Learning is an always everywhere adventure.
We reached out to a few people who inspire us, to find out just who inspired them. Meet Gordon Bearn, Professor of Philosophy at Lehigh University, and my personal inspiration.
Q: Who has inspired you to learn?
A: Almost every Wednesday afternoon, during the Winter of my sophomore year, Tim Jones, Allen Wall and I would walk a little way off campus to the house of Mr. Lawrence, Professor Nathaniel M. Lawrence to the wider world. There for the next three hours, with three other students, we sat comfortably on two couches, two Golden Retrievers stretched out on the living room floor, and with an old edition of Kierkegaard on the arm of his well worn armchair, he taught us Existentialism. Anyway that was what the course was called, but it was impossible for him to talk about anything without talking about everything. In detail.
My recollections of the experience of those long afternoons is inseparable from the inspiration Tim and Allen and I gave to each other. Our assignments were extraordinarily difficult. And long. Exchanging Kierkegaard or Sartre thoughts, we would wander from libraries closed at 2:00 to Wall’s living room and talk and talk. We barely slept, especially Tuesday nights. By the time we walked into Mr. Lawrence’s living room, we had already had more than one seminar, together. Apart from a living conversational community, I don’t suppose philosophy can even exist. Perhaps nothing can.
We thought Mr. Lawrence was probably old: he had learned logic from Henry Sheffer, and while telling us about Alfred North Whitehead, he would imitate Evelyn Whitehead’s English accent. But Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence were much younger than we imagined. Besides bare bones Ikaria sabbaticals, the High Sierras every summer, and the Himalayas on a recent trip, they seemed to have climbed every mountain visible from their home. What, gesturing, he said to me once: you’ve never climbed The Dome?!
It was a not infrequent tone. He could never believe how little we had read or seen or done. I suppose it was sort of a compliment, he could never believe that our side of the conversation was so inexperienced. What, he told our class: you haven’t read the Symposium? Read it this weekend! There was never any thought that our learning would be restricted by syllabi. And with Ancient Greek especially, but German and French too, he was always telling us about linguistic idiosyncrasies and assuming that we too could read the untranslated books he told us about.
Later I taught for a year with him at Williams and during that time Ellen and I would sometimes be invited to climb the neighboring hills with him and his wife Mary. We were walking together, talking about something. Suddenly he drops to his knees, shouting something in Latin. Nose to the earth, he is gently digging out an apparently rare fungus. Slowly he gets up, cradling the fungus to a spot a little deeper in the woods where it could avoid the danger of Vibram soles. Knowledge of fungi was as much a part of his philosophical life as being a multilingual scholar.
Nathaniel, as I came to call him, cared or seemed to care about the whole of nature and humanity. That was what he wrote about and taught about, and so fungi were no less important to him than De Broglie’s microphysical wave packets, and either or both could surface in just about any discussion. In that Existentialism course, we talked as much about Newton’s conception of time as we talked about whether we could trust Victor Eremita, the fictional editor of Either/Or. We learned that he had built the coffee table in front of the couch as a smiling challenge to Plato’s thought that ever object only participated in one form – it was meant to be equally bench and table.
The learning may have gone both ways. Since I was enrolled at the time in a course on 20th C theater, something in Sartre or Kierkegaard started vibrating with Six Characters and I said so. He didn’t see it, so I was invited to explain why and I am sure he responded in some way but perhaps because my task had rendered me timid, I have forgotten what he said. I was pretty scared every Wednesday, it took one agonizing week before I even asked him where the bathroom was.
Two summers before our Existentialism he had visited for the first time Japan. He returned amazed at the linguistic peculiarities of that language and immediately hired a student to teach Mary and him, once a week, Japanese. Like Socrates late in life beginning to learn to play the lyre, like a grandfather planting an Oak seedling, the Lawrence’s at their age, beginning Japanese, that has always impressed me. Since learning extends to all of nature and is always exciting, it is never finished, and there is no time to late to begin. Learning is unlimited by syllabi, libraries, roofs of any kind. Learning is an always adventure.
Adventure was one of Whitehead’s favorite words, and it was with Whitehead that Nathaniel began his philosophical education. I had developed an affection for Whitehead already when I asked Nathaniel to guide an independent study on Philosophy of Biology. Of course there were books and books to read over the summer, but what I really wanted to do but was afraid to ask was to read Whitehead with him. Slowly as the semester moved on, it became clear that I kept asking to read another book of Whitehead’s, and the meetings of my independent study became Whitehead meetings.
Sometime in early November, Nathaniel asked me what we were doing. I said: an independent study. And he pointed out that meeting weekly was not very independent, and we should stop our weekly meetings. I was shocked, felt even a little rejected. But off I went and read Whitehead and Lawrence and others on Whitehead, and the reading and learning has never stopped. Even then I thought of a picture in one of Jane Goodall’s books. A mother Chimpanzee is weaning her child: a hand placed on her child’s head, her long arm stretched out straight kept her breast frustratingly out of reach, and the child’s adult adventures finally possible.
Q: What did they teach you?
A: Learning is an always everywhere adventure.
Originally published on Montessorium, February 14th, 2014.