September University: Summoning Passion for an Unfinished Life
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SEPTEMBER UNIVERSITY
Summoning 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 will intensify.
  • 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 of life.

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 that wisdom.

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 life:

·         An existential fear of death  

·         A predilection for cultural conflict

·         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 intellectual growth.

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.

September University 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 the process.

The audience

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.

September University 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.

Overview

September University 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 Fears 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 Literacy 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 insecurity.

Chapter 12:  Contemplation 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 Justice 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 global relationships.

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 society.      

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.

Summary

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 can’t.

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.

September University 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.

September University 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: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Sept-U/

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September University: Summoning Passion for an Unfinished Life

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