Place-Based Education on Paradise Island

During the carnival on Lastovo I had a startling realization: I didn’t need to leave! At least not yet. I had initially been planning (a relative term) to leave Lastovo the day after the carnival, but I realized at that point that there was nowhere I needed to be, and I was on one of the most beautiful islands I have ever seen, with wonderful people, good food, and a banjo. So stay I did.

I had become good friends with Danica and Nika, two of the olive workers who would be staying longer on the island. We also befriended one of the local men, who I just knew as “The Doktor.” I had met him in his costume the day before and the name stuck. We spent a few more days in the apartment before moving to the house of a local school teacher we had become friends with. During this time we got the opportunity to explore the island and learn more about the culture. Much of the time was spent in picnics and walks in the mountains, along the coast of the island and exploring the twisty passages of the old town.

Photo credit Narentino

The town is famous for its chimney pots, known as fumari which are intricately decorated and shaped in all different manners. One night we walked by moonlight down to an abandoned set of buildings on the water’s edge to watch stars and eat peanuts, or in Croatia: kiki-riki. Croatian joke: When Chuck Norris eats kiki-riki, he knows which one is kiki and which one is riki! Hilarious, right? Anyway, it was a wonderful week, with the pace of life slowing down to a delightfully calm way of being. Body time governs the island.

I also started gaining an understanding of the nature of knowledge on the island; people living there had a deeper knowledge of place and history of place than I have ever seen. As one local expressed to me, “everyone knows everyone else, what they do, what their father and grandfather did, what everyone though of everyone else, and where they were thinking it.” This deep knowledge extended to the land itself. there is a saying on Lastovo that there are 46 hills, 46 islands (little islands and sandbars off the coast) and 46 churches. Leaving aside for a moment that 46 churches is an astonishing number for such a small population, it starts to hint at the intimate understanding of place that is instilled on the island.

I spent many hours talking with the  teacher who we were staying with about the dancing and carnival, but also about Lastovo in general and I was truly blown away as to how much he knew. We were watching old film of life on the island that was taken for a documentary some 50 years ago and he was pointing out people who he had never known, or who were many decades his senior and telling me their life story. Houses that had been abandoned before he was born and new ones sprang up in their place were still points of contention. At one point he even pointed out that the film must have gotten flipped over at a certain section, as a particular staircase on a house was going the wrong way.

In my mind I started calling this kind of understanding “Intensive Knowledge,” and holding it in contrast to what is currently promoted in the metropolitan ideal, which i called “Extensive Knowledge.” I took these terms from historians and social scientists studying reading habits over the past several centuries. During this time period reading habits shifted from pouring over just a few books dozens of times, to the current idea of reading as many books as possible. Part of this shift had to do with the fact that books became less expensive and easier to replicate. Scholars shifted from getting to see a rare book once or twice in their life, to being reasonably assured (as in modern times) that they can access a book again if they need it (or even just scan or cut and paste into their electronic files). It also had to do with a cultural shift as to the values of education. Aside from the necessity to memorize books for future reference, memorization was regarded as a virtue that allowed the individual to fully embody the lessons taken from it, particularly in regards to religion. Rabbinic scholars would spend their whole lives pouring over a relatively few texts. Memorization of sacred texts was commonplace in most major religions. This was Intensive Reading. Today we idealize the Extensive Reading, where cheap and accessible books encourages the well-educated individual to read as many as possible, with little to no focus on repetition. The term “well-read” refers to one who reads widely, with the assumption that this is where knowledge is found.

The current school building was built by allied forces after the second world war

In applying this to the island, people who spend their life on the island gain an much fuller understanding about all of the different things that makes the island function than I, for example, find for myself. While I am currently gaining an immensely extensive knowledge on sword dance, I can’t tell you how many houses are on my street, where almost any of my food comes from, who built any structure in my neighborhood (aside from my tree house and chicken “palace”) or the grandfather of any person on my block. Many residents of Lastovo can tell you all of these things, how to farm the island, and what crops are grown on any given field. Obviously, the children on the island learn much of the same things as kids anywhere else, but even here there is a good deal of Intensive Knowledge.

Lastovo is an amazing example of place-based education. The traditional culture and traditions are incorporated into many aspects of the regular education system. One particularly interesting project that I learned about while visiting the school was building lijericas. While they are usually handmade, teachers at the school had come up with a plan to partner with a mainland manufacturer to work with the students to create 3D computer models of the instrument that could then be made using computer controlled machinery and assembled by the students themselves.

The students were involved from cutting down the trees, to creating the images, assembling the pieces to learning the music. The project is now in its third year and there are more children learning how to play the traditional songs than there have ever been, a promising hope for the future! The project comes full circle as children plant new trees to be used in 30 years for instruments. As I spent more time at the school, it became clear to me that it functions in a vital central role for the Poklad carnival. The groups of students that go collecting eggs are actually organized by year in the school and are given guidelines which include the songs to sing, where they should go, and basic ground rules. The kids learn music and dancing in their classes, participate in ritual tilling of the fields that happens the week before, and are learning about the traditions and history.

The day after the carnival there was a photography exhibition of pictures students had taken of the event. They must have worked quickly, because the top shots were exhibited in large format prints around the town hall and the whole community came to see. There were other photos that were capturing other aspects of life on the island and other art. According to the teacher, the school had been playing this role for at least 50 years in one way or another.

This type of education certainly exists in the US. In 2010 I had the privilege of working with Greg Sparrow, from the Vermont Folklife Center and taking a course he was teaching that incorporated Place-Based Education. Teachers that have taken this course have gone on to do amazing projects with students including interviewing older members of their community, mapping local resources, building sugaring operations and saving historic landmarks. In a world based on extensive knowledge, as measured by standardized test, it is exciting to see examples of local intensive knowledge producing students who are more aware of, involved in, and engaged with their community and its human, cultural and natural resources.This is something that schools in the US can learn from.

In dealing with things that come from their own community, students are able to learn modern skills while giving them a sense of community and connectedness to place. I believe that many of the problems that we face in the US, particularly in regards to environmentalism, supporting art and culture, and social programs stems from this idea of the “modern nomad.” If a person is born in Nebraska, goes to school in LA, moves to NYC and retires to Vermont, without really learning about any of them in an “intensive” way, what motivation is there to preserve the things that are important about them. If I don’t know how my local watershed, farms, dance traditions, or neighbors are functioning, why should I fight for them?

Ok, so that was much longer of a tangent than I meant to take, and rather scattered. I see in it the start of some more developed thought at some point, but for now it will stand as is. Anyway, after some lovely days on the island Nika, Danica, Doktor, and I took the ferry back to Split, where Danica had a house. On the boat I taught them how to play the card game Shithead, we played Kemps, and traded riddles. Of course we had already played the nose game!

In Split we hung out, went picnicking, ate good food, and played lots of music. During one walk along the shore we even found a group of young people doing slack line and poi, so of course we joined in! I had very little success on the slack line, but the two girls did it often and proved to be quite competent.

During the last night we were there I decided to hold a mini supra, so we had a lovely meal and toasted the strange wonderfulness of the experiences we had just had. Croatia has been one of the first places that I find myself drawn to so much, and this was a nice closure.

We took the bus to Zagreb where I stayed with Dejan, another of the olive workers. I met with one of the researchers from Carnival Kings, and got a behind the scenes tour of the exhibit there, as well as trading information and photos on the places we had gone. I also got to expire the city, including going to one of the most interesting museums i have seen so far, The Museum of Broken Relationships. This museum has collected thousands of items, letters, and interviews from people that represent an old relationship. These range from the whimsical to the heartbreaking and collectively is something between gossip, revenge catharsis, and longing.

Finally it was time to leave Croatia behind me, and on the 1st of March I took the train through Slovania and Austria to Traunstein, Germany. On the train? A Scottish rugby team. I was Bavaria-bound; time to learn the Schwerttanz! 

About Jeremy Carter-Gordon

My blog of a year studying point-and-hilt sword dancing on a Watson Fellowship. Enjoy reading, tell me your thoughts and leave me a comment, or visit my website at
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