In the Round
If you walked down Appian Way in 1968, it would have been hard to miss the circular, tent-like structure with a shiny red roof on the Ed School campus. The yurt, a round wooden living structure first used by Mongolians, was the campus home of then–doctoral student William Coperthwaite, Ed.D.'72.
It was a smaller version of his permanent home, a three-story yurt he built in 1962 on 300 acres of land in Machiasport, Maine, set 1.5 miles from the nearest road. Since then, he has spent the years working as an educator and learning about disappearing cultures from around the globe.
It was the latter pursuit that brought him to the Ed School in the late '60s. At the time, he was deeply immersed in learning the ways of the American Eskimo and planning a traveling exhibition for schools. According to Coperthwaite, when administrators got word of his work, they encouraged him to apply for the doctoral program and bring the traveling exhibition to fruition.
A lover of nature and sustainable living, for Coperthwaite the shift to Cambridge, Mass., was tough, so he asked the school to let him build his own yurt on campus where Gutman Library now stands. With a price tag of $600 and the help of other students, Coperthwaite erected the yurt in two days. For the next year, the yurt became a gathering place for those interested in handicrafts and hosted lively debates and informal seminars about education. The yurt was so popular that nearby Radcliffe College asked Coperthwaite to design another yurt for their faculty and administrators in what is now the location of the sunken garden.
"Living in the round is different than living in a square," Coperthwaite says of the popularity. The circular shape of the yurt encourages conversation and interaction with one another, he says, noting that while sitting in the round, everyone can be equal.
For years, Coperthwaite has worked to generate interest in yurt living and has helped people all over the world — even school districts — design and construct the buildings. Coperthwaite has become the go-to expert on yurt design and construction, which resulted in the book, A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity. He even created the nonprofit Yurt Foundation, which focuses on research, education, and dissemination of yurt living.
Today, on his 300 acres, Coperthwaite continues to cherish the simplicity of yurt living. Despite many technological advances, he still has no electricity or plumbing at home. He balks at phones and email, preferring to write letters. Now, in his 80s, he still travels the world studying disappearing cultures and shares what he learns via workshops. An avid whittler, Coperthwaite believes people need to make more things by hand and understand the hard work involved in such crafts.
"The hands help the brain and the brain helps the hands," he says.
He admits that much of what worried him about education and modern society in his days at the Ed School still exists today.
"The erosion continues, the population explosion continues, and there are more and more cars just pushing out more problems," he says, looking out at the trees. "We are living beyond our means as a society and it's scary. So I live in the woods and carve spoons."