Learning with the stars

Inside the country's first college of astrology.

This week, in a central Seattle classroom, several dozen students and teachers are reviving an academic subject that's been scorned, vilified, and banned from universities for the past four hundred years or so. Kepler College of Astrological Arts and Sciences is now in session.

Kepler claims to be the first institution of higher learning in North America authorized to offer degrees in astrology—an authorization it received from the Washington state Higher Education Coordinating Board last year. The school is mostly a "distance learning" program, in which students read on their own and consult instructors by e-mail. But three times a year, the students and faculty gather in Seattle for a weeklong symposium. This week, the school's inaugural class is back in town for the first symposium of their sophomore term, and a dozen new students have arrived as freshmen.

Scientists, religious leaders, and academics have long reserved a special hostility for astrology, and, not surprisingly, this school has generated controversy. Last May, the chancellor of Boston University, John Silber, published an editorial column in a Boston newspaper headlined "Silliness Under Seattle Stars," in which he declared: "It is inexcusable for the government [to authorize] the granting of degrees in nonsense." Silber, a well-known conservative figure in the academic world, compared the certification of Kepler to the hanging of witches in Massachusetts; both, he said, legitimized superstition. "It is hard to think how a state agency might use its authority in a way more foolish and degrading to real education," he wrote.

After Silber's column received local publicity, Kepler came to the attention of state Representative Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney of Seattle, who co-chairs the state Legislature's committee on higher education. Kenney says she plans to conduct "an informal review" of the state's academic criteria sometime before the next legislative session. "The integrity of our higher education programs needs to be protected," she says.

However, visits to Kepler's classroom suggest that, in a world of grade-inflated, sports-obsessed, beer-chugging student bodies, Kepler is perhaps the last place where regulators should worry about the integrity of the higher education system. Whatever the value of studying astrology—and many "legitimate" scholars believe there is some [see "Battle of the Stars"]—the atmosphere at Kepler is about as studious and purposeful as that of any college classroom you're likely to find.

"Kepler is a lot tougher than I had imagined it would be," says 27-year-old student Mark Kuenzel, who works full-time as a digital media producer in Washington, D.C., and does his Kepler work at night. Kuenzel says he spent three years studying music and communications at a state school in Maryland, and "it wasn't this hard. We didn't get held to this high a standard." Because of the subject matter, he says, Kepler "wants to go beyond what other people would expect."

KEPLER IS easy to laugh at, and laughter is likely most people's initial response. Nothing but "What's your sign, dude?" for four long years? But the Kepler curriculum isn't just about reading horoscopes. Astrology was such a pervasive part of human science and culture for so many centuries that the coursework touches on medicine, mathematics, art, psychology, politics, and other fields of knowledge. Most of the first year is devoted to examining the development of astrology across different times and civilizations. "It's the history that's never taught," says Enid Newberg, Kepler's president. "Astrology's been selectively edited out."

Kepler itself has been a decade in the making. Newberg says astrologers have long dreamt of a return to the academic community. "From the Babylonian period to about the 17th century, astrologers were high scholars," she notes. (Of course, during the same period, blood-letters were also medical experts.) But not much happened until the proprietor of the Astrology Et. Al. bookstore on 45th in Wallingford and a group of local volunteers got together and set Kepler in motion. They incorporated as a nonprofit, and began raising money and devising a curriculum. The objective was "to develop astrology as a serious, respected course of study," says Newberg. Kepler raised start-up funds from a circle of prominent astrology practitioners, as well as a pair of former Microsoft executives, Cerise and William Vablais. (Neither could be reached for comment.)

With no campus home of its own, the college opted for distance learning. Organizers prescribed a symposium each trimester so that students and faculty could spend time living and studying together. "We didn't want to lose that camaraderie" of a residential college, Newberg says. The symposium has been a traveling show: Last winter, Kepler students met at the Bastyr University campus on the Eastside; in the spring they were at the Doubletree Inn next to Southcenter; this week they're renting space at Seattle University. Kepler officials hope that, someday, someone will donate them a building, at least for a library.

Classroom life during a Kepler symposium couldn't be more ordinary—except that everyone present seems a little more engaged than the usual indifferent undergrads slumped under baseball caps and overworked TAs. Kepler's inaugural-year students, most of whom are older than typical college age, see themselves as genuine pioneers, here to restore astrology to its rightful standing. "Astrology's been the bastard child of Western intellectual history," says Liz Kitney, 26, who is also studying history at Portland State University. "This is the first intellectual interest I've really been completely passionate about."

Edmond Wollmann, 46, who recently completed a double bachelor's degree in psychology and studio art at San Diego State University, says astrology "was totally censored out" of his regular university classes, "even while we're watching plays that have all kinds of references to it."

Dave Johnson, 44, who pumps cement in the Alaskan oil fields for a living, already has a B.A. in business administration and says he doubts he will ever be a professional astrologer. But he's just interested in the search. "There's some language in the stars, like sign language," he says. "I want to learn some of the truth in it and what the limits are."

"I'm a true skeptic, in the original sense of the word: someone who is willing to question things and does not believe easily," says Karen Hawkwood, 33, a business analyst for the Bay Area computer hardware company Logitech. Hawkwood has been "in and out of college" since she was 19, she says, but "astrology is the one thing I've never lost interest in. At a college where that is woven through, I stand a much better chance of finishing and getting my degree."

A third of Kepler's inaugural class of 30 students did not make it to sophomore year. "There were a few people who were a little too fluffy," one student tells me. "They weren't academically inclined."

"What we're doing here has nothing to do with the current New Age stuff," insists Paul Saffell, 34. "I see it as a revival of classical education."

Of course, some Keplerites have a certain affinity for the mystical and occult. At lunch one day during the winter symposium, one student could be seen attempting to read the palm of the young lady running the Bastyr cafeteria cash register. Another keeps a stack of tarot cards on the table with him during class.

Kepler participants also maintain an Oliver Stone-like conviction about the pervasiveness of astrology in the corridors of power. Nancy Reagan's infamous use of an astrologer in the White House was a rare public revelation of a secret common practice, they suggest. "Every stock brokerage in America has a staff of astrologers," says student Michael Mercury, who hosts an astrological call-in show on a Sacramento-area radio station, "but they'll never admit it."

At lunch one day during the spring symposium, several of the students offer to read my birth chart, something I've never had done. When I demur, they immediately (and correctly) say, "You're a Scorpio, aren't you?"

ENID NEWBERG says Kepler is built on a model similar to Evergreen State College. There are no grades. Instead of dividing up coursework into discrete topics—biology, math, composition—all the liberal arts are taught in an integrated way through the prism of one main subject matter—in this case, astrology. A typical assignment for student papers: "Outline the main philosophical changes that took place in the Renaissance and explain how these affected astrological practice."

"We didn't want to be a vocational school," Newberg says. "We wanted to be much broader." By the terms of state regulations, a quarter of the Kepler curriculum has to be "generalized."

The school does include some professional-type training. At this past spring's symposium, faculty member Stephanie Clement offered tricks of the trade to budding horoscope writers. "Try to be positive," she urged. "Rather than saying, 'You're going to have an accident,' tell people, 'Focus; pay attention to what you're doing.'" In their third year, students will study licensing and other mundane concerns of the astrological businessperson.

Kepler students and faculty, like most serious astrologers, view "sun sign astrology"—as in, "What's your sign?"—with disdain, even while they sometimes rely on it for a living. (Sun sign astrology simply isolates the sun's position in the zodiac at a person's birth, ignoring the other planets' positions, the angles between them, and other more specific data.) The course work at Kepler delves into the more arcane aspects of the astrologer's art: calculating aspects and chart delineations, retrogrades, stations, quadruplicities. . . . For their final two years of study, students will choose one of several possible tracks, such as health sciences and computer sciences. Most, though not all, are planning to get into psychology and "the counseling arts"—which some already practice.

Outside the Doubletree classroom one afternoon, while students were learning the intricacies of celestial navigation, faculty member Lee Lehman, Ph.D., explained, "Everybody is required to do statistics: standard deviation, sigma values. Last night we were doing writing workshops, discussing paragraphs and topic sentences. They're getting a lot of mainline skills, but our examples are different." For students who choose a health sciences track, for instance, "we're going to give anatomy and physiology," Lehman says, "but we might also mention that the liver is historically ruled by Jupiter."

Later that night, a visiting computer science instructor from Michigan State University gave an outstanding lecture on the scientific method, as he discussed the long-running (and largely unsuccessful) efforts to statistically "prove" astrological influences, such as the notion that champion athletes are likely to have Mars predominate in their birth chart.

The very name of Kepler College asserts its compatibility with modern science. Johannes Kepler, the 17th-century German astronomer who helped determine the laws of planetary motion, was the last great astronomical figure who held fast to astrological beliefs, even as his work served to undermine the picture of the universe on which astrology was founded. Boston University chancellor John Silber argues that naming an astrology college for Kepler is like naming a school of drunkenness after Hemingway; it honors a great man for his major failing.

In "authorizing" Kepler to give B.A. and M.A. degrees, state regulators make no judgments as to the value of astrology. "We're not saying [Kepler] is great or worth going to," says Barbara Dunn, spokesperson for the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board. "We're saying they met the requirements to operate in the state of Washington"—which include such practical criteria as adequate financial and administrative resources, "qualified faculty," and an appropriate academic catalog.

Last month, the board sent a letter about its decision to Gov. Gary Locke, preparing him for any political fallout. With notable bureaucratic backbone, the board averred: "It is not the responsibility, nor should it be, of government to dictate what citizens should study or think."

Kepler's academic programming will get a more thorough assessment when the college seeks accreditation, which is granted by one of a half-dozen quasi-public associations around the country. Once a school is accredited, its students can qualify for federal loans. But the symbolic value is at least as important. Newberg says Kepler will seek accreditation first from the Distance Education and Training Council, which has certified schools of nutrition, religious studies, business, gemology, hypnosis, and motel management, among others. Later, she says, Kepler may apply to the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, a more arduous process that takes at least seven years.

The long-term viability of Kepler is in question. Only a dozen students enrolled as freshman this fall, and that number will seriously dwindle if last year's one-third attrition rate continues. Tuition is $5,000 a year, and Newberg says that a class size of 65 students represents a "survivable rate" for the school. She and her board of directors continue to raise funds, but Keplerites acknowledge that the arrival of their institution has not been universally celebrated in the astrological community. "The people who do astrology in a personal, intuitive way are very threatened by what we're doing," says student Karen Hawkwood. Observes faculty member Lehman: "People who for years have been studying on their own are going to be suddenly confronted with people who have a credential."

THERE'S NO DOUBT that the faculty at Kepler are, to one degree or another, astrology believers. Dr. Lehman claims to have had success in predicting the outcome of sports games and beating the house in Vegas. (She says her own astrological practice focuses on "answering life's little problems—'Should I buy this house?' etc.") The overall viewpoint of the school, she says, is that "there is an influence between planetary position and human and biological behavior on earth—and the nature of that connection is worth studying."

Yet there's certainly no evidence of indoctrination going on at Kepler. As student Mark Kuenzel puts it, "They really are heavy into critical thinking. They're not just jamming a philosophy down your throat. They're exposing you to all the philosophies and saying, 'Well, these people contradict each other, why do you think that is?' Kepler really encourages you to question pretty much everything you are told and read."

Student Karen Hawkwood, who moonlights as an astrological counselor, says it makes her laugh when people ask, "Do you believe in astrology?" "Because that's like asking, 'Do you believe in biology?' Of course this thing exists. The question is, what do you believe it can or cannot do?" She says she "violently disbelieves that the planets cause anything." But she thinks astrology "can show us patterns, how the pattern in the sky represents synchronistically the pattern in the human being. I don't know how this works. The microcosm reflects the macrocosm. We see patterns in things that there's no objective way to explain. I believe astrology is one of the best ways to see those patterns."

Read more about Kepler College in "Battle of the Stars."

mfefer@seattleweekly.com

 
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