A Year End Message from Aaron Stern

Academy Founder and President Aaron Stern shares a year end message with emergent Academy news for 2019.

Dear Friends, 

As the year comes to a close, I am writing, as is my annual tradition, to share news of the past year at the Academy and to invite you to join with us in imagining and growing into what lies ahead.

Many of you know that 2018 marked both the Academy for the Love of Learning’s 20th anniversary as an organization and the centennial of the birth of 20th-century musical giant Leonard Bernstein, with whom I conceived the Academy. We celebrated throughout 2018 by engaging the theme “Reflection and Emergence.” In true Academy style, we entered into a deep experiential inquiry into a key question – one that Bernstein had (and would often ask, rather sardonically!) during the last decade of his life: “Don’t we never learn?” My response to him then, as now, was: “Of course we do! We transform!”, setting the learning landscape of our relationship – and a rich dynamic tension that is still vital within the Academy today.

To explore this question The Academy convened two highly spirited Community Conversations at our campus and broadcasted them beyond Santa Fe via Facebook Live. In the first convening, we utilized Bernstein’s classic early 1950s short opera “Trouble in Tahiti,” a prophetic and moving statement on the dire emptiness of materialism through the lens of a single family living the American dream gone amuck in suburbia, as a prompt for deep conversation. Following our viewing of the opera, and touched by the plight of this family, our inquiry focused on what has happened since, as we looked for “signs of intelligent life” in our society – signs that we may be waking up collectively and transforming into newer, better, and more equitable ways of living that contribute to mutual well-being. We acknowledged that in these times it may seem otherwise, but we were excited as a group to recognize that the following has emerged since Bernstein wrote the opera in 1951:

  • The #MeToo movement!
  • A new scientific field of study called “Well-Being and Human Flourishing,” as embodied by the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and elsewhere
  • The birth and burgeoning of a new field, called “Ethical Leadership,” including university degree programs in this field
  • The Academy’s very own foundational program Leading by Being® now in its 18th year!
  • The development of a new educational field and movement known as “Secular Ethics” for children
  • The development of a new educational field and movement called “Social Emotional Learning (SEL)”
  • The remarkable nourishing and maturation of the field of Psychology in its own right
  • The LGBTQ+ Rights movement!
  • The Civil Rights movement!
  • An increasing “awareness” of the shadowy forces that can be embedded in religions and their systems as well as in other systems that can tend toward the abuse of power
  • The Local Living Economies movement; a deepening inquiry into materialism, acquisitiveness, and the growing interest in and commitment to community based agriculture and sustainability
  • The Environmental Movement
  • Millennials!
All of these together seem to substantiate my long-held belief that we do have the capacity to transform through learning to become better at being human beings. While these are signs, and clearly much more must be done before we can say that these aspirations have indeed become real change, Lenny would nevertheless have been very happy to see these movements toward positive change.

In our second “Don’t We Never Learn?” Community Conversation, renowned neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson joined me at the Academy in a public discussion about what he and his team at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (CHM) have been discovering about the impact of the Academy’s work. Over the past several years CHM has been studying the Academy’s Foundational Programs to understand better their impact and explore whether our hypothesis is correct—that the Academy’s work leads to a meaningful increase in the experience of well-being and flourishing.

If we are right–and preliminary findings indicate that we are–this link between learning that transforms us and the human experience of well-being is vastly important and will help position the Academy to bring our work much further into the world. These findings will amplify our mission to take the lid off of learning to become better at being human beings – and answer further Lenny’s deeply held question – “Don’t We Never Learn?”

Both of the “Don’t We Never Learn?” dialogues and our culminating, joyous, musical anniversary celebration at the Academy on August 25th continue to hearten and inspire us all. The large audience that gathered to hear the transcendent musical performances of Bernstein’s work as well as my own, and stories of the Academy’s founding. The generative and meaningful conversations into which you, our friends and supporters, were willing to enter at a time when we see so much separate-ness show that we humans can truly come together in remarkable ways. I am reminded of the Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

As we turn toward our next steps, we recognize that it is one thing to know that we can transform as individuals – we must learn now how to adapt and apply those practices and learnings in larger contexts so that we can learn to transform as groups, communities, cities, and indeed, whole societies. How can we become better, through our capacity for learning, at expressing kindness and compassion, respecting and engaging with difference – indeed, loving one another – in our efforts at becoming better at being human beings?

In the first 20 years of the Academy we sought to cultivate and tend to the “seedlings” that began as flyers on telephone poles, and which now are full programs with robust community support. As the Academy has changed, so too has the world around us, and we are now seeing that our work and mission are ever more relevant and substantial – our work is in the world. Our “garden” has matured beautifully and elevated to a new stage, allowing the “plants” to grow even higher and more broadly extend.

2019 will see us continuing the Emergence theme of our anniversary celebrations by launching the LB Fellowship for Arts and Transformation. We will also engage in more deep inquiry through our Future of Learning Dialogues, introduce a reinvigorated set of Evenings of Exploration in Santa Fe, and continue the exciting work of our Partnership Platform. Each of these initiatives continues our mission to “take the lid off of learning” and become better at being human, learning ourselves to a better world.

To begin in the fall of 2019, the LB Fellowship for Arts and Transformation will be a two-year program for catalytic creative practitioners uniting Community Arts practices, Healing Practices and Transformative Learning. Fellows will join Academy faculty in a deep experiential exploration of what it means to bring artistic sensibility and discernment into the realm of personal and community growth and development. This deliberately curated blend of foundational studies, artistic practices, inner work and independent inquiry will honor, support and amplify Fellows’ current and emergent work toward systemic, sustainable community change. Fellows will find ways, together, to help transform the pervasive systemic trauma in which we are situated, in order to awaken and catalyze sustainable change.

Following themes similar to our “Don’t We Never Learn?” dialogues earlier this year, where neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds, and I furthered the exploration of Bernstein’s burning question, by taking a look at the impact of our foundational work in learning, the Future of Learning Dialogues will bring leaders in the fields of social justice, neuroscience, contemplative practice, and secular ethics into an exploration of these themes through the lens of what we at the Academy call “Learning as a Practice.”

Beginning in January 2020 all of our Evenings of Exploration and multi-day Foundation Studies programs offered in Santa Fe will be tied to a “Certificate in Learning as a Practice,” allowing participants to work through our programming in pathways with a faculty advisor and a community of co-learning peers, if desired, or continue participating in them as one-offs without the certificate option.

With our Partnership Platform, we will increase the research and implementation of what His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls Secular Ethics – a next step beyond Social Emotional Learning. The Platform brings together key professional relationships I’ve developed through my work as a Fellow and Trustee of the Mind & Life Institute, a research organization co-founded by the Dalai Lama working to promote flourishing by integrating science with contemplative practice and wisdom traditions. The Partnership Platform has the intention of fostering collaboration and sharing resources leading to a greater expression of impact than our respective work can do alone. We have begun this work in earnest and it has rich potential.

Thank you again for joining us and helping to “make our garden grow” over these last 20 years. We look forward to continuing to deepen the roots of our work as we aid in the “great turning amidst the unraveling” that Joanna Macy speaks about and commit to bringing bold and compassionate change into the world.


As is sung in the finale of Bernstein’s Candide:
“Let dreamers dream
What worlds they please
Those Edens can’t be found.
The sweetest flowers,
The fairest trees
Are grown in solid ground.
We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow. And make our garden grow!”