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Students step back in time, explore utopian communities

December 11, 2017

KOKOMO, Ind. — Imagine living in an ideal world — one in which all people are equal, and united around a common vision. 

One Indiana University Kokomo class stepped back in time, visiting sites of two 19th century utopian communities, to see for themselves what that experience might have been like.

Donna McLean, associate professor of communication arts, led the honors colloquium, studying historical utopian societies, intentional communities established mostly in the 1800s, with the goal of creating a perfect world, free from crime, poverty, and violence.

“By visiting these sites in person, it gives a sense of what it would be like to live there, and also to understand what these communities contributed to the United States,” said McLean. “I wanted the students to take a theoretical idea, and see what it was like and how it was lived.”

The class visited New Harmony, Indiana, the site of two attempts to establish Utopian communities in the early 19th century. The first, Harmonie, was recognized as “the wonder of the west,” for its economic success. Ten years later, the founders sold the town to another group, which renamed it New Harmony, and planned to create a perfect society through free education, and the abolition of personal wealth and social classes.

New Harmony’s legacy was one of education, as the residents established Indiana’s first library. They were also known for bringing in noted scholars to provide learning.

Later, students and faculty traveled to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, the site of the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. The settlement was home to the third-largest Shaker community in the U.S. from 1805 to 1910. The Shakers were a Christian sect that practiced a celibate and communal lifestyle, pacifism, and equality of the sexes. Their legacy preservation of 1,200 acres of natural grasslands.

Senior Matt Floyd, Kokomo, said after visiting the Shaker Village, and seeing how isolated it was, he could understand why people would be attracted. From the reading, he pictured it as a spiritual decision, but saw why even those not of strong faith might join.

“Being in a rural, isolated area, you were very vulnerable,” he said. “People have a need for community. When they heard this village was an option, it would be appealing, despite the requirement of celibacy and the other restrictions.”

Nick Church, a senior from Alexandria, said for others, utopian societies provided escape from the fast-paced changes of the industrial revolution.

“Some people were overwhelmed with the influx of new technologies,” he said. “The way the country was run at that time; it was prone to have financial problems. Living in these places was a way to escape economic misfortune and overwhelming technology.”

He doesn’t think such a community would work in the 21st century.

“It would tend to rub against people wrong, to not have the freedom to do as they please,” he said. “Humans are inherently selfish creatures, no matter how much they try not to be.”

Senior Coral Regaldo-Santos, Frankfort,  thought it was interesting that communities united around a seemingly noble goal would not last.

“They were trying to have a good community, with no crimes or anything like that, and practice celibacy, and respectfulness,” she said. “I find it interesting that those communities fail, and our dystopian society is still here.” 

The KEY program offers authentic learning experiences for students, starting with a supportive freshman learning community, and including travel, internships, connecting with people who work in their field, researching with faculty, and more.

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 12/11/2017