“Don’t We Never Learn?” Part I: Trouble in Tahiti

Academy for the Love of Learning Founder and President Aaron Stern shared this letter with participants prior to the first of our anniversary offerings held on April 29th. We hope that you will join us on May 20th for “Don’t We Never Learn?” Part II: Learning and Transformation.

Trouble in Tahiti

In Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, considered by many a masterpiece, we have the opportunity to see the socio-cultural waters in which we were swimming during the early 1950s. In the mirror of this brief, one-act opera with seven scenes, we not only witness the impact of the lack of communication – but we see it within the context of a deeper more pervasive “trouble” – namely the mindless human pursuit of materialism, acquisitiveness and a dream – the American Dream – gone amuck. We have the opportunity to experience first-hand the power of art to shine light in dark places, wake us up and perhaps even catalyze transformation.

2018 happens to be a very special year here at the Academy for the Love of Learning, 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.

As Lenny approached the end of his life in 1990, his main question (put in his rather sardonic way) was “Don’t we never learn?”  Not surprisingly, given the profound nature of our connection, his question coincided with a parallel, deep inquiry of my own into transformative learning and experience that continues still today and is embodied by the Academy.  In light of this, I understood his question to mean, can we be transformed, individually and collectively?  And if so, how?  What are the methods? What are the techniques? How can we measure them? Can we indeed become better at being human beings?  I knew then, as I know now, that the learning he referred to wasn’t a matter of education as we have come to think of it.  The traditional taxonomies of education, though I understood and appreciated their significance, became almost prescriptive and resulted in the same old behaviors. For me the kind of learning in question, relates to the dominant driving force of my life –  transformative learning through experience – that is, throwing myself into experience and being changed by and growing through those experiences. So my response to Lenny’s question “Don’t we never learn?” was, “Of course we do! We transform!

I still know that to be true – certainly, individually.  The question for me and for the Academy now is how does it scale? How does it become a force for collective healing and change? Can we transform, not just individually, but collectively? In the past decade, this exploration of the collective has led me to join forces with the Dalai Lama and his Mind & Life Institute, where I serve as a Fellow, and on whose board I sit. We share a deep abiding devotion to well-being and a global vision for transformation, and increasingly the Academy has opportunity to bring our important work to this table.

Indeed, as you can see, this inquiry into whether and how we can learn to become better at being human beings has now become a whole academy: the Academy for the Love of Learning. We use the word learning rather than education intentionally. I believe that if we connect inwardly with our deepest voices, and our learning is guided and motivated from those deeper places and knowings as human beings – our shared ground of being – we will participate in the world in positive, creative ways that will help us learn our ways to bringing greater degrees of compassion and wellbeing into our lives individually and collectively.  I believe in Learning – with a capital “L”. As my dear friend and Academy visiting scholar Matthew Fox said to me many years ago – when expressing his enthusiasm for our work – “Learning is to education, what Spirituality is to religion. The Academy is a post-religious place, filled with learning and the sacred.”

Of course, it can take real courage to transform, to embrace life and follow the pathways that lead us into greater degrees of freedom and aliveness.  Often this means slowing things down enough to see the waters in which we are swimming and noticing the impact on us of life patterns that no longer serve us and are causing us suffering. Much as Bernstein calls us to do, in Trouble in Tahiti. Clearly, in these times as in all times, there is a need for us to meet the forces of darkness within and around ourselves, courageously and compassionately. There is a special need for us now to become more skillful in the art of dialogue so that we can make it through the eye of this particular 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! As my Zen friends like to say: “Things are not as they seem, and nor are they otherwise!” We must take heart.

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 that we welcome you to this first of our anniversary events: “Don’t we never learn?” Thank you for joining us!