Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Seminar of Life

Earlier this week I attended a small evening seminar at SMU (Singapore Management University), hosted by one of the professors there whom I had met some months ago at a dinner. He turned out to have been friends with two Brothers in California who were also good friends of mine (both have now passed on). We had some fine conversations that evening at dinner, and we have since met several times. This was the first time, however, that I was on “his turf” participating in an event such as this. The topic of the informal seminar was university education in Singapore. The people in the room were from various backgrounds and were currently involved in a variety of professions. But most of them had been Fulbright scholars at one point in their lives, and most were native to Singapore. They were bright people with bright backgrounds who had a very wide range of present circumstances, ages, priorities, and daily lives; in other words, a great group with which to have a conversation about a serious topic.

I won’t try to represent or capsulize the conversation here, let alone tease out some sort of answer or conclusion about the present context and possible future of university education in Singapore, based on that seminar. But I will try to relate the foundational thrust represented by the simple fact that it even took place.

We all have an abiding interest in engagement and knowledge, whether through words, or pictures, or symbols, or relationships, or tinkering, or play, or any of a hundred other activities. Our drive is to know and to be engaged in that knowing. Some may do so better than others, but I will bet that most of us remember when we have done so well, and we appreciate it all the more in the remembering.

During my mid-life years (38-41) at Boston College, one of the most enlivening and deeply satisfying aspects of my studies was the doctoral seminar, a time when the 6 – 8 candidates in the program (all sorts of backgrounds, interests, ages, futures, etc.) got together for 2.5 – 3 hours of conversation around a fairly difficult text or topic, with the guidance of one of the top professors in the department. I must say that those conversations are still with me, not so much in the detail as in the effect. When you sit with clever and articulate colleagues to talk about things that are important, there is an engagement of depth that is as hard to describe as it is difficult to shake off. It is a sort of falling in love with thinking and talking, of being slapped by fascinating ideas and twirling novel connections in the mind, of following fascinating trails behind another’s mental steps, picking up on their enthusiasm even as you stop every once in a while to gaze around at the new – to you – environment. Even if others believe that there’s an ivory tower aspect to the whole thing, at least you can’t argue with the fact that conversations like this invite us to look at the used-to-be-normal landscape from a new height. Like experiencing a wonderful piece of music, something sticks.

The same may be encountered, albeit to a lesser degree, in the things we choose to read or see or think about. Everything around us has the potential of being a catalyst for engaged knowledge. One of the most fascinating things about education, especially perhaps about a program such as the IB, is that that this sort of this becomes the rule, habit, and goal, the expectation rather than the exception. Within the Christian context, the notion is best conveyed for me by Nicholas Lash: "To think as a Christian is to try to understand the stellar spaces, the arrangements of micro-organisms and DNA molecules, the history of Tibet, the operation of economic markets, toothache, King Lear, the CIA, and grandma's cooking--or, as Aquinas put it, 'all things'--in relation to that uttering, utterance and enactment of God which they express and represent. To act as a Christian is to work with, to alter or, if need be, to endure all things in conformity with that understanding."

I really enjoyed that short, one-hour seminar at SMU earlier this week, even if I said very little and listened quite a lot. Sort of like prayer, I suppose. It was the kind of thing that provided food for a hunger that may be rarely acknowledged but is always part of our makeup. The appropriate response is thankfulness, and I thank my friend for having made it possible. May we all be able to do the same for others in our own small ways.