Passion for an Unfinished Life
by Charles D. Hayes
In 2029, the last of the
baby-boom generation will turn 65. Numbering in the tens of
millions, this age group clearly has the demographic muscle to
transform society. The movement is barely underway, but the dynamics
of aging suggest profound social changes ahead:
- The search for meaning
- The psychological
effects of death and dying will be reexamined.
- The concept of legacy
will be transformed.
- The subject of economic
justice will be reexamined.
September University as an idea
is a metaphor for intellectual maturity. It represents an ambitious
quest on behalf of posterity. September University,
the book, is a call to action, a social forecast, and above all a
passionate pronouncement that a bright future depends upon the
experiential wisdom of aging citizens. The exploration within its
pages has the potential to alter worldviews, heighten aspirations,
and elicit reflections about each person’s legacy. Readers have the
opportunity to explore ways to find meaning in the last few chapters
September University is a state
of mind: it has no physical address, no faculty, and no staff. It
redefines retirement by replacing the picture of a lifestyle devoted
to doing very little with the vision of a renaissance of reflective
reasoning for the sake of posterity. It is a declaration that people
who have entered the fall and winter of life can make their greatest
contribution by reconceptualizing a better world for the generations
that follow. This means looking forward to sifting through a
half-century or more of experience, sorting those things that are
truly important from those that aren't, and finding ways to pass on
Humankind has moved through the
centuries in fits and starts with countless wars, senseless
destruction, and often little regard for succeeding generations. Too
many of us fall far short in our intellectual efforts to better
understand the world, and society as a whole suffers needlessly from
our collective ignorance. Such ignorance at best is corrosive to
character; at worst it’s cancerous. One of life’s greatest paradoxes
is how creatures with the capacity to be so thoughtful can be so
thoughtless. The purpose of September University is to
reverse these trends.
A recent PBS documentary,
Boomer Century 1946-2046, introduced the term “middlescence”
to describe those of the age who, as adults, transformed the
workplace to make it more fun and now, in later life, are ready to
transform retirement to make it more exciting and fulfilling.
Coincidentally, they also have the leisure to spend time reflecting
on their lives. They’ve come to realize that what matters is not
what they’ve accumulated but what they’ve contributed. In the
coming years they’ll want to exercise their brains and find new
roles for themselves. They’re primed to confront reality and take
action for change.
Enrollment in Sept-U comes
automatically with age. On a large enough scale, this kind of
reflection encouraged could amount to a new enlightenment that
matches or surpasses the rigorous intellectual contributions of the
eighteenth century. To begin to comprehend the impact of such a
movement, consider the implication of millions of citizens suddenly
reaching the age where they must face their own mortality. In this
moment they perceive simultaneously that time is more valuable than
money and that their legacy depends upon being concerned about a
future they will not live to see.
Drawing on more than thirty
years of intensive self-education, author Charles D. Hayes maintains
that there are three major impediments to getting the most out of
An existential fear of death
A predilection for cultural
A lack of curiosity
A thorough examination of these
obstacles gives life new meaning. By choosing to embrace lifelong
learning, seniors who care about the generations that follow can
find new reasons for getting up each day: they will gain new levels
of understanding; younger generations will observe positive models
for aging well; and society at large will benefit from this
In his book The Left Hand
of God, Rabbi Michael Lerner said, “Americans give a
tremendous amount of credit to anyone who can name a pain that they
have been experiencing but have been unable to locate.”
September University locates the pain and offers relief in
the form of renewed appreciation for the wonder of existence, along
with a plan for leaving the world a better place than we found it.
differs from all of the above works by probing the deep existential
issues that divide us and by calling attention to the fears and
indifference that distract us from experiencing the wonder of
existence. It shows how putting these anxieties aside can allow us
to find fulfillment in maturity and help us to shape the future in
This book is intended for people
near or past middle age who want something more from life than most
have come to expect. It’s for people who consider themselves
progressive or conservative, who have more than a passing interest
in ideas, and who are committed to keeping their minds active. This
is an audience thirsting for some kind of revolutionary thinking
that just might make the last few chapters of their lives more
important than they seem today. They are looking for something to
get excited about, evidence that their lives have mattered, and
something to be remembered for—a thoughtful and lasting legacy.
is most likely to resonate with the reading public precisely because
it was not written by an expert on aging. Instead, it is a book
about lifelong learning by someone who himself is self-educated.
Readers can benefit in the same way that the author has when they
are motivated to continue learning.
proposes that rekindling a thirst for knowledge can both quench and
enhance the need for creating legacy. It explains how our
instinctive tendency for misrelating robs us of vitality for growth
and how setting aside our ethnocentric baggage and coming together
in spirit to favor the better argument can lead us to a better
future. September University is about getting beyond
us and them to the we of a sustainable future.
Chapter 1: Demographic
Tidal Waves looks at the tumultuous times
in which we live and discusses what’s to come—how, because of our
Stone-Age minds and our outdated views about aging, we are
ill-equipped to cope with the illusions and obstacles we’ll
encounter along the way. It defines our greatest fears and obstacles
for achieving maturity and quality of life.
Chapter 2: Rising to
the Occasion reveals the potential
inherent in the fall and winter of life for re-evaluating our life
experience and rethinking our legacy. It reflects on the
extraordinarily high standards for self-education established in the
eighteenth century and the unfortunate reality that expectations for
adult education today are exceptionally low. It puts the concept of
September University into perspective as an intelligent response to
the drive in every human being to want to make a difference.
Chapter 3: Conquering
uses the metaphor of the abyss to represent our fear of death and
nonexistence, and it describes how facing our fears can diminish
them; how, for example, looking death in the eye lessens its fearful
influence over us. It explores how the global clash of ideologies
detracts from civilization.
Each chapter that follows
describes steps along the path toward authentic maturity and the
strengthening of one’s ability to gaze into the abyss without
blinking. These chapters spell out the ways in which fear of death,
ethnocentrism, and anti-intellectualism coalesce into a stance where
change is avoided and all knowledge that takes issue with the
entrenched worldview is shunned. Such thoughts produce a formidable
barrier to conceiving a greater quality of life and experiencing the
wonder of existence.
Chapter 4: Relighting
the Flame of Curiosity explains how and
why so many people have lost the natural curiosity of their
childhood, and it explores the value and rewards of reading. It
points out how reading and rereading can help revive our thirst for
knowledge and attune our minds to the issues that we have a
realistic chance to address. Developing an aesthetic appreciation of
the arts deepens our awareness of what it means to be human.
Recognizing the narratives we live by, and how these compare to the
stories we tell about ourselves, can help to alleviate our fears and
pull society together.
Chapter 5: Social
examines the importance of media literacy and personal narrative and
the perspective that they both can bring to bear on the fall and
winter of life. It explores the effects of living in a world where
practically everything we do is mediated through technologies.
Chapter 6: The
Aesthetics of Legacy re-examines our
relationships with the generations to come and emphasizes how
important it is to pass on the best of what we have learned from our
own experience. It shows how literature and art can offer
insightful clues that affect our relationships with others over time
and how it is not always necessary to make mistakes in order to
learn to avoid them.
Chapter 7: Getting
Beyond Us and Them takes on one of the
most profound problems we face: achieving the kind of intellectual
maturity that enables us to understand the nature of an “us and
them” Stone- Age psychology. It explores the concept of differences
in depth. Then it suggests thoughtful approaches necessary to
overcome our predisposition for divisiveness.
Chapter 8: Identity
moves deeper into the dynamics of relating and the debilitating
effects of “truth by association.” It offers insight into
understanding our tendencies for ethnocentric bias and our affinity
for seeking acceptance through adoption of group-imposed beliefs and
identity politics. It also explains how communicating our most
meaningful knowledge across generations can reinforce our ability to
face the unknown.
Chapter 9: Grounds for
Communication provides tools for social
dialog and for discerning the better argument. It addresses the
metaphorical minefields of language and how the words and metaphors
we use frame and set the agenda for the issues we discuss.
Chapter 10: Conquering
the Bias-Sphere addresses the importance
of discerning bias and spin in media and emphasizes the power
wielded by our news and information sources. It also
considers the phenomenon of ideological amplification and
illustrates how like-minded people with the best of intentions can
get off on the wrong track.
Chapter 11: Maturing to
Wisdom explores the value of philosophy,
showing how wisdom applies to our sense of objectivity in later
life; how philosophy can enable us to revalue all that we value
until we are truly free to choose what is important in life; and how
learning from thinkers as diverse as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Alan
Watts can help us find compensation in misfortune and wisdom in
explains how contemplation and thoughtfulness can reach critical
mass, enabling us to break the disabling and bias-prone codes of our
culture. It shows how the façade of snobbery is crippling both to
individuals and to society. The pursuit of happiness is re-examined
here as a search for authenticity. At this level of learning, we
begin to gain meaningful insight into overcoming our tendencies for
misrelating and for figuring out what is and isn’t important to us.
Chapter 13: Social
considers the issue of social justice from the perspective of a life
devoted to discovering what justice really is when one’s own culture
is not the “right” culture per se, but is one of many. It explores
the notions of civic responsibility espoused by Martin Luther King
Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Henry David Thoreau and the return to
civility that senior citizens can promote through living example.
Chapter 14: Meaning and
Potential assesses the meaning and
opportunity that can be derived when a thirst for knowledge is
combined with technological possibilities that allow a greater
degree of equity for all citizens. Differences are examined at the
extreme—how we are to react to terrorists and to those intent on our
destruction. It examines our highest ideals in contrast to our
Chapter 15: Speaking Up
and Reaching-Out offers a graduate-level
outlook for putting our legacy into perspective. It reinforces the
idea that thoughtfulness and our deeds must take precedence over our
anxiety. By using our collective knowledge and experience, we can
help bring about changes that will benefit posterity. This chapter
guides readers to apply their knowledge thoughtfully on the behalf
of all humankind, with aspirations for achieving responsible
citizenship, a more equitable world, and a positive, and exciting
future. By this point, the metaphorical abyss has been qualitatively
overridden through recognition of the aesthetic value of a
meaningful life. The chapter revisits religion as a means of
bringing believers and nonbelievers together in peaceful pursuit of
the common ground necessary to achieve a better world.
Chapter 16: America’s
Unacceptable Status Quo takes a critical
look at our system of work and reward, and education and equality.
It contrasts our highest hopes and aspirations for a meritocracy and
a just society with the realities of the system that we actually
have, that too often favors those with a manufactured advantage.
Alternative measures are discussed that seek for a more just
Chapter 17: A Vision
for Posterity contrasts the way we see
ourselves today with a vision of possibilities for the future, and
it outlines the author’s personal plan for using the concept of
September University as a platform to help shape the future. This
chapter offers a bulleted list of achievable goals that the author
believes we should aim for fifty years ahead. It includes some final
thoughts about the major points of the book.
The Epilogue offers vivid
observations about the despair that arises in end-of-life
predicaments, and acknowledges that care for the aging will be a
major issue for baby boomers. This illustration further reinforces
the idea that a concern for humanity at large is essential to
keeping the future of civilization intact.
The back matter contains
a collection of aphorisms from Charles Hayes’ journals. These are
presented to inspire thoughtful reflection, with the hope that
readers find them useful in writing aphorisms of their own. Notes
and a bibliography follow.
Too many books focus on
the material aspects of life or offer empty platitudes and clichéd
promises about aging that ultimately lead to further despair and
disappointment. The so-called “golden years” have incurred so much
commercial emphasis that little else receives public attention.
September University makes it clear that only continuous
learning to broaden our perspective can relieve the existential pain
of existence that comes virtually assured for humans. In this
regard, September University delivers what quick fixes
It is more appropriate to think
of the golden years as a metaphor for perspective, nothing
more, and nothing less. Perspective is why the final chapters of
life are important. Our lives seem to matter more with age because
of the context that our evolving perception brings to bear on our
past experience and on our hope for the future. The more we learn
and expand our knowledge of the world, the more meaningful our
understanding becomes. Wisdom is an ally of age and a friend to
experience, but it’s more like a lover to a reasoned effort to
better understand the world and our place in it. Circumspective
reflection is a characteristic of maturity, and once this effort
achieves critical mass, it becomes an unrelenting thirst for
insight. Many people despair about failing to experience the joy
that the media lead us to expect during the golden years because
aging alone is insufficient to produce such experience. Only a
sustained effort to understand the mysteries of life yields such
reward. This is why so many others, even in ill health, seem
to defy hopelessness with enthusiasm to their very last breath.
aims to generate concrete dialog among people who care more about
posterity than petty politics and creature comforts. The book is an
exercise in idealism for those at the stage of life where optimism
may come less easily than it once did. Idealism in the fall and
winter of life raises the bar of anticipation for the generations
that follow; it moves us ever closer to experiencing the wonder of
existence and creating the possibility of a meaningful legacy.
is a book that’s needed now because the demographics of aging are
moving us into uncharted and unfamiliar territory. If enough
individuals commit to broadening their understanding, applying their
knowledge, and searching for reasonable solutions, the potential for
what’s possible is enthralling.
About the Author
Charles D. Hayes is a self-taught philosopher and one of America’s
strongest advocates for lifelong learning. He spent his youth in
Texas and served as a U.S. Marine and as a police officer before
embarking on a career in the oil industry. Alaska has been his home
for more than 30 years.
Hayes’ book Beyond the American Dream: Lifelong Learning and
the Search for Meaning in a Postmodern World received
recognition by the American Library Association’s CHOICE Magazine as
one of the most outstanding academic books of the year. His other
titles include Existential Aspirations: Reflections of a
Self-Taught Philosopher (in-press), The Rapture of
Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning, Training Yourself:
The 21st Century Credential; Proving You’re
Qualified: Strategies for Competent People without College Degrees;
and Self-University: The Price of Tuition is Desire. Your
Degree is a Better Life. His first fiction work is
Portals in a Northern Sky.
Promoting the idea that education should be thought of not as
something you get but as something you take, Hayes’ work has been
featured in USA Today, in the UTNE Reader,
and on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation and
Alaska Public Radio’s Talk of Alaska. His web site,
www.autodidactic.com, provides resources for self-directed
learners—from advice about credentials to philosophy about the value
that lifelong learning brings to everyday living.
A new web site,
www.septemberuniversity.org, is devoted to getting a
September University movement underway all across America. Visitors
are urged to spread the word and encourage others to start their own
Sept-U discussion groups. All participants are invited to explore
ways to positively approach the cultural obstacles we face through a
continual dialog and a tireless quest for the better argument.
Join the Discussion at: