony is a microcosm where they can become immersed in a community and understand how individuals can effect change and how every place’s history informs its present-day identity. They consider how communities grow and fail and how new ideas become common practice.
My students tell me that they “expect to be bored out of [their] minds.” As a teacher, my greatest joy comes when reluctant students engage with a new idea, book, or place and admit they were mistaken about its lack of appeal. My students will soon move on to four-year institutions, but they will leave our community college better prepared to be open-minded members of their future academic, social, and civic communities.
Emily Watson is Associate Professor of English at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana.