As long as you live, shine!
Don’t be worried,
For life is short, and time demands fulfillment!
—Seikilos Epitaph (ca. 100 AD)
Adult learning is typically seen as an appendix and extension – an afterthought – of formal schooling from kindergarten to College. But is it not more reasonable – does it not make better sense and is it not truer to the highest sense of the meaning of education – to see formal schooling as part of a bigger lifetime picture of learning, as prelude and preparation, not merely for a career, but for an autonomous pathway of serious learning that grows over the course of a whole lifetime?
We think so. We think there is a pathway beyond the pale of formal schooling and professional academia, and we want to help you find it. We want to create a safe, welcoming space for you to go directly to the sources and take some big risks in your learning. We want you to be indulgent and curious in your reading and thinking, exploring big ideas and sharing meaningful questions together in conversation with a community of curious and intellectually alive adults.
What are the great books? First of all, we try to let them speak for themselves. The books are a central springboard, touch point, and occasion for discussion. In a way, they are also another participant in the conversation. And yet, in the highest sense, what makes these books so worthwhile is that – when studied under sufficient conditions which allow them to speak for themselves – they really are capable illuminating the fundamental questions of greatest importance and urgency to human beings. They can actually show us ourselves, in ways that few other things can.
It is widely believed that reading challenging, thought-provoking books of this caliber adds an immeasurable value to life. The experience can be empowering, liberating, and life-changing. Reading of this sort does not stop with school, but is something we carry on into life. It is, indeed, a lifelong pursuit.
A busy adult seeking to carry on lifelong reading of the highest caliber in leisure faces significant road blocks.
First of all, who has the time? But if we look at it and are honest with the way we spend our time, we would make time, if we think it is truly worthwhile. A course of serious reading and discussion through the greatest books is surely one of the most worthwhile adventures of our life, worth dedicating time and energy in the pursuit of its fulfillment.
But agreeing that this is so is not enough. How do we begin? The most challenging books, the classics, the ones which are potentially life-changing, can also seem – and be – too daunting to take on by ourselves. We may feel we cannot go it alone, that we need other people with whom to talk and share our questions – and to spur us on to the challenge.
If you are ready to launch into learning, where can you turn for help? Readily available alternatives typically consist of either taking a lecture-driven college course, or joining a book club.
But there are problems with both alternatives.
Lecture courses provide all sorts of useful and helpful information, but rarely give the beginning reader an opportunity to directly encounter the text according to the reader’s own questions and her own horizon of experience. We learn all about what the lecturer thinks, but walk away not knowing what we think. At the end of the day, we may feel that something is missing, and that it might in fact be what we crave most of all: a direct encounter with the greatest minds and spirits, to somehow enter into a conversation with them.
Nothing will tell you more about an author or a book – about what they really have to say about the big questions – than your own time and good effort spent closely reading even ten pages of a great book. No lecture can ever substitute for your own direct engagement.
The scandalous fact about our educational culture – and this is true not only in the realm of adult learning, but in the whole educational realm root to branch – is that for all of the brilliant lectures and monographs and explanations of complicated topics, for all of the technical substitutes and methods in classrooms devised to make learning slick and easy, not a single one of them can ever do your own authentic intellectual work for you – it is simply impossible to outsource your own work of attention and real effort, your own ability to raise questions and to follow them out and see for yourself, your own work of thinking freshly and directly about the great books and the vital questions that arise from them.
There is a continuous lifelong activity of the mind and heart that brings a renewed vitality and happiness to our lives. But no one or nothing – not even the most advanced artificial intelligence – can accomplish this activity for you, but you yourself, in your own time, proportional to your own abilities.
You might, then, choose to join book club. If - that is – you can find one on a great book. Book clubs have the advantage of freedom from the academic environment, as well as offering a friendly, informal discussion environment. The disadvantage of book clubs is that they typically shy away from challenging material and the classics, and the conversations tend to lose focus. Conversations tend to be more about sharing opinions and less about inquiring and learning together. Book clubs also tend to be closed, private groups, instead of an open, growing community. A book club of this sort can be enjoyable in its own right; but for someone looking to take on the challenges of a rich heritage, someone who has the need for a supportive community, it can be discouraging.
Where should the reader go, then? No wonder so many of us give up before even setting down the path.
That’s what we’re here for, to open the way, and provide the best of both worlds: a supportive community, offering friendly and open discussion about the “best that is thought and said.”
We stand for a robust alternative to readily available learning choices for adults. We stand for a pathway of adult learning that surpasses remedial, professional, hobbyist and amateur enthusiast training – a path that is made for free people who want to think and learn about the big questions for themselves, who want to participate in the greatest conversation there is…a pathway of lifelong liberal learning.
Read about our seminars here…
“Symposium is what I always felt a philosophy or literature discussion was meant to be. You commit yourself to carefully reading – sometimes with difficulty – one of the world’s great classics, on your own. And then, when you show up for a conversation, you’re joining a group of people who are approaching it with the same interest and thoughtfulness that you are. As we discussed these texts, I’d feel a combination of inspiration and profound humility. On the one hand, you witness some of history’s great minds struggling with issues that are complex, but also surprisingly relevant to how we live our lives today. On the other hand, one of the great things about a Symposium conversation is that you read critically. You’re not bound to the arguments you’re discussing – you’re joining a conversation with the author himself or herself, as well as with your fellow participants. Best of all, after finishing a Symposium seminar, I always come away with a deeper, much better understanding of the text and its ideas – together with a refreshing sense that there is far more to discover.” – Justin Dunham, New York, NY
We aim to do one thing well: to host purposeful discussion on the most important questions, based on the very best books. The mission of Symposium Great Books Institute is to provide the highest quality lifetime liberal learning opportunities for adults of all walks of life, by supporting a community of learning dedicated to this end. Symposium offers rigorous Socratic seminars (liberal or free discussion with a serious purpose) based on primary or original texts. The quality texts we curate form the common ground and unifying principle of conversations among participants of varying backgrounds.
WE LOVE COMMUNITY. There is no finer way to develop community than to hold purposeful round table discussions on questions and issues of importance to men and women. Genuine dialogue fosters a sense of common purpose and stimulates creative thinking and fresh perspectives.
Symposium’s approach to books and discussion is rooted in an alternative education movement which started a century ago. The movement developed as a practice of Socratic conversation based on the primary texts of Western civilization. While Symposium Great Books Institute is not affiliated with the Chicago Great Books Foundation, Symposium GBI shares the vision of liberal learning started at University of Chicago, Columbia College, St. John’s College.
Adult education has always been at the roots of the great books movement. Figures such as Scott Buchanan, Alexander Meiklejohn, Mortimer Adler, Robert Hutchins, Allan Bloom and Leo Strauss were each involved in significant efforts to create seminars for adults – from the People’s Institute in 1920s New York City, to the School for Social Studies in depression era San Francisco, and later at the University of Chicago. Seminars on the great books at these institutions brought together people from all walks of life and all professions.
Symposium Great Books Institute was originally founded in San Francisco between 2006 and 2010 by two enterprising young women, Roxana Zirakzadeh and Briana Henderson Saussy. Roxana and Briana, graduates of St. John’s College in Santa Fe and Annapolis, had a dream to take the one thing of great integrity that they had received at St. John’s College, and offer it to adults of all walks of life in a setting that would be available to people like the working mom and busy professional.
Symposium GBI San Francisco was located on Hayes St. in Hayes Valley, one block away from Symphony Hall, and operated out of a lovely boutique bookstore. Classes were offered every day of the week in the back area of the store, to a growing and beloved community of adult learners. San Francisco operations were closed, primarily for life changes, not for lack of interest and support. Symposium was then reorganized under nonprofit status in San Antonio, Texas in 2013. In addition to currently holding traditional seminar classes in San Antonio, and working collaboratively with the San Antonio Museum of Art, Symposium Great Books Institute subsequently launched an online component of its work, called “iSymposium”, joining voices across the nation and the world. Symposium in San Antonio keeps to the same root vision of lifelong learning started in Hayes Valley in 2006.
“…Now here, my dear Glaucon, is the whole risk for a human being, as it seems. And on this account each of us must, to the neglect of other studies, above all see to it that he is a seeker and student of that study (μάθημα) by which he might be able to learn and find out who will give him the capacity and the knowledge to distinguish the good and the bad life, and so everywhere and always to choose the better from among those possible.”
Socrates, Plato’s Republic 618c
…ἔνθα δή, ὡς ἔοικεν, ὦ φίλε Γλαύκων, ὁ πᾶς κίνδυνος ἀνθρώπῳ, καὶ διὰ ταῦτα μάλιστα [618ξ] ἐπιμελητέον ὅπως ἕκαστος ἡμῶν τῶν ἄλλων μαθημάτων ἀμελήσας τούτου τοῦ μαθήματος καὶ ζητητὴς καὶ μαθητὴς ἔσται, ἐάν ποθεν οἷός τ᾽ ᾖ μαθεῖν καὶ ἐξευρεῖν τίς αὐτὸν ποιήσει δυνατὸν καὶ ἐπιστήμονα, βίον καὶ χρηστὸν καὶ πονηρὸν διαγιγνώσκοντα, τὸν βελτίω ἐκ τῶν δυνατῶν ἀεὶ πανταχοῦ αἱρεῖσθαι
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“The desire and pursuit of the whole is called love” –Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium
“The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.” -Cicero