Friday, July 9, 2010

Getting Smarter

My new class started up this morning, and I am a happy girl.  The Humanities Seminars at the University of Arizona is adult education at its finest.  Professors speak, and we listen.  Some are better than others (isn't that the way of all things?) but the entire adventure is fun, in and of itself.  A room full of inquisitive adults, none of whom are texting or sleeping (though some nodding off is to be expected, given the demographics of the group), all of whom have done the reading or are at least abashed at the fact that they are a week behind.  But they are behind because they've been traveling in Italy for 6 weeks, or visiting new-born grandchildren, or moving from an big house to a smaller abode within walking distance of the University, not because they didn't feel like doing the work.  It's got to be a teacher's joy, and, judging from the faces on the instructors I've had, it is.

This session is 4 weeks on The Inferno, Dante Alighieri's poem describing his journey through Hell, with Virgil as his guide.   It is 100 cantos, poems of 3 line stanzas.  The Italian and English are printed on opposing pages.  Though I don't know Italian, this is a bonus for me.  Just as in my Seamus Haney translation of Beowulf, with the Old English opposite the modern,  it's possible to say the words aloud, finding the cadence and listening to the rhythm.  When Bella Vivante read to us from The Odyssey in the original Greek, it was clear that this was truly a song meant to be chanted, sung, played out over time, and that the written word was a poor substitute for Homer's original intent.  It didn't matter that I didn't understand the content; I was feeling the language and that was enough.  My personal renditions are butchered, no doubt, but I get the sense of it nonetheless. 

Today's class was a play in three acts.  Fabian Alfie is the teacher's name, and he's a gem.  (This is an ungraded seminar; I am not angling for a better mark on the final here!)  He was organized and smart and read to us in Italian and broke us up into small groups in a way that didn't disrupt the entire experience and then led us back to a discussion of "What is Evil?"

Think about it for a moment.  Is the Gulf oil spill evil?  It is horrifying and awful and a result of profit over safety but is it evil?  Does there have to be intent for evil to be ascribed to an action?  Is a bad result always evil?  Is there a relationship between evil and compassion?  

See why I loved this morning so much?  100 people in a pretty space discussing the nature of evil.  Thoughtfully, with experience and intelligence, we were plumbing the depths of the concept.  I'm always amazed at the variety of backgrounds my classmates bring to the sessions; this 5 minute exercise exposed me to three new ones.  Some of our answers were provocative, many repetitive, but none were off-hand.  We wanted to be in the room and we respected the effort it took to get there.  We were serious students.

Act 1 was an overview of the political times (I now know the difference between a Ghibelline and a Guelph), Act 2 an overview of Dante's life, and Act 3 was the Comedy itself.  Did you know it's a comedy because it's not a tragedy?  That sounds more facile than the 15 minute explication deserves, but it's the mark of a good teacher to leave the student with a catchy phrase which calls up an entire conversation.  As we approached the end of the class, Prof. Alfie made a (not very) scandalous comment and then looked at the woman at the end of the 2nd row and said "Don't worry, Mom."

Now that stopped me right in my tracks.  There she was, sitting front and center, wearing a name tag just like the rest of us.  His very own parent sitting and watching him do his job.  My heart sang.  The room was full of smiling faces, happily following a path laid down by her offspring.  He was running the show, and she was there to enjoy the performance.  As we left the room, I stopped in front of her.  "Aren't you proud of him?"  Mom to mom, we grinned. 
ADDENDUM:  A classmate has created a blog devoted to the Inferno.  Her plan was to read a canto a day.  The plan has gone awry, but the writing is still excellent and the premise is an interesting one.  She calls it Inferno Summer and you can find it by clicking on the title. 

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