Robert Fulford's column about study groups

(The National Post, March 7, 2000)

Tonight, as on every other Tuesday night, they'll gather at eight o'clock, they'll have tea and cookies, they'll chat a bit and then they'll settle down to consider for about 90 minutes one of the most difficult philosophers who ever lived, Immanuel Kant. They are seven men and two women, professionals and business people, brought together by a desire to understand. They are also part of a movement that has been growing steadily in recent years. These downtown Toronto Kantians have discovered that it is never too late to learn intensively about something that matters. In this they resemble the armies of book-club members, the tourists who go on educational tours run by Elderhostels, the dedicated Torah students and the people who populate 2,500 Great Books societies across the continent.

The newspapers often announce the dumbing down of our culture, but the proliferation of study groups suggests that in private we may be moving in another direction. In these tiny cells of unofficial civilization, intellectual discourse moves outside the universities and becomes a question of personal initiative, energy, insight and need.

The Tuesday night group deals with Kant in short pieces. Members take turns reading aloud, usually just a couple of paragraphs, to begin a discussion. They follow the central maxim of Great Books studies, set down at the University of Chicago in the 1940s by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler: Go straight to the text. Avoid works of interpretation and popularization. Find out precisely what the thinker said and try to tease out the meaning. David Denby, the American film critic, became a part of this movement when he went back to Columbia to experience again the classics he had been required to take as a freshman 30 years earlier. As he explained in Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World, all this material meant far more to him at age 48 than at age 18.

Kant can tell us something in a few key quotations, notably his famous categorical imperative: "Act as if the maxim from which you act were to become through your will a universal law"; or, less elaborately, "Act as you would have everyone act." But by examining the text, you can inhabit his work rather than merely visiting it, and better understand why he wrote what he did. So the Tuesday group is working these days on Kant's Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals.

They call themselves the Toronto Spinoza Society because they started out studying Baruch Spinoza's philosophy. They could have spent all their lives on him, but after three years they moved to Plato. Then they spent some time with Isaiah Berlin (that was a kind of holiday) and this year they got going on Kant.

Not all activity of this kind operates outside cultural institutions. A program called Classical Pursuits at St. Michael's College brings people to Toronto every summer for a week (July 16-22 this year) to study, under professorial guidance, such writers as St. Augustine, Dante, Cervantes, or Nietzsche. One course analyzes three versions of Death in Venice -- Thomas Mann's novella, Benjamin Britten's opera, and Luchino Visconti's film.

Professors also lead the study programs of Elderhostels, a non-profit travel organization. Typically, a small group will use the Tuscan spa town of Montecantini as a base for a week or two of directed Renaissance studies; they may hear a lecture in the morning on Florentine sculpture, then visit the same sculpture in the afternoon.

Among Jews, but not only Jews, the study of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, has lately become unusually popular. In a recent New Republic article about translations and commentary on Samuel I and II, Hillel Halkin explains that the Bible offers a plenitude of empty spaces where discussion groups can go to work. The lack of context "compels the engaged reader to search for one." The blank spaces surrounding isolated incidents "prove infinitely capacious once they are entered." Saying little while implying much, Biblical narratives lure students toward depths that surprise them.

The motives fuelling all of these programs no doubt include the usual desire for stimulation, pleasure and a social life. But there's something else, an urgent need for permanence and substance. So much of existence flashes past us in the form of electrical impulses that we can begin to fear that life is losing its weight and meaning. In 1984, Milan Kundera gave that concern a name in The Unbearable Lightness of Being; elsewhere he wrote of "a terrifying burden of lightness."

But why should the rediscovery of the classics require collaboration in groups rather than individual reading? The discipline of a small congregation helps many people, and talking about a book (as well as hearing others talk) helps fix it in the mind. There's also an atmosphere of freedom within a structure. These classes are wonderfully unhurried. They liberate philosophy and literature from the time constraints imposed by university schedules. One long-established Torah class in Toronto decided, a few years ago, to spend two months on the Book of Job, which is not part of the Torah. They found it so compelling they decided to stay with it for a year. That kind of class responds to the needs of the members rather than the demands of academic achievement, and for many participants this may be the most important unscheduled part of their lives. All going well, time itself seems to expand.

Perhaps this is how the classics should ideally be considered, in an environment that is both timeless and spontaneous, with no specific goal in mind.

At Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, the senior rabbi started a small Torah study group around 1970. Today, two senior rabbis later, it still meets every week. Members who stay long enough find themselves studying certain books a second or third time, and of course discover that either the books have changed or they have. Meanwhile, the class -- like many of these classes -- constantly renews itself, replacing with younger people the members who die or leave for some other reason.

It is a remarkable characteristic of this form of study that the classes need never end. Like the books they study, they can, in theory, go on forever.

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