Sphere College Project

A New World of Learning


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And They’re Off!

What an exciting time! While we continue with classes here in Phoenixville, I’m speaking with a number of people in both Norristown and Pottstown about what their communities have to gain by bringing in a branch of Sphere College. These benefits include a more educated workforce with enhanced communication and workforce skills, the ability of an individual to pursue one’s dreams, and general strategies for economic development for both the individual and the community. And we’ll do it with fun, creative education, pursuing the knowledge the students want to learn and molding it to the varied learning styles of the students.

Last night I spoke with a group of firefighters at the Fairmount Engine Company No. 2 in Norristown. Naturally, at first they were skeptical about this guy touting a PhD coming to talk to them. But hey, Norristown Fire Chief Tom O`Donnell suggested that they hear me out, so they were willing to give me a chance, even if I did begin talking just as the Phillies game went into the 11th inning. But as I talked about the current status and future vision of the College, they warmed up to it. As expected, they asked good, hard questions, some of which I had already thought a lot about and others I hadn’t. I made the point that students in the College are a part of creating the learning environment that works for them while the College ensures a sufficient quality of education.

I was particularly excited by the recognition by one audience member that the people in the room are taking part in something new and groundbreaking: the founding of a truly new form of higher education. By the end of my visit they were beginning to brainstorm about what the next steps should be to make this a reality in Norristown. And since they’re the ones who know the Norristown community far better than I do, it makes sense that they would be the ones to design the strategy. I look forward to hearing back from them and acting on their ideas.

MEANWHILE, I’ve continued meeting with people in Pottstown and have continued to receive a very positive response. Pottstown shares some very interesting characteristics with Norristown, including proximity to Philadelphia and a rich history. In many ways it is a very different community, though, so the strategy in Pottstown will naturally be quite different. Again, it’s the people in the community who will devise with the most sensible strategy.

So stay tuned…there will be much more to report on these developments!

BTW, the Phillies won 7-6.


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Branching Out

While we continue working to expand in Phoenixville, there are other communities nearby that appear to be motivated to try something innovative to invigorate their economies. They seem to be very warm to the idea of an alternative form of adult education as a fundamental component. I’ve recently received very positive responses from nearby Norristown and Pottstown. If one or both of these communities can find a way to welcome the College into the community this could go a long way towards helping us build our infrastructure. Over the weekend and last night I met with a number of people in Pottstown. Tonight I’m speaking to a group at the Fire Department in Norristown, and I have a number of other people on my list to contact. I’m also now getting a number of people contacting me out of the blue.

It feels as though we’ve been planting a lot of seeds over the last year. You know what’s probably going to happen, right? Everything is going to sprout and branch out at once! This is the kind of problem we want to have, of course, and if we expect it we’ll be in a better position to prune and shape as necessary to bear the best fruit.


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A Pound of Flesh

On the heels of the first anniversary celebration on Tuesday night last week we had a fantastic class on Thursday night. The discussion was about Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

Why are we reading/discussing Shakespeare? Well, for several reasons. My former students at Ursinus College have been doing book drives collecting texts that Sphere College students can use. In fact, I have stacks of texts in my kitchen waiting to be handed out: The Epic of Gilgamesh, Galileo, Genesis, The Qur’an, The Bhagavad-Gita and more. In Sphere College we go in the direction students choose to go given our interests and the resources at hand. I had a stack of Merchant, and a number of the students thought that it would be a good experience to approach Shakespeare, so there we go.

Shakespeare proves to be a very rich source of material for exploring ‘Self and Other’. Our discussion included gender similarities and differences, the letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law, the nature of bargains, morality questions related to charging interest for loans, what the implications are for an economy based on loans for growth, how social norms in one society can affect social attitudes in seemingly remote societies, and other topics.

We’ll be continuing with Merchant this Thursday night, then move on to something brought in by one of the students.

In the meantime, I continue working to build the infrastructure of the College during a time of economic difficulty. But hey, I do love a challenge—particularly one that will have such a huge payoff in its affect on our society: a practical program of education for adults that allows them to go through the transformation they wish to go through. Frankly, I’ve wracked my brain and I can’t think of anything at all that would have greater positive influence. Stay tuned! Help out!

And as always we welcome your financial support. It doesn’t have to be a huge amount—any amount will help. Just visit the DONATE! page and make a small, tax-deductable contribution. It will help us pay for the people who are making this possible (right now that’s me, Michael and Virginia), it will help defray costs for creating and printing brochures and mailing materials, for purchasing supplies, and it will pay for our memberships—we belong to the Phoenixville Area Time Bank, and we very recently joined the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia!


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The Speech

During our first anniversary celebration on Tuesday night I gave a speech about the founding of the College, it’s current state and future vision. I’ve received positive feedback on it, so I thought I would reproduce it here for those who were unable to attend. I’ll also expand on a couple of items that could use some fleshing out.

In class last Thursday night we went around the table talking a bit about our relationship to the material we were studying. I spoke for a bit about myself and the motivation for founding Sphere College, and I thought it would be useful to repeat it here to frame what it is that we’re doing:

I was born and raised in rural South Carolina. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to take as long as it may seem from that introduction! I grew up going around barefoot and saying “ain’t”. Like the childhoods of most people, it was a beautiful and horrible existence, and I thought I was unable to do anything useful in the world.

In the sixth grade I had a math teacher (I don’t recall her name right now, but will find out and add it) told me I had a good brain in my head and I wasn’t using it. (In class I misspoke and said “told me I had a good brain on my head”. We had a bit of a chuckle at that.) What she said caused a shift in my self-image and I cried. A lot. But from then on I excelled at math.

When I went to college I studied music—my mother was a piano teacher—and became a very accomplished musician, performing with some of the best in the world. But while living in NYC I realized that I had not sufficiently satisfied my curiosity for mathematics and computers, so I then became a software engineer. But I knew I loved teaching, so I earned my Ph.D. in Computer Science at Georgia Tech.

I had become accomplished in the arts and the sciences, but I knew that the humanities was missing, so I sought a job in a small liberal arts college in the northeast so that I could absorb the humanities by being in close proximity with professors who were in the humanities. It worked. I was pleased to land a position on the faculty of Ursinus College. The great advantage of Ursinus was that all professors are expected to teach the freshman seminar course, CIE: Common Intellectual Experience, essentially a humanities course, from time to time. Now, in my first class meeting I explained to the students, “Hey, I’m a Computer Science professor. If you think I’m going to teach this material TO you, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. We’re going to learn this material together.” I think they appreciated my honesty and really dug in.

The material in the class seems to have had the intended effect, not only on the students but on me as well. I came to understand that what I really want to do is to provide an environment in which students can really identify and pursue their dreams.

Ursinus and I parted ways. (Oh, we’re friends… I stay in contact with many of my former colleagues and students. In fact, students at Ursinus go on book drives to collect texts from the CIE classes and donate them to Sphere College.) As I was looking for another college in which to teach, I began as a good software engineer would: by defining my requirements. So I designed the most sensible educational program I could think of.

It makes the most sense to first help the student identify what they want to accomplish with their lives. This would take as long as it takes for the student, and would involve learning more about oneself and others, and how similarly and differently people think, and being aware of important issues facing our society. Once this is established, then the student would need to acquire the skills to accomplish their life goals. This means working with the student to develop an individualized, interdisciplinary curriculum around their passion. Then each students needs to put their knowledge into action while gaining practical experience.

I then thought about who deserves to be able to learn in such a program. The answer was clear: anyone who has the desire to, whether they have money or not. And if everyone has access to this kind of education, then it would likely be transformative for our society.

When I went looking for a college with this kind of program, I didn’t find it. So I decided to start it myself. This satisfied another goal: to remain in Phoenixville, which I had come to love.

So I founded Sphere College. Why the name? Well, I didn’t want to name it after me (Liston College? Liston University? No, thanks.) or the area. And the word “sphere” can be a nice metaphor for many things: the inner and outer self, self and other, an image of perfection for which to strive, and hey, it’s Thelonious Monk’s middle name!

Well, we’ve been going strong for one year now. We’ve got a very solid core group of students who have studied a wide range of material including Gilgamesh, Genesis, Galileo, Goethe, Graph Theory, Game Theory (yeah, lots of ‘G’s there!) the Bhagavad-Gita, Rudolph Steiner, Plato, Aristotle, Wendell Berry, and many other topics. Sure, it’s heavily weighted to the philosophical, but that’s what the students selected. Currently we’re doing Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and will soon move on to another topic suggested by a student.

We also have a Steering Committee made up of students and faculty that meets once a week that makes fundamental decisions about how the college will unfold, and we all learn from this process, and a fundraising committee that did a great deal of work putting together the first anniversary celebration. And speaking of faculty, how lucky are we to have Michael Reddy, who has a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science from the University of Chicago, is an accomplished guitarist and woodworker, and has studied Native American shamanism for 20 years, to be on the faculty? Well, pretty lucky. And we’ve done all this on a shoestring budget!

What’s the future vision for Sphere College? Imagine us one year from now with around 100 students and 10 diverse faculty members in a space of our own—which we’re currently working to acquire, by the way—where we are exploring the education that we are passionate about, forming strong relationships with businesses in the area and working together to take the College in its next direction. This to me, and I hope to you, too, seems like a vision worth making a reality.


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We Did It!

As you probably know, Tuesday night was our big night celebrating one year of operation of Sphere College! Many people pulled together to make the celebration a success, and I want to thank them all:

Employees and volunteers at the Colonial Theatre gracefully handled so many aspects of the event, including going above and beyond to make sure the films submitted to the Film Contest were playable. Ted the Fiddler, who really put a great deal of time and effort into accomodating us. Ryan, who assisted with sound.
Students of the College who provided food.
Jesse Crater, who handled many aspects of the Film Contest.
Jonathan Stewart, who designed the program booklet and got our sign made.
The businesses that took out ads in the program booklet.
Many businesses and individuals who generously contributed items for the raffle.
Peggy Farley and Matt Comiskey who did considerable work making the raffle a success.
The supporters of the College who attended.
All the participants in the first annual Sphere College Short Film Contest.
Virginia Stewart who had to deal with me as I prepared for the event.
Janet Jepsen and Diversity in Action for moving the meeting to accommodate our event.
Everyone who came out to share the evening with us!

I apologize in advance for any inadvertent omissions. Let me know about it I’ll add you to the list!

By the way, the winners of the film contest are listed on the Film Contest page. Take a look!

What’s next? We continue with our classes—right now we’re discussing feminine and masculine in the character of Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice—and looking ahead at the next steps for evolving the College to the next level.

We are extremely pleased to announce that Sphere College was selected as the beneficiary of a fundraiser, A Black and White Affair, scheduled for May 7 on the third floor of Molly Maguire’s in Phoenixville! We’ll provide more details in a future post, but mark your calendars now!


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It’s Here!

Tonight we celebrate one year of classes of Sphere College!

My, how time flies! We’ve come a long way, but we must keep our nose to the grindstone. Good things come to he who waits, but the waiting is the hardest part. Oh, I could go on and on listing clichés now, particularly with the help of websites that list clichés. But what we’re doing is trying to create new human experiences—the feeling of being deeply connected with one another. It will be a good day when this feeling is worthy of cliché. I do hope you’ll join us tonight and we can work on establishing the connected feeling that, in my humble opinion, is all too rare.

What exactly is it that we’re celebrating? Well, this is a milestone on a journey into something that truly has never been accomplished before. And trust me, as good of an idea it is to provide free, high-quality education to adults, it’s a seemingly impossible task to many people—particularly to many of the very people who truly have the means to make it happen! It’s surprisingly easy for us to believe that as a world society have already done it all—climbed mount everest, conquered all the lands, explored space, created all kinds of artistic expression, established that we can completely destroy the earth. Is there anything left to do?

Of course! And you know what it is: to bring people together to really communicate with each other. To learn how to be patient with one another, to understand that we all see the world in radically different ways and that instead of living in conflict and trying to get each other to see things our way (because we’re so convinced that our way of looking at the world is the right way) we can learn to experience the world through all the senses of another. If I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that there are many, many other worlds out there to explore—our complex, beautiful, scary, wonderful world as experienced by other people—and that doing so opens us up to extraordinary experiences.

So please join us tonight, Tuesday, April 20 at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville for the Sphere College First Anniversary Celebration. We’ll have a reception at 6pm, a presentation at 7pm, the Sphere College Short Film Contest screening at 7:30, and the fantastic feature film, Living in Oblivion, a self-referential comedy with excellent acting about independent filmmaking, at 8pm. Come talk to the students about their experiences—what we’ve been doing and learning together. And find out what we hope to accomplish in the future.

Whether or not you are able to join us in person for the celebration tonight, and I know there are many who will be there in spirit, I invite you in whatever way you can to become a part our journey to chart the truly unknown territory of bringing humanity closer together.


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Letz Put Those Social Networkz to Work!

It’s tomorrow night! What??? You don’t know about the Sphere College First Anniversary Celebration on Tuesday, April 20 at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville?! You don’t know about the reception at 6pm, the presentation at 7pm, the Sphere College Short Film Contest screening at 7:30, and the fantastic feature film, Living in Oblivion, a self-referential comedy with excellent acting about independent filmmaking, at 8pm?! Well, now you do, so please join us in the celebration! And let’s all do what we can to make this a big, fun event. Use your social networkz to contact everyone on the planet and bring them out to celebrate with us. Facebook, Twitter, your own blog, texting, whatever. Yes, I mean it… do it right now before you forget! Ok, I’ll say it… pretty please?

Oh yeah, although this is primarily a celebration, we’ll also be raising funds to help the college move into a space and build the infrastructure of people who can handle the myriad tasks associated with providing a FREE education that WORKS to the huge population of adults who desire and deserve to learn! So stop by the ATM on your way so you can purchase some raffle tickets. There is a variety of items and you just may want to try to go home one of them.

FYI, here’s the press release. We look forward to seeing you there!