Pursuing the Classics:
A Personal Journey and Beyond
by Ann Kirkland
I am, no doubt, like many St. John’s parents — adults who nudge their children towards the education they wish they had had. I went to a large Ivy League university where I sat at the back of cavernous lecture halls, sometimes scribbling down what the professor was saying and sometimes doodling and daydreaming. It is not an educational path I would encourage any young person to follow. By the time my own first-born was in her last years of high school in Toronto, I was a member of a Great Books group and had heard about St. John’s College. Both her teachers and I encouraged her to consider leaving her friends who were all gravitating to the University of Toronto or McGill to opt for a very different experience south of the border. She interviewed at the Annapolis campus but chose the Santa Fe campus. Her experience was tremendous, but it is mine I want to write about here.
At my first parents’ weekend in the fall of 1994, both students and parents were assigned to small seminars to discuss Sophocles’ Antigone. I was hooked. That one guided discussion made me sad about what might have been back when, but thrilled that this opportunity was open to me through Summer Classics. I became a devotée. Each year I eagerly awaited the arrival of the catalog and then for summer to roll around. My time at Summer Classics renewed and sharpened my curiosity and my ability to listen to others with an open mind. I fell in love — with literature, with learning, and with really good conversation.
Alas, years of unfavorable exchange rate between U.S. and Canadian dollars curtailed my annual trips to Santa Fe. I missed the experience. Was there some other way I could fill this gap? In a flash of blind inspiration, I got the idea of bringing the concept to Toronto. And that is how I began to turn this avocation, for which I never had enough time, into my vocation. I use the word “vocation” in both of its meanings, the more pedestrian “employment” and the more lofty “call” or as Fredrick Beuchner says, “where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
I abandoned a 30-year career in health administration to create opportunities for others to experience what I had come to cherish — reading difficult books on my own and then discussing them with others. Based on my own many happy experiences at Summer Classics and with the support of the Great Books Foundation in Chicago, I have created a program at University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College called Classical Pursuits. My aim is to bring together adults from across North America in an atmosphere of relaxation and camaraderie to read, discuss, and reflect on the enduring ideas in great works of literature, music, and art. The program started with four seminar options in 1999 — Plato’s Republic, Dante’s Inferno, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Since then, it has expanded to attract over 150 people to participate in one of 12 seminar options. Classical Pursuits now also includes a week-long program each spring (this year on The Dignity of Man) and evening programs for Toronto locals.
In 2002, I launched Travel Pursuits with a group traveling to Italy to discuss Umberto Eco’s
The Name of the Rose and to explore aspects of medieval Italian life, arts, and thought. One of the discussion leaders on that trip was Jim Carey, from the Santa Fe campus, who was on sabbatical in Italy that year. The travel program was so successful that it has grown to a dozen annual trips, ranging from The Classical Moment in Greece (Homer, Sophocles, and Plato), to Flannery O’Connor’s short stories and prose in Savannah.
In addition to organizing for others, I sometimes join the groups myself or take a journey on my own as preparation for some new group itinerary. A few years ago I began a blog, both to inform others and to support my own ongoing process of reflection about my own “pursuits.” My blog, “Convivium: A guide to adventures for the mind, travel for the soul” is accessible through the Travel Pursuits Web site.
From Question to Quest
It seems fitting to link this tale of my decades-long continuing quest in response to my own “how to” question years before with the theme of so much great and not so great literature — the pilgrimage or quest story.
Whether it is Odysseus trying to get home to his high-roofed house in Ithaca; Aeneas dutifully pursuing a quest that was not initially his own; Parsifal seeking the Holy Grail; the pilgrim Dante trying to save himself; or Faust in search of eternity — one of the pulls of literature is that it recognizes that we are creatures whose natures cause us to long, to seek. Like many others setting out on a quest, I was no youth but in the second half of life, and like the archetype, I had become disenchanted with earlier successes, conscious of failures, and increasingly aware of the finiteness of life. I am writing this article as a status report from “midway along the journey.”
If I must pick a single core text that closely describes my own quest, I think it might be T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”:
“A cold coming we had of it…A hard time we had of it…Such a long journey.”
“The Journey of the Magi” by Sassetta
What seemed to me at first a straightforward and fail-safe plan turned out to be fraught with all kinds of unanticipated obstacles. Most difficult at the outset was finding the right leaders. I knew, from my experience at St. John’s, that I was not seeking professors to profess; I had been the beneficiary of guided conversation based on genuine questioning and probing. I selected four local academics who seemed keen to try what I described. Still, most teachers know how to impart their knowledge to students, rather than helping students to discover for themselves. After that inaugural year, I initiated a partnership with the Great Books Foundation in Chicago that has proved of great value. The foundation provides leaders and regularly offers training in the Shared Inquiry method for others. I have now developed a growing collegium of these leaders who have learned well.
“There were times we regretted, … That this was all folly.”
There still are times like that. Without wanting to sound melodramatic, there have been moments when I have been tempted to abandon this mission, and more than a few dark nights of fear. Especially after I burned all my previous professional bridges in the healthcare field and realized I could not turn back.
“Then at dawn we came down into a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation…”
There have been many encouragements along the way, all from eager supporters, hungry and grateful. These often come just when I have felt ready to throw in the towel. But also this,
“Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different . . . ”
The birth has been the creation of a growing enterprise that is enriching those associated with it, enhancing the public visibility and reputation of St. Michael’s College way beyond the Catholic community in Canada, and feeling the personal satisfaction of using my skills and interests to make a small contribution to public discourse. Death is really too strong a word to use here, but there has been a price for my chosen path. I knew it would involve a significant cut in personal income, but I had no idea how difficult it would be to make this enterprise economically viable. And I did not anticipate that, instead of having more time to read deeply and leisurely, I have less. I have become a marginal entrepreneur, sometimes more absorbed in serving hot coffee on time, where people will park, which credit cards we will accept, and all the time the bottom line — great literature and ideas. Somehow my own quest to find myself in books has been subordinated to being of service to others who will find themselves in books.
“Set down this set down this,…I would do it again. … And I would do it again…”
Without doubt I would do it again. I don’t think that I have ever enjoyed my work so much. Having previously worked in management and policy, I had little evidence that anything I did made a difference to anybody. My greatest satisfaction now comes from the times I am able to disinhibit the curious who have never been serious readers and who fear embarrassing themselves. They are often professionals, like accountants, dentists, or engineers, who are used to excelling at what they do but are not at home in the world of literature or philosophy. As others retire, I retain the zeal of the missionary — believing that what I am doing is contributing in a small way to improving the quality of reflective thinking and public discourse — essential ingredients for both meaningful lives and a civilized society.
Since most quest stories are ultimately circular, beginning and ending with home, albeit transformed, I would like to end with an early childhood memory. My grandfather was a Classicist and Lucretius scholar. He lived with us when I was very young. I remember him as a very old and formidable man, sitting on our front porch swing in his three-piece suit, instructing my brother, sister, and me to recite a lot of nonsense syllables — “hic, haec, hoc, huius, huius, huius” “Veni, vedi, vici.” I was afraid of him and never even considered studying Latin later at school. But how I would love to be back on that porch swing beside him now. What conversations we would have, as we rocked back and forth, about our pursuit of wisdom and pleasure found in the classics.