November 19, 2014 by Jean
Last weekend, I attended a day-long interdisciplinary forum on “Why Darwin Matters” sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council. The program included presentations by historians, literature experts, biologists, and artists, along with a musical performance and an art exhibit. This ambitious event was billed as the first of many annual programs linking the arts, humanities and sciences – a series developed in honor of the late Dorothy (Deedee) Schwartz, former Executive Director of the Maine Humanities Council and a visual artist with a strong interest in science. The choice of Darwin as a subject for this first annual Dorothy Schwartz Forum on Art, Science & and the Humanities was particularly apt because among Deedee Schwartz’s oeuvre was a series of art works focused on Darwin.
I learned about this program from my gardening friend, Harriet, who asked me if I’d like to attend with her. Harriet’s primary motivation for participating was to honor Deedee, who was a close personal friend. Harriet had also served in the past as a member of the Maine Humanities Council and has participated in many of their programs over the years. When she asked me if I wanted to attend, she had no idea if I would be interested. She certainly had no way of knowing that, at an earlier point in my academic career, when required core interdisciplinary courses for first year students were all the rage, I had once proposed that such a course be organized around the ideas of Charles Darwin. The suggestion didn’t get any traction at the time, but I jumped at the chance to see it come to fruition in this different form.
I was excited by the opportunity to learn about a topic that had long interested me and delighted that it came now when I have time for this kind of learning. My own science background is weak and one of the gaps in my education is that I had never read anything by Darwin; so I decided to begin reading The Voyage of the Beagle in preparation for the forum. (I chose this book because I thought it would be the most accessible of Darwin’s writing and because it records the observations on which his later theories were based.)
When we arrived at the forum, I was surprised to discover that the audience was made up primarily of people in their sixties, seventies and eighties. When I shared this observation with Harriet, she replied that this is typical of Maine Humanities Council programs. When she served on the Council, concern about this and the issue of outreach to young people was a perennial topic of discussion. Her own response was that retirement is a stage of life in which people have the time and freedom to learn for the sake of learning, and that the Council should embrace that reality instead of worrying about it.
Harriet and I spent the drive home at the end of the day in animated discussion of the ideas we had encountered. We even discussed the possibility of reading Darwin’s most famous work, On the Origin of Species, as part of a book group. I find myself wondering about the origins of the stereotype that older people are in mental decline and no longer able to learn (e.g., “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”). In my last semester of teaching, I was interviewed by one of my students for an article in the Sociology department newsletter. At the end of the interview, the student asked me what advice I would give to students, and I said:
Don’t waste your college education. You’ll never again in your life have the opportunity to have nothing else to be responsible for than just learning.
I was wrong about that. It turns out that, after the busy middle years of juggling work and family responsibilities, retirement once again presents an opportunity to indulge in learning for its own sake.