Sphere College Project

A New World of Learning

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A clarification… we’re using PayPal for our online donations. And we’ve had a good number of donations come in over the web. Very helpful! Then the online donations fell off. I thought it was because I shifted my focus away from soliciting online donations. Well, no. What appears to have happened is the following:

PayPal sent me a note saying (my paraphrase, of course) “Hey, you’re a charity and we gotta verify you’re a charity.” (Never mind the fact that we allowed you to collect donations and withdraw funds up to this point.) “While we’re waiting on this you can’t access your money.” “Ok, fine”, I thought, “I’ll get to it when we’re ready to transfer the funds.”

Well then Paul Kroon, a former student of mine from Ursinus College with whom I worked closely for years, and his fiancee Aileen Dalton strolled into Artisans Cafe in Phoenixville and we had a very nice visit. During our conversation Paul mentioned, much to my surprise, that he had tried to use the online donation link and was denied. Oh, my! We really need the donations! Time to act! So I went to the PayPal site and discovered that yes, they had removed the ability for people to make online donations until I get some paperwork to them. (Oh, this fact may be buried in my unread emails at some point. My bad. Hey, I’m trying to run a new College over here!)

SO… I’ve been working on responding to their requests for information. It’s a long story and I certainly don’t need to bore you with the details. If I were in my less-than-centered mode I’d go off on PayPal right now. And the whole corporate structure as well. In short, it seems we’ve created a society that has too little respect for our humanity and that adds far, far too much stress in our lives. It is my sincere hope that we will come together to build an environment that fosters more of a sense of peace and well-being in the world. It’ll take time, but it’s worth the effort now. Our way of working on this is through education.

We really, really do need your donations. Things are really tight right now and we appreciate your support. And I’ll let you know when I’ve sufficiently jumped through the PayPal hoops and online donations are active again.

SO, for now if you wish to send a donation to support Sphere College, please send a check to:

Sphere College
P.O. Box 1024
Phoenixville, PA 19460

And if you’re in the East, stay cool—it’s hot out there!

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Thanks, Dad

My, how time flies! I was updating this blog quite regularly and there was a regular following, then apparently I dropped off the face of the earth. What’s a bit surprising is that this blog still gets a number of hits per day, averaging around 30 and spiking up to 60 or so even when I’m not updating it. There was a time in the beginning when 30 hits in a day was very high!

My primary reason for taking a blogging break was that I must shift my focus to more effective forms of fundraising for the college. The truth of the matter is that the college must experience a significant increase in donations—either in size of donation or number of people giving small amounts, or both—in the coming weeks or we’ll be closing our doors for a while. I must seek an income for myself so that I can meet my personal financial obligations and continue to support the college as we figure out how to take the college to the next level. I haven’t perceived that the blog has contributed significantly to the income of the college, and was planning to write a blog entry stating that I was going to take a hiatus.

However, during my recent visit with my Dad in Brevard, NC I realized that he has been following the blog all along, and has been disappointed in the lack of updates. This is a serious oversight on my part, since if it were not for him the College simply would not have lasted this long at all. I have borrowed large chunks of money from him to support the College, and it has not been easy for him to do this. He has his own financial obligations, including medical expenses. Although he has insurance, his medical bills are high like everyone else’s. So to say “Thank You” to my Dad for his support I pledge to begin blogging again.

So Dad, along with the other members of the Sphere College community, I thank you.

To catch others up on some things that have been going on recently, here’s a bit of news:

I spent last week in Washington, DC attending a Buckminster Fuller Institute event announcing the winner of the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge. At the event I met many fascinating people who are doing good work in the world according to principles outlined by R. Buckminster Fuller. I also had the opportunity to meet with (and stay with) several of my former students from Ursinus College. It was great to see you!

The Sphere College classes continue, led by Michael Reddy. We are currently discussing the book Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. It’s a difficult and important topic, and it is our hope that increasing our skills with this kind of conversation will significantly enhance our ability to have the kinds of conversations that are inevitable while building an organization.

There’s so much more to say, but there’s also much to do, so I’m off to do some writing and connecting. Stay tuned!

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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.