LIFELONG LEARNING IN
Best known for its affordable, consistently sold-out lecture series of visiting thought leaders, the foundation also offers art exhibits in its gallery and sponsors Native American cultural preservation programs. (505) 986-8160; lannan.org
Santa Fe Institute
Along with a number of educational programs for young people, and community lectures, SFI also collaborates with the Center for Contemporary Arts’ Cinematheque to offer the Science on Screen series. (505) 984-8800; santafe.edu
St. John’s College
The campus is celebrating its 50th anniversary year. Oct. 16–18, it is hosting a national conference titled “What Is Liberal Education For?” Registration is $25 for NM residents, $100 for nonresidents. There’s a free lecture by Roger Scruton, “Architecture and Aesthetic Education,” at 8 p.m. on Fri., Oct. 17. (505) 984-6000; sjc.edu
The School for Advanced Research
This anthropology-oriented organization brings the landscape to life through its guided, daylong field trips into the state’s Native backcountry. Monthly Sparks talks focus on “offbeat New Mexico,” including recent ones by New Mexico Magazine contributors Carmella Padilla and Don Usner. (505) 954-7200; sarweb.org
I am the daughter of two college professors and grew up in a house full of books, but I was not good at academics. At my Ivy League school, I felt like an outsider, a confused teenager who couldn’t learn Middle English or think of anything clever to say about Rembrandt in classrooms full of competitive egos. I longed for something I couldn’t name, a kind of humble inquiry into big, basic questions like human nature, the existence (or not) of God, the mystery of beauty. I wanted to make sense of the world around me, to learn to be a better and wiser person. Yale wasn’t really set up for that. At graduation I felt like a failure.
But I also felt liberated. Now gloriously free from having to write papers, I immersed myself in movies, art, theater, music, and books. I got high-powered jobs, bought nice clothes, envisioned being a success, wondered what that meant.
Then I visited New Mexico. The vast desert grew sparse vegetation, much of it a pale green that instantly became my favorite color. These modest, tough plants seemed like words to me; they spoke with a spare elegance, in contrast to the opulent green verbosity of the East Coast. I spent my two weeks here watching the horizon, feeling the wind, hearing the rush of a forest stream, seeing the stark formations and colors of the earth. I slowed down and started listening. I realized I was tired of the questions running through my head: How can I be more productive? What is my ideal career? Do I look good? It was all about me, and I was boring, even to myself. The big city seemed rather full of itself, too. I started dreaming up ways to get out.
My escape turned out to be the Graduate Institute summer program at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. In my late twenties, I was ready to enter the classroom again.
The course of study at St. John’s is based on the Great Books—a list of titles that are considered the basis of Western thought. Yet despite the classical readings, there is a freedom from traditional academia there. The St. John’s method is grounded in questions, and the conversations to which they lead. Every seminar began with an “opening question” posed by the tutor (they’re not called professors), based on an assigned text. At its best, the process was breathtaking. The tutor rarely gave us answers; rather, we were led to think aloud and try to understand the thinker at hand. One student would reach his or her intellectual limit, then someone else would take it a step further, and by the end we’d discovered a depth and complexity far richer than we could have imagined when the original question was posed. The texts were like seeds; conversation let them grow and flower. Week after week we explored things like What is Good? What is Love? What is Justice? Are human beings inherently good or bad? What is the fairest form of government? What is Freedom, and what are the limits of individual rights? What is Technology, and what are its benefits and drawbacks? I felt as if I were part of a community of monastic scholars, secluded from the busy world, sleeping in a little white room, discussing classical texts over dinner. I read on the top of the mountain next to the campus, where the silence was broken only by the wind through the piñon trees and the skittering of lizards—which somehow helped me to comprehend Aristotle and Heidegger.
Seen by some as an elite institution on the hill, St. John’s College, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its Santa Fe campus this year, actually has a populist lineage. The idea of a Great Books curriculum was popularized in the 20th century by philosophers and educators like Mortimer Adler, who strove to bring philosophy to ordinary people, reasoning that the best education for the elite is the best education for everybody. This tradition is very much alive at St. John’s and particularly the Graduate Institute, which confers a master’s degree after four eight-week summer sessions. My fellow students included not just recent college graduates but teachers, businesspeople, housewives, retired people, and a Catholic monk. In seminar everyone is equal, addressed as Mr. or Ms., and inevitably they become better readers, listeners, speakers; they become more receptive, and sometimes even more humble.
After that first summer at St. John’s, I was done with the big city. The following spring I packed up my little car and moved to New Mexico for good. While Santa Fe has a reputation for being full of spiritual seekers, I was more of an all-purpose seeker. I had abandoned not only academia, but the urban definitions of success—money, material possessions, power. I wanted just enough of those things to stay afloat, no more; instead my goal was to figure out how I could explore ideas, be of service, and be happy at the same time.
Eventually I found a way to do that. It turns out that a St. John’s education is excellent vocational training if you’re going to be a radio talk show host. For the past decade I’ve produced and hosted a daily talk show, the Santa Fe Radio Café, on Santa Fe Public Radio KSFR, on which I interview anyone I want on any subject—arts, politics, science, local events. (The show has its name because I actually broadcast during breakfast from a lively café, the Santa Fe Baking Company.) What I found by doing this is that Santa Fe is one of the best places on the face of the earth for conversation of the kind St. John’s taught me to love. And that is partly because the city is full of institutions that make this town an intellectual mecca.
One of these is the Santa Fe Institute. An independent science research institute founded by Los Alamos scientists and other luminaries like Nobel Prize–winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann (who, among other things, discovered the quark), SFI takes a multidisciplinary approach to research. This is unusual in science, which has tended toward ever greater specialization. I happen to love science, but I am also driven bananas on a regular basis by the fact that a lot of it is not accessible to ordinary people. That is partly because each sub-discipline has its own dialect that even scientists in other fields cannot understand, much less the general public. At SFI, economists, biologists, archaeologists, and physicists all not only talk to one another but actually collaborate, which means they have to be able to think and speak and work across disciplines. Which also means that most of them are amazing on the radio.
SFI has pioneered work in an area sometimes called “complex-ity science,” a multi-disciplinary approach to questions about how individuals and the systems they are part of interact and affect one another—whether that system is an algae colony or a metropolis. One early project included a collaboration among economists, computer scientists, and mathematicians working together to make a computer model of a stock market, to see if they could detect patterns that would predict a crash. Other projects involve making models of the immune system, of traffic and crowds, of ant colonies, of marine food webs. Amazingly, all these systems have something in common: discernible and predictable mathematical patterns. But why? How do ants or proteins or white blood cells make decisions, and how are they all related? Apparently no one really knows, but at SFI some of the best minds in the world are working on these questions. And so many other questions, like: How does a principle as simple as natural selection give rise to the incredible complexity and variety of species on this earth? Why is it that while countries (and companies) arise and vanish, cities solidly endure, often for millennia? What is a computer-based social network, and how is it like—and unlike—a society? How can epidemics and financial crises and climate catastrophes and wars be averted?
Luckily for us, SFI has a series of free public programs in which speakers talk about all this and more—to overflowing houses. The intellectual hunger is palpable. After every talk, there are Q&A sessions where I’ve heard scientists field questions they’d never been asked before, that they themselves had never thought of.
If SFI is intellectual Santa Fe’s brain, then its soul is the Lannan Foundation. Founded by businessman Patrick Lannan Sr., who had a deep love of art and poetry, the Lannan Foundation moved to Santa Fe in 1997, after its cultural programs expanded to include a focus on indigenous communities. Their public programs center around evenings of talks, readings, and conversations by some of the most distinguished authors and thinkers alive. To me their work can be summed up simply: Truth and Beauty.
There are many ways of telling the truth (we could have a spirited St. John’s seminar on the meaning of the word itself). One is speaking truth to power. Lannan brings in thinkers involved in the various struggles to make the world a better place, speaking on topics including the Middle East, the environment, racial justice, human rights, border issues, U.S. foreign intervention, and immigration. And through some kind of magic, these evenings transcend the rheto- ric of media punditry; instead they open a space in which people can freely tell complex and powerful stories that respond to the times in which we are living.
Truth’s luminous partner is beauty. I often go to Lannan events featuring authors and poets whose work I don’t know. I have never once been disappointed. In both their readings and the conversations afterwards with well-chosen interlocutors, I am reminded that, no matter how hopeless our world might appear, with the very crises and injustices that Lannan brings to our attention, it is worth saving if civilization can produce poetry and stories as profound and accurate and rich as this. In the beautiful 821-seat Lensic Performing Arts Center, the events are well attended by both perennial intellectual seekers and many local students, to whom Lannan provides not only free tickets but also opportunities to meet the authors in their classrooms.
Yet another institution whose roots run deep in Santa Fe and the Southwest is the School for Advanced Research. Its handsome and spacious campus in the heart of Santa Fe ishome to visiting scholars and artists who come to finish a PhD, to write a book, to develop a project. Originally established to study the cultural heritage of the Southwest, its mission expanded to all the Americas and eventually the world. While much of the work there happens quietly—scholars and artists are given generous time and facilities to work—SAR is actively engaged with the local community in many ways, including lectures, displays of Native American art and artifacts, field trips, and colloquia. They are in a continual process of addressing deep questions about people’s relationship to the land, about the transformations wrought by colonialism, about migrations and identities.
For a city of 80,000, the intellectual offerings of Santa Fe are almost overwhelming. Its many museums have regular lecture series. The Renesan Institute for Lifelong Learning offers serious classes geared toward older students. Several independent book- stores have readings by both local and national authors, and innumerable book clubs meet regularly. Three independent cinemas offer international films and all kinds of special events. As a radio host, I try and fail to keep up with it all, but I put as much of it on the air as I possibly can. And what I have discovered is that the fundamental lesson of the Great Books seminars that I took at St. John’s—that engaging ideas can and should be avail- able to everybody—is alive and well in Santa Fe. ✜
Mary-Charlotte Domandi is producer and host of the Santa Fe Radio Café on KSFR 101.1 FM. It streams live at 8:05 a.m. weekday mornings on ksfr.org; access podcasts at santaferadiocafe.org.