A year-end message from Aaron Stern

In what has become a yearly tradition, I’m writing to share with you my reflections on the work of the Academy for the Love of Learning, and to give you a glimpse into where the Academy is heading in the coming year.

2018 happens to be a very special year, as it marks the 20th anniversary of the Academy’s official founding in 1998. 2018 is also, poignantly and coincidentally, the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. Lenny, as I knew him, the great musician, the 20th century giant with whom, in 1986, I conceived the Academy, was one of the first people with whom I engaged in dialogue about “this thing,” as he called it, just before proposing that we call our “thing” the Academy for the Love of Learning. “Why that name?”, I asked – and he said: “because you believe that if we truly open ourselves to learning, it will liberate us and bring us home, individually and collectively.  So, the name is perfect, because the acronym is ALL!” I resisted it at first, but soon came to realize that the name indeed was perfect. This and other prescient dialogues have helped us get to where we are today – a thriving, innovative organization. Hopefully, a light in the darkness.

There were other key conversations that began around the time Lenny and I were in our intense period of dialogue – with Reta Lawler and Thomas Huffman, whose pioneering work in Transpersonal Learning and Healing had an enormous impact on me; with the great American composer, and dear friend, Pauline Oliveros, who coined the term and practice of ‘deep listening’; and with Eleanor Makris, a true mystic and profound explorer of the learning process and matters of the heart. I also discovered the work of Swiss psychiatrist Alice Miller around that time. Her books had an enormous influence on my understanding of childhood trauma and what she called the unconscious “poisonous pedagogy” of child-rearing and education.

And of course, a bit later, in the early 1990’s, my dear friend Arthur Zajonc. Arthur is a physicist, philosopher and educator, a wonderful writer and an important spiritual leader in the anthroposophical (Steiner) movement. Years later, soon after the Sandy Hook massacre, as we were walking together one day in Boulder, CO I said, “You know, Arthur, I have never really been a person who can buy into the good and evil paradigm – I’m not a binary kind of guy and it seems a very simplistic metaphor. Yet, I feel as though I have encountered now, for the first time, something I would call genuine evil. Arthur, do you think things are getting better or worse in the world?” He replied, “Well, what Rudolf Steiner said was that in these times, there would be the appearance of forces on this planet that had the express intention to stop the evolutionary process from going forward.” I do not know if I believe this or not – though it sure seems so at times. And it surely correlates with a prophecy Buddhists point to – that these would be quite dark times. I asked Arthur then, “Well, if there really is evil, what does evil want?” He asked, “Well, what do you think it wants?” Which was the perfect Socratic answer. I said, “Well, I think evil wants to be loved.” He said, “Well, that is a very high spiritual understanding. That is exactly what Steiner said it wanted.” End of the conversation. So, I have been sitting in this thought. That through love, evil can be transformed.

And here we are, we have love in our name and learning, too. I wonder, can that love and learning be a beacon of light in dark times? More recently, I was having another conversation, this time with a “millennial.” I was wondering aloud about the wisdom of building this building and campus, given the tendency for institutions inevitably to become recalcitrant, and he said, “Don’t question it. My generation needs this place desperately.” He recognized that the place itself of the Academy embodies love and the learning spirit – a true reflection of our work. It is a physical manifestation of the beacon of light that the Academy is and continues to be. That is why, just over a month ago, we consecrated a magnificent stupa on our campus. This structure joins other sacred spaces on our campus in creating a web of light and hope that surrounds and anchors our work in this place. I believe we need to preserve and embody and transmit light right now in a big way. Manjushri, who is the being sitting on the throne in the stupa, holds a sword in one hand, to cut off all delusion, and a book in the other. This deity is all about cutting through the bull and showing how clear seeing leads to clear action. He is action and experience on one hand and theory on the other. Just like our work.

Academy Stupa. Dec 2, 2017 — photo by David Gordon

Right now, there is a need for us to meet the forces of darkness within and around ourselves, courageously and compassionately. These are essential times. And there is also a need for us to practice dialogue so that we can make it through this eye of the needle successfully. Not just a dialogue about the dark forces, but also about all that is being illuminated – which is stunningly bright. Though we are witnessing what appears, and feels, to be moral degradation, at the same time, we are finding the courage to shine light in dark places and wake ourselves up!

I hope that we can enter into many healing dialogues together this year. The theme for our 20th anniversary is ‘Reflection and Emergence’ and it is in this spirit I will be offering a series of blog posts on the founding of the Academy, how that relates to the work we are doing now and where we are going. (You can find those blog posts online at our website, www.aloveoflearning.org under “Notes From the Founder.”)

I have learned many things from the conversations and experiences I have engaged in, and the people I have met along the way in this 20-plus year journey of the Academy, and the 2 preceding decades that lead to my founding of it, formally, in 1998.  One essential thing I have learned is, in order to have the capacity truly to engage, we must take the lid off learning and bring ourselves into that capacity to transform. That is why I am asking that you support our work with a gift that affirms that you value the kind of learning I am pointing to. Learning that leads us, by nature, to kind-hearted, peaceful, vibrant communities, telling stories of wellbeing. I look forward to engaging, listening and working together to waking ourselves up by bringing light, steadfastly. As Henry David Thoreau tells us so beautifully:

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man [sic] to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”