A World of Knowledge: Where Do We Start?


August 30, 1993|By TIM BAKER

Have you received your copy of the new Odyssey? That's the brochure for the liberal-arts program at the Johns Hopkins School of Continuing Studies. The new one's in the mail. It describes the adult-education courses Hopkins will offer this fall.

My copy came yesterday. Finally! My mother's arrived last Monday. So she's already had several days to look it over.

We've been going to these courses together since 1989. We take one every semester. They're all non-credit. No tests or papers. And no grades! That was one thing I made sure of in advance. Otherwise, I would have risked a disaster too horrible even to imagine. My mother might have received a higher grade than I did. She would have never let me hear the end of it.

Before each semester, we get together and decide what we want to take. In the past the choice has usually been easy. Most of the time we've taken whatever Stephen J. Vicchio was teaching.

Dr. Vicchio chairs the philosophy department at the College of Notre Dame. Every semester for the last five years, he's taught an ''Anatomy of a Classic'' at Hopkins. His courses have attracted an enthusiastic following. The same people come back over and over again.

We've taken Plato and the trial of Socrates, Sophocles' plays, the Book of Job, Shakespeare's tragedies and late romances, Dostoyevsky's great novels, Tolstoy's short stories, Camus, Kafka. For the last two semesters Dr. Vicchio has taught Proust's ''Swann's Way.'' Next spring he'll probably do Thomas Mann's ''The Magic Mountain.'' We can hardly wait.

But this semester he's on sabbatical!

Elam Ray Sprenkle is another of our favorites. He's a composer who teaches music at the Peabody Institute. You may have heard his commentary on Saturday morning public radio. Earlier this summer a group of us went to his lectures on Tchaikovsky, and last year we took his course on the 20th-century classical composers from Stravinsky and Gershwin to Bartok and Barber. Next spring I hope he'll do Beethoven. We'll jump at it.

But this semester he's not teaching in the program!

So Mother and I are now poring over our copies of the Odyssey. We've discussed the new opportunities with our friends from prior courses. We'd like to stick together.

How about ''Class and Caste in American Literature''? The course will explore works by Henry James, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Alice Walker. Sounds great, doesn't it? Or we could try ''The Function of Myth in a Post-Mythic World: A Jungian-Feminist Perspective.'' Or Professor Michael Broyles' course on ''The Language of Music.''

In all, Hopkins offers 78 non-credit courses and workshops this semester. They include opera, photography and film, the ideas of Confucius, six foreign languages, cities of the ancient world, endangered peoples and diminishing diversity, African literature, Islam, the psychology of gender, creative writing, the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay, the Hubble space telescope, modern philosophers, evolution, great mountains of the world, and even ''Creatures of Darkness: The World of Bats.''

Most of the courses meet for a couple hours one evening a week at the Homewood campus. But a few are always offered at lunchtime in Hopkins' downtown center at One Charles Plaza. They last 50 minutes, so you can be back at your desk in an hour.

More than a thousand people sign up for these courses every semester. Business executives and secretaries, doctors and lawyers, husbands and wives. They somehow fit the classes into their hectic careers and families. Some of them are smart and well-read. Some aren't. But all of them read the assignments, come to class, take notes, raise their hands, ask questions.

For most of us, these courses have given us back something we'd lost -- the joy of reading ''Macbeth'' or ''The Brothers Karamazov'' again after 25 years. Not because they were assigned in a compulsory college class. Not because we have to write a paper on them. But because we want to learn about them. We make the time. We sit, read, reflect, enjoy.

Maybe Mother and I should try one of the non-credit continuing-studies courses at Goucher College. The brochure looks great. There's a literature class: Doctorow, Sand, Trollope, Kazantzakis. Wouldn't you like to read ''Zorba the Greek'' again? How about ''Dreams: God's Forgotten Language''?

Non-credit courses are also offered by the Women's Institute at Notre Dame. We could try ''An Introduction to Poetry Writing Today'' or ''Women Composers and Artists from the 12th to the 20th Century.''

My mother's got me worried, however. She's started to look at the credit courses! Some idiot mailed her a Hopkins catalog. Now she's found a course on Dante's ''Inferno.'' Whenever other works refer to ''The Divine Comedy,'' it frustrates her because she's never studied it. So she's now decided we ought to take the course.

But it's hard to get into unless you sign up for Hopkins' entire Masters in Liberal Arts program. Ten semesters. Five years. Tests. Papers. Exams. A 50-page thesis.


She claims she only wants to take the more rigorous courses. But I know she's setting me up. She'll get straight A's. Graduate with honors. Probably go on for a Ph.D. Meanwhile, what am I supposed to do? Let her race ahead? Leave me behind?

Let this be a warning to you. These courses are dangerous. The excitement can sweep you up and carry you off into a new world. So act now to protect yourself and your loved ones. When the Odyssey arrives in the mail, throw it away before it's too late.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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