Sphere College Project

A New World of Learning

The Speech

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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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Author: Richard Liston

Musician, computer scientist, educator. I'm creating a new educational environment for adults.

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