After two hours of square dancing -- the form of exercise that sets jogging to fiddle music -- the city people had the hang of the promenade and doe-si-doe as well as the country folk. "It usually works that way," said one fiddler to another "once the city washes out of their blood."
Other things were working too, and Eliot Wigginton couldn't have been more pleased. The evening square dance, in a courtyard on the campus of Washington University, came at the end of a three-day gathering of 200 teachers and students who are part of the Foxfire movement that Wigginton created in 1966 in Rabun County, north Georgia.
Few innovations in American education in the past half century have been as successful or widely praised as the Foxfire concept. Wigginton, 36, is a native Georgian who earned a masters degree at Cornell and went to the Rabun Gap public high school to teach writing to ninth and tenth graders.
Initially, he thought a literary magazine might get their juices flowing. But a chance outing with a student led him in another direction. The pair went to the hills one weekend where the student taught the teacher how to track down the ginseng plant. Instead of a literary magazine, Wigginton thought, why not see if the students would write about their mountains, their communities and their own families?
Foxfire Magazine: The name is taken from the native lichen that that grows in the dark. Not only have the Rabun Gap students become what Wigginton calls dedicated "cultural journalists," but other teachers and students in all parts of the country have adapted the Foxfire philosophy to their own classrooms.
Those who came to St. Louis included teachers and students from the Ozarks, the Berkshires, a coal mining town in western Pennsylvania, the Latin American community in Miami, a seacoast village in Maine, an Indian tribe from the Great Plains and a central city neighborhood in Washington.
The groups, in sharing their magazines with the others, were able to celebrate the cultural riches of their new friends with as much delight as they had been celebrating their own.
The magazines that have come out of Rabun Gap since 1966 have done much more than awaken a few rural high schoolers to the local folkways and history of the southern Appalachians. They have been educating the whole country. Wigginton writes in Foxfire 1: "Daily our grandparents are moving out of our lives, taking with them, irreparably, the kind of information contained in this book. They are taking it, not because they want to, but because they think we don't care."
Five Foxfire collections have been published by Doubleday. The company calls it "our most astounding publishing success. The first book has sold more than 5 million copies, with Foxfire 5 now on the best-seller list.Each book combines profiles of local working people or the elderly with the details of their lives and crafts. These, the covers on each book explain, are "the affairs of plain living."
In the 1970s, a moment of complicated living, the educational theorists who design the classroom hoops through which the young must contort themselves have been wary of Foxfire. How can putting out a magazine about ironmaking, blacksmithing, flintlock rifles and bear hunting -- all in Foxfire 5 -- be anything more than idle frivolity? The young need discipline, not more go-do-what-feels-good schemes. Teach them "silas Marner."
Wigginton has heard the weary complaints over and over. But in the classroom in his north Georgia school, where a mischievous youngster put a match to his lectern one morning, he knew that the battle against student boredom and restlessness wasn't going to be won by imposing useless homework or harder tests. That would lead to more scorched lecterns.
"Our mission as teachers is clear," Wigginton says. "It is, quite simply to help our students master the information they must have to be able to take their destinies into their own hands. Said another way, it is to help our students come as close as is humanly possible to having control over their own futures." This goal has to do with connections to traditions, one's culture, and other intangibles that aren't surviving so well.
At the St. Louis conference, I was heartened by having the chance to get to know Wigginton. He is a spirited and broad-thinking man, a refreshing contrast to so many of today's teachers who are either demoralized by conventional education or too lazy to buck it.
Happily, the Rabun Gap experiment has spread to all parts of the country. All that is needed now is for all parts of the educational establishment to see that this spreading is to the good.