(Editor’s note: This article is adapted from its original publication in The Journal of Communal Studies, 38:2 (December 2018) and is republished with permission.
This article reviews communal learning in the Jonestown Agricultural Project. Inspired by socialist ideals, education in Jonestown adhered to a progressive culture in which learning took place in nonlinear, community-based programs that valued active participation and the growth of good citizenship. It placed emphasis on the practical applications of work- based and activity-based learning. The Jonestown school, which was designed to accommodate the accreditation guidelines of Guyana’s cooperative socialist government, served the diverse population of Jonestown without the boundaries of traditional education.
An explanation of communal education may vary with time and place; therefore this review will consider communal learning in the socialist context of the 1970s, the time period in which the Jonestown Agricultural Project existed. The essence of communal learning is in the nonlinear, community-based programs of socialist education systems, which place value on development of traits such as socialist morality, citizenship education, and working for the benefit of the community. It contrasts with the neoliberal concept of education, which objectifies and categorizes learning by placing emphasis on material benefit and standardized forms of easily quantifiable, high-stakes testing. Communal learning takes place through our social interactions with the environment as well as in the classroom, helping to integrate academic education with community need and culture. Activity-based group learning applied using practical methods, for example on-the-job training, provides an example of communal learning as it was employed at Jonestown.
Communal learning views education as a means of inspiring the personal growth of responsible human beings and the development of an equitable society. With its emphasis on human and social development, it leads to the expansion and democratization of education—making learning accessible to the entire community, improving inclusion, and fostering human rights. In socialist education, development of social morality and intellect, also called the “red mind,” implies the true knowledge and socialist values that education is meant to produce. Moral education included both ethical and political lessons to create a responsible socialist citizenry and nation. While this may extend education and job training to the entire community, it creates a conflict in that moral values are often communicated through the community, whereas socialist education tends to be centralized in government systems, which attempt to transfer moral education through the schools. Successful integration of the schools with the community through inclusive communal learning, in which the school becomes part of the community, helps to resolve this conflict. The Jonestown school was an inclusive form of communal learning that integrated the school and community and embraced the entire Jonestown community through classes, community projects, adult education, and on-the-job training. Communal education involves social learning, and in Jonestown education was a holistic concept involving the entire community.
Education in Guyana in the 1970s
A brief review of the changes taking place in Guyanese education in the 1970s will help provide a background for the educational developments taking place in Jonestown. Guyana inherited a strong tradition of Christian education based on the British colonial system of education. However, in 1978 Guyana was still a developing nation that had earned its independence twelve years earlier and was attempting to rebuild its education system to support its economic and cultural national interests. The shift from an elitist colonial to a socialist educational concept involved expanding equality of access for all groups without discriminatory barriers. This included providing free compulsory education from primary to secondary levels and providing the knowledge, technology, teacher training, and values to achieve freedom and equality.
In 1978 the two political parties that determined national Guyanese education policy were the PPP, which promoted socialist reforms to expand education, and the PNC, which sought to limit expansion in favor of capitalist and colonialist interests. In 1976 free education was established, but this only included free tuition, not other costs such as books and transportation. A severe shortage of space and teachers existed. Only 78 percent of primary age children attended classes. Approximately 94 percent of students applying to secondary school were denied free tuition and forced into fee-paying schools, the army, or unemployment. Only 9 percent of students who applied to the technical institutes were admitted because of lack of space. Although Guyana had a 90 percent literacy rate, one-third of these were functionally illiterate. The lowest literacy rates were in rural areas, which had a scarcity of classroom space andteachers.
Teachers in Guyana, especially in rural areas, suffered from a lack of training. Mismanagement and political interference by the PNC repressed teachers who favored the socialist policies of the PPP into background positions and emigration. This became a major issue in the educational and political debate in Guyana while Jonestown existed. The PPP favored abolishing the dual system in which education was controlled by the Christian churches, who espoused colonial European values. Dual control was abolished in 1976, and a secular education system was established. It was necessary to expand education in the sciences, agriculture, technology, Guyanese history, and vocational training. It was also necessary to improve teacher training and work conditions and to extend teacher control over curriculumdesign and textbook production. This is the environment in which Jonestown developed its own unique form of communal socialist education. Guyana placed a high value on education. It had the need for the educational programs and socialist reform being developed in Jonestown.
Communal Education in Jonestown
The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project was named Jonestown by Guyanese officials out of respect for its initiator, Rev. Jim Jones. A Peoples Temple publication, Jonestown: A Model of Cooperation (1978), says that its long-term purpose, beyond providing agricultural produce, was to offer medical and educational services to residents of the rural northwest region of Guyana. One of the primary reasons Jonestown was established with the cooperation of the Guyanese government was to offer educational services in a rural region of Guyana in which there was a shortage of educational opportunity. The Temple’s principles of racial equality, human service, and cooperative living made Jonestown attractive to Guyanese officials.
Cooperative learning was an integrated cornerstone of the community education concept employed in Jonestown. A senior education minister of Guyana’s Ministry of Education described the Jonestown school as “a community school in its truest sense” and the school headmaster, L. T. Grubbs, portrayed the entire community as a school without walls. Learning in Jonestown was a cooperative activity that removed barriers and fostered community development.
Training for the job skills that would be required in Jonestown began years before arrival in Guyana. This training encompassed on-the-job training, experiential learning, and academic education. Experimentation and cooperative learning with local experts were valuable components of agricultural training. The Jonestown Progress Report of 1977 and Jonestown: A Model of Cooperation in 1978 state that experimental methods and the advice of Amerindians and Guyanese agricultural experts were utilized in learning more efficient techniques of increasing agricultural production. Experimentation included developing new crops that were adaptable and useful in the Guyanese environment.
The importance of on-the-job training is suggested in the Guyana Chronicle, which states that students are trained through a work-study program in approximately twenty skill sets including “agriculture, medical electronics, machine shops, wood-working, clothes manufacture, mechanics, heavy equipment operation, and home economics.” Tim Carter, a Jonestown survivor, reported that most training in Jonestown was done through on-job-training by skilled craftspeople. Training systems were set up and then adjusted to be highly effective. It was also mentioned that teenagers and adults were trained vocationally in apprenticeships in such useful skills as carpentry and trade crafts.
Work-study and on-the-job training concepts were strongly supported in the materials distributed by Jonestown. These materials describe students as being actively involved in the maintenance and daily activities of Jonestown, from domestic chores to grounds care. Students took active part in metalwork and mechanics workshops alongside academic classes. A merit system was used to reward conscientious workers, who were permitted to take part in special work projects. One example of a special work project is given as assisting in the construction of a new playground. A notation is made in the summer Jonestown Progress Report of 1977, that the example provided applied to younger children, as vocational and technical training began in the seventh grade, and academic training for older youth was planned to begin in the fall of 1978. On-the-job training for adults provided training in skilled positions by expert trainers in areas such as the medical center and the kitchen.
The Jonestown school applied a holistic, activity-based, communal approach to learning that was inclusive of all youth and directly or indirectly of every adult. In 1978 the school had over 275 students from nursery to high school, of which the nursery school had 36 children and the elementary and junior high school had 62 girls and 72 boys. The school in Jonestown may be viewed as a continuation of the Peoples Temple Opportunity High, which was based on A. S. Neill’s Summerhill School. The progressive educational theories of A. S. Neill, which nurtured the holistic development of responsible citizens within participatory democracy, were reflected in the pedagogy. Education in Jonestown began with child care for infants and toddlers and continued through specialized education for adults. Evening classes removed barriers to learning and consisted of all age groups in subjects such as languages and the arts. Teacher training was actively taking place to train new teachers from elementary to high school levels. Teaching was of good quality, with over a dozen teachers having advanced degrees including specialized forms of education. Teachers were given the opportunity to design materials that motivated students and students to explore subjects which they found interesting, transforming children who did not excel in US schools into excellent students.
A well-rounded curriculum was offered in elementary through high school levels. It consisted of language arts (including Russian and Spanish), English, handwriting, composition, reading, phonics, spelling, arts and crafts, music, natural and earth sciences, perceptual skills, social studies, black history, Guyanese history, socialism, math, and physical education to develop motor skills. Most of the activities were group activities that encouraged social learning and collective participation through the holistic growth of each student physically, morally, creatively,socially, and intellectually. The playground area was considered of crucial educational importance in helping students to develop physical, motor, and balance abilities. The playground equipment was designed by Tom Grubbs, who as a special education teacher was capable of designing materials for the benefit of all children. Emphasis on the playground was placed on cooperating to help classmates, rather than on the competitive values that may have resulted in the exclusion of some children.
Preschool children were taught table manners, personal hygiene and health, educational dance, alphabet and numbers, and basic educational themes. The elementary school encompassed grades 1–7, in which children were grouped according to ability levels, instead of by age, encouraging the child to progress according to motivation and abilities, rather than through a standardized system. Learning and classroom materials made from indigenous materials—for example, chalkboards made of steel with chalkboard paint—were used instead of pens and pencils, allowing the use of chalk or magnets in the classroom. Emphasis was placed on development of educational activities and materials using indigenous materials. This implies that the school personnel, teachers, and students may have been developing the materials, which would have involved creative and social learning, rather than premade materials, which could lead to conformity and repetitive thinking. Work-study was an important part of student development that involved more than the learning of academic subjects. Each child helped with domestic chores, cleaning activities, and maintenance of Jonestown and the grounds, including playground and flower beds. Exceptional students and good workers were permitted to participate in special projects, which taught valuable lessons and vocational skills.
Education was available for all ages from youth through adults without barriers in Jonestown. Laura Johnston Kohl fondly remembered seniors sitting in classes with young children and older students to tell their personal histories. Kohl also remembered that oral history was treasured as much as books and other written materials. This integrated form of community learning is found in indigenous education in non-Western cultures. It immerses children in community culture and teaches nonlinear human skills that transcend barriers of age and gender.
Adult learning was also valued; job training produced skilled workers to serve the needs of the community, for example as craftsmen, medical assistants, agricultural workers, and teachers. Classes were taught in literacy for seniors, as were topics such as socialism, geography, current events, arts and crafts, and languages like Russian and Spanish. These courses could be useful in the community culture, for example arts and crafts, assisted toy making, sign-making, production of stuffed animals, jewelry and clothing design, textile art, drawing, candle-making, culinary, music, and dance. In socialist theory, adult learning was considered a valuable method of developing good socialist citizens and as an essential part of economic, moral, and social development. Classes in socialism and political enlightenment were held every week. These two courses were eventually merged to become socialist enlightenment classes. The Women’s Revolutionary Socialist Movement held classes covering topics such as self-respect, education, creativity, socialist concepts, women’s place in the revolution, hygiene, child care, and world news. Adult education played an important role in developing Jonestown and helping residents to become active and productive members of society.
Jonestown maintained counseling services through teams of trained counselors who worked with counseling groups and on-call special teams for emergencies. Counseling was held in the person’s residence. If necessary, group counseling would follow. More complex issues could be raised in public meetings. Upon review of the counselor notes for sessions held on July 29, 1978, and August 3, 1978, this researcher found that most counseling sessions seem to have consisted of the minor disagreements and domestic issues common at home and work.
Experience of Laura Johnston Kohl and Tim Carter
While performing the research, two interviews were held, consisting of several brief questions about learning in Jonestown. One interview was held with Laura Johnston Kohl, who taught Spanish at Jonestown. Another interview was held with Tim Carter, who assisted in the accreditation process of the Jonestown school. The interviews revealed some interesting information and seemed to correlate with the written research.
Asked if the accreditation process was difficult, both interviewees agreed that Guyana was very careful about allowing the Jonestown school to educate children. Tim continued that the Guyanese government took education very seriously. The education system in Guyana was based on the traditional British system, and Guyana had a high literacy rate. The Ministry of Education had a book of guidelines that had to be fulfilled, and tedious adjustments had to be made for the school to qualify for accreditation. Both interviewees agreed that the accreditation process involved a great deal of change in planning for the school in Jonestown.
How involved was Jim Jones in the accreditation process? Tim said that Jones was not involved, but Laura mentioned that he did pick the educators to figure out how to go about the accreditation process. There were some very talented and qualified educators and teachers in Jonestown.
How extensive was adult education in Jonestown? Adult education was extensive, with classes held all the time. Socialism classes were taught at nighttime. Laura taught Spanish. She said that classes were taught by everyone inthe community, young and old, with a skill or experience in an area. Jim Jones taught political science of sorts and world news at all of the meetings. Core academics were taught by trained teachers, and trades were taught throughout the community by many of the adults. Adults were also involved in mentoring and training the youth.
Were group activities such as work and social groups used to foster development of social qualities like loyalty and good citizenship in Jonestown? Tim said yes, it was very much a family. Laura suggested that the primary skill they all learned in Jonestown was to do their jobs and do them well. That translated into being trustworthy, being valued as a hard worker, and being a model socialist. It was universal that whatever your job, you were held to a high standard and held accountable.
Was learning in Jonestown seriously motivated toward developing a socialist society or propagating the message of Jim Jones? Tim answered that loyalty was toward the group, which wanted a socialist society, not toward Jones himself. When it was realized that Jonestown was running a debt, and that agriculture could not handle the deficit, research was done into buying a restaurant or hotel. Laura’s experience was that learning in Jonestown was primarily geared to creating a socialist utopia, while giving full credit to Jones for his leadership. Socialism was great, but Jones wanted the credit for being the inspiration.
Did the group message that members wanted to establish vary from that of Jim Jones? If so, how? Laura and the people she worked with wanted a socialist utopia. Jones said that he brought down one thousand people dedicated to that ideal. As 1977 and 1978 passed, Jones was around the community in Jonestown less, as he was kept away when he was incoherent or drugged. Much of the work that got done in Jonestown in the last year or so was done by people who were living the dream. Jones’ paranoia led him to communicate different messages at the end, but many who lived inJonestown kept their own counsel and kept putting the community first. Tim suggested it was an individual experience, but members weren’t building a utopia—they wanted to get away from racism. They were building a city and new life without racism.
Laura chose to add that in Jonestown, they had literacy classes for adults to learn to read and write—education was valued. Some of the young people were promised advanced education after the building of Jonestown was finished. Some planned to go to medical school in Cuba. Jones did not discuss it publicly for some reason, but he spoke to a small group about it as a future plan. People were educated in the United States as well. Some students who were sent to Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State left in the early 1970s, but some finished school, including nursing and law school, in the United States.
In Jonestown, learning forged a new path beyond theory to provide an example of progressive, communal education in a socialist culture. Education became a practice-based experience, utilizing activity and work-based learning to meet the needs of the community. The Jonestown Agricultural Project in its isolated location in Guyana became a microcosm of communal learning, having few of the bureaucratic limitations found in the education systems of established socialist governments. Working within the guidelines of the Guyanese education system, itself a system striving to achieve cooperative socialism, the Jonestown school, the various activity groups, and the work-based training programs created their own form of communal learning in building their ideal society free of racism. It was a rare example of progressive, activity-based learning applied to the building of a planned socialist community.
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 “Peoples Temple Gets Official Status,” Guyana Chronicle, June 19, 1978.
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 R. Wettendorf, “From High School to Jonestown: A Review of And Then They Were Gone,” 2017, in Alternative Considerations, accessed March 18, 2018.
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