Emerson was really a working together - a sum total of all the life paths, impulses and intentions of so many people, both staff and students. Every person who came to Emerson in some way touched it and changed it. Each year had its own biography. It was never an institution to which people came and passed through without leaving any mark on it. Michael Spence, The Story of Emerson College: Its Founding Impulse, Work and Form
Emerson College was founded by Francis Edmunds in 1962 for young people of that time. He felt connected to, and had an understanding of what lived in the young people particularly in America, including the counterculture and the hippy generation. He saw these as a spiritual awakening, but one confused and hindered by the education, materialism and increasing technology of the age. But amongst all these young people there were some who had strong intentions to find a path to the spirit and so to bring healing forces to human society and the earth. It was for these that Francis Edmunds founded Emerson College. He offered them an education based on the image of the human being consisting of body, soul and spirit, inspired by the work of Rudolf Steiner.
Francis saw that these people needed a place where they could meet an active spiritual life in practice and where they could find the path to their work in the world. They would find their way into many areas of activity – particularly into education and biodynamic agriculture, but also into the arts, sciences, drama, medicine and social therapy.
It started with eleven students in buildings made available in Sunfield Homes in Clent, near Birmingham. In 1964 it moved to some old wooden buildings in the grounds of Michael Hall Rudolf Steiner School in Forest Row. Finally, in 1967, it moved into its own permanent home in Pixton, Forest Row. This then included Tablehurst Farm. At that time there were 50 students in the Foundation Year and 25 in the teacher training course,
Over the next twenty or so years, through many struggles and a few crises, the College grew steadily as more and more young people sought what it offered. Many new good people joined the work, both as teachers and staff. In addition to the original Foundation Year and the later Teacher Training courses other new courses started. These included Biodynamic Agriculture and Rural Development, Sculpture, Painting, Visual Arts, Speech and Drama, Eurythmy and the Social Development Centre. There were many other smaller courses offered as the need arose. Later, in 1994 the storytelling course was started. In 1984/85 the college reached a peak of 255 full-time students.
Emerson College was never an English or British college, but a world college in England. From the beginning students came from around the world, to begin with mainly from English speaking countries. But this soon spread to the rest of the world. Students from the college can now be found, many in positions of leadership, in schools, agriculture communities, businesses and other areas in many parts of the world.
Most students did not first and foremost come for a specific training, instead they joined the Foundation Year. They came to find out what life is all about, who they were and what their tasks could be. And by studying Anthroposophy through the many varied subjects on offer, through the different philosophical studies, the activity of the arts and the creativity of crafts. At the same time they would see and hear about the various professional trainings in the second year courses.
Roswitha Spence, who worked at the College over many years, describes her experience of the students:
It was a privilege to experience the changes and developments each student went through during the course of one to three years. The bright eyes full of anticipation on arrival became a more questioning, sometimes puzzled, even anxious look, then widened to wonderment and finally a radiant glow of "shining eyes". The eyes we are told, are the windows of the soul, and as such they told the story that there was a recognition of self, a knowing confidence of how to go forward in life and a readiness to take on new tasks.
Much has changed in the world since the College was founded. People of all ages come to Emerson with different questions now. The College is adapting to meet the new needs, and innovating new forms. This has become an essential task of the new leadership of the college; to continue re-creating education for the whole human being in response to what is needed to help people meet the urgent tasks of our time.