(The following served as the last quarter newsletter sent Friday December 1st. 2017. To sign up for our free newsletter, click here.We welcome your thoughtful comments on this or any other post. Please drop us a line at email@example.com, and it will be posted. -Ed.)
It was early October of this year in San Antonio, Texas, still warm as is usual for South Texas, and our last seminar had ended. As I pulled out onto the highway to head for home, the eight o’clock traffic lazily wending its way forward, I found myself overcome by the deepest feelings, as though an invisible hammer had struck an unbidden musical chord from somewhere within.
I could not at the time quite pin down what the feeling was in its fullness. But the tonic note, at the center of it, was a feeling of being…awestruck, speechless.
I had just finished four sessions on Plato’s Meno with a group of about twelve adults from all walks of life. And it was the best Plato seminar I had ever engaged in – better even than those from my college days. This sort of thing should not happen, by most accounts.
Adults are too busy, you know. We are told they want something easy, they want to be entertained; and, it is said, no one reads anymore. Adults don’t have the mental real estate for this, and so they just aren’t very serious.
Or so we are told and come to even believe. But here they were, defying all expectations: eager, hungry, perceptive, intelligent folks reading Plato and helping each other raise the bar a high as possible. Most had never thought that Plato would be something they would want to read. Don’t you need to be a philosopher, or have taken a philosophy course to care about reading such a thing? Don’t you at least need a professor’s lecture to tell you how to read the book and what to think about it? What a surprise to discover that the answer is a resounding no.
Here we were, and we were touched by something, something that happens when you get together a group of adults, willing to work hard and enter into thoughtful conversation about the most important questions. It is immensely pleasurable like few other things in life.
What may be most astonishing is how gentle and civil our people have been. If you think it is not possible for people to talk together in our day and age, if you think it all leads to shouting and violence, think again: you should meet
Óscarand his wife Marcella; Jim and Elvia; Mirabel, Phyllis, Geoff, Jack, Kiki, Miryam, Helen and so many, many others who have graced our table this year – and in our early years in San Francisco. What extraordinary people they are, individually and together, and an incredible testament to what is in fact possible for our social and intellectual life, here and now, in our day and age.
We might never stop to think about it, but adults are in fact the most under-served population when it comes to challenging, non-remedial, non-academic learning opportunities, for what Confucius might have called the “Great Learning”.
Most or all support for education goes to children and young people – understandably enough, for it is true that children are our future. But then, in the meantime, we are left with the present. With millions of adults, the ones who actually make impactful decisions in the world, who in their heart of hearts, know that real learning ought never stop with the end of school – or even, that real learning can only begin after school is over. And simply because there are very few rich opportunities that work for our life, we settle for far less than we need to.
Here’s the question and challenge offered up to us: Can we – in all seriousness – really accept the idea that twelve or sixteen years of education is enough to cover eighty years of life, especially in years undergoing rapid changes as we are today?
We may even find that the education we did receive still does not measure up to life.
It would be a little like saying that you exercised a whole lot as a kid, and therefore you don’t need any exercise for the next fifty years. Or that you ate your vegetables then, and now don’t you don’t need to eat a balanced diet ever again.
The activity of learning, for the soul – that is, the human heart and mind – is in this respect not so very different.
The reason for the woeful lack of learning opportunities is not for lack of desire or demand, nor for a failure of nerve; but at bottom is the result of a limitation of imagination. That is, it is a function of our deeply rooted habits of thinking and expectations along certain well-worn lines, and on two levels – first, on the level of what we think learning is, and second, how much time we think is required to engage in the activities of learning. We have to reexamine those expectations, to get to the bottom of them.
When presented, then, with the reality that you still want to learn – that you are waking up in the middle of some dark wood, and crave some sort of expansive connection with others that comes somehow with education and culture – you might start having thoughts of going back to school.
But is it “back to school” that we really want and need a this stage of our lives? Or rather, is it to launch forward into something even better, a learning that is no longer tied down by school?
Lifelong learning means, in the first train of thinking, at least “more and more school” – or more school-like programs throughout life: certificates and classes taught by professors and trainers. Skills-training.
But this is life-long learning as measured by the standard of traditional schooling programs. Life-long learning measured in this way is, in the end, doomed to frustration. For at best, you can only hope to get the ‘lite’ version; learning, what is at the heart of life, is an after-thought.
What we have to imagine, by contrast, is the possibility of a pathway of greater learning that is freed from the paradigm of schooling – a learning that doesn’t wrench us from our lives, but is, rather, woven into the tapestry of our life.
Can we do that? We sure can. Building on the tradition of great books seminars the founders of Symposium learned at St. John’s College, and then working with adults of all walks of life for over ten years outside the academy, Symposium has made great strides in discovering a new and (as we think) better way to frame those expectations – a way that flows from the living needs and standards of working adults themselves with the long-game in mind.
Perhaps the biggest change has been inaugurated by our intrepid and humble little iSymposium study group – Mark, Jeff, Michael, Dale, Jason, and then many others who have joined as well. This group has blazed the trail. In January, we begin The Education Quartet – an excursus through the roots of human thought and imagination pressed to the limits of what the journey education might truly be and amount to. You should join us.
Symposium’s discovery is a little like this: what if we begin to think about what we are doing like an exercise or dance studio? You go to do yoga, you go to dance, you go work-out; but whatever it is, you show up – no ‘homework’ is needed (or is optional) but when you show up, you can get a genuinely good work-out, together with all the benefits that accrue to the experience.
If we think about the learning activity this way, do we lose the power and integrity of learning? Far from it. Our report is that this approach has helped to form a practice of reading and discussion that increases the integrity of the learning experience. It works – and works very well.
From the discoveries we’ve collectively made on this medium, we’re now reshaping the way we do seminars in San Antonio, opening a pathway of learning that is both rigorous but very accessible and very possible for busy people (like we all are) to add to busy lives.
What we are starting to do defies the old habitual expectations we have for learning, an experience that is fresh but rooted; open to everyone, but rigorous and demanding; patient and slow, but productive; and can even even life-changing.
So many folks – in their twenties, middle-aged or retired – have graced our table for whom the idea has only just dawned on them that all is not lost, just because they are no longer in school or no longer young, or no longer shored up in the academy- or because they never had the opportunity in school to touch the minds of the greatest poets, writers and philosophers down the ages – or because they believed themselves not to be ‘bookish’ or not ‘philosophical’ or not ‘mathematical’ or not ‘literary’ or even not ‘smart enough’.
We form all kinds of counterproductive and strange ideas about what we are capable of – unfortunately, many of them are false or one-sided, and many come from our own schooling!
But the dawning realization that one is in fact free, that one has it within oneself to reach for this higher thing, that serious learning can be freed from schooling, is an event in the life of a person so precious, yet so easily overlooked, and it can go unrecognized – but would be better regarded as something even greater than the greatest political, technological or cultural revolutions.
I can tell you that witnessing this event take shape in many ways at the table fills me with awe and love for the people in our community and the work we do. Thank you, thank you, thank you for a great year, everyone, and we look forward to an even better one next year!
As we reflect on this year we are determined to make 2018 even better. Check out our offerings below and come join us either in person here in San Antonio or in our iSymposium seminars.
And, as we are all making our end-of-year donations, please consider donating to Symposium. We are a small but mighty 501c3 not-for-profit, so your donation is completely tax deductible. More than that, any donation you make to Symposium is an investment you make in yourself and in genuine lifelong learning. That really is a gift that keeps on giving. You can donate directly through paypal right here.
Happy Holidays and Happy Adventures in Learning!
From all of us at Symposium