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Back in University - At Least for One Day

October 28, 2017
Written October 29+
Dear Diary and Friends and Family,

Even at 71, we feel the need to learn something from time to time.  In a larger metropolitan area, we might have tried sooner, but we promise to do better in our small city. 

We are starting with a lecture series organized by One Day University (ODU) , a New York City company that organizes lectures throughout the country.  It is an interesting business model.  They send university professors throughout the country to give their favorite lectures and charge significant tuition for these one-day events.  I can imagine their target audience are retirees, but maybe that varies from town to town.

d171028_02_desk.jpgWe had signed up for a four-lecture Saturday with the theme "One Day of Genius". The event was held at Fresno City College, about a block away, so we didn't even have to worry about driving, or traffic, or parking! 
When offered the chance to help with registration, we quickly volunteered.  Dierdre, the only ODU employee at our event, explained the simple process for us to check in "students" and hand out discount reservation cards for the next lectures.  Clearly, part of the business model is to offer big discounts for repeat customers and many of the folks we talked with were indeed return customers.  (Our volunteer work earned us free admission for the March, 2018 series.)
Volunteering is an interesting way to encounter strangers.  Almost everybody was retirement age, with a few younger relatives thrown in for flavoring. We registered almost 250 people, a good crowd.  It was a far more enthusiastic 8:30 am group than I remember from my real university days.  Definitely a sign of our age.

Promptly at 9:00, Dierdre explained the administrative details and the whole program was pretty simple: Four, one-hour lectures, 15 minutes each of Q & A, and plenty of breaks.  Our crowd was enthusiastic, but breaks are important.  So, what did we hear? In this diary, I will try to point to insights I walked away with, a few anyway. (This proved more difficult than I had initially thought - there was SO much material.)
FDR's Political Genius: The Making of the Modern Presidency
Dr. Jeremi Suri, University of Texas at Austin
I suppose we have all been taught the history surrounding Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, but Dr. Suri managed to review it all and provide a few details we may have slept through in our earlier student lives.  Roosevelt led the country through two of the most challenging times of American History: The Great Depression and World War II.

Dr. Suri noted that FDR was himself  from one of the most elite and wealthiest American families. However, he was challenged by childhood polio and spent most of his life confined to a wheelchair.  FDR's childhood polio treatment included long periods of therapy at institutes where he met, befriended, and gained insight into the lives of Americans from far more humble origins.  This insight may have made his presidential success possible.

d171028_10__suri_fdr.jpgFDR was elected in 1932, after three years of the Great Depression had wiped out savings and raised unemployment above 25%, even far higher among young men.  Dr. Suri explained that FDR had no plan for recovery, just an understanding that Americans needed positive leadership.  His genius was in leading people in a wide range of initiatives, while continuously seeing what worked and what did not.  FDR was quick to acknowledge failure, and shift to new initiatives.  (Our professor could not help but contrast Roosevelt's admissions of failure, and subsequent corrections, with the current administration.)

Even with all the success FDR had in leading the US out of depression, it was a slow process.  By 1939, the American standard-of-living had still not recovered to 1929 levels.  At this point FDR faced his second challenge: war.  This was a total war: on two fronts, allied with imperialists in Britain and communists in Russia, fighting far better-prepared enemies.  Again, FDR's genius came from a belief in the power of collective action and teamwork. (Contrasted with the division that seems to be the basis of current politics.)

FDR was not universally successful, nor always morally correct, by modern standards. However, by the end of Dr. Suri's explanation, I believe we all had a better feeling for his performance in an "impossible" job.  (This last is a plug for Suri's book: The Impossible Presidency.)

The Remarkable Genius of Benjamin Franklin       
Dr. Caroline Winterer, Stanford University
Benjamin Franklin has been famous for over 200 years and a subject of American education throughout that time, but even so, we learned a bit more about him in our hour. Franklin's wealth came from printing, and understanding what readers wanted. For example, he printed almanacs instead of bibles because everyone used almanacs for farming and they needed a new one every year.  He created newspapers for his presses and filled them with useful information, making him both famous and wealthy enough to retire at 48.  In retirement he pursued the "gentleman's life" that made him the most famous American of his time.

d171028_12_wint_ben.jpgDr. Winterer told an organized story about Franklin's inventions and insights.  These ranged from bifocals to swim lesson techniques and new understandings of electricity, the Gulf Stream, and even spelling.  Franklin's genius was found in practical matters, in application not theory. He wanted to improve people's lives with better use of wind, water, and muscle power.  His inventions took the edge off the dark, smelly, and crowded world he lived in.

Franklin also avoided political theory, leaving that to Adams and Jefferson. Ben worked on the day-to-day job of building connections within societies at home and abroad. Apropos a successful printer, Franklin recognized the value of documentation, helping make the United States the first country with written (and printed) foundations: The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Dr. Winterer emphasized Franklin's adoption of the ideas of the then-current "enlightenment" wherein old ideas needed to be reconsidered and discarded if they no longer served a modern world.  (For more on her view, see her book : American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason )

Albert Einstein: His Genius, Life, and Universe
Dr. David Helfand, Columbia University
No genius list would be complete without Einstein, our third story of the day. The difficulty is creating an understandable, one-hour description of that genius. 

d171028_14_helfand_einst.jpgDr. Helfand described Einstein's early life: born in 1879 and raised in Germany and then technical university and early employment in Switzerland.  (Contrary to some Einstein legends, he was a good student, although bored with the whole process.) It was while he was at his first job, in the Swiss patent office, that he upended science. In 194 days of 1905, he produced the four papers that, along with his subsequent paper on General Relativity,  would define much of Physics for the next century.

Dr. Helfand, a recognized genius himself, did his very best at making a difficult topic clear to a general audience - in an hour.  He used cute cartoons and animation explaining space-time, for example, but I doubt most of us students could repeat much of what he "taught" us.  Even with a degree in Physics, I can not.  (There is a reason I migrated to engineering, away from pure science.  More Franklin-ish than Einstein-ian, for sure.)
Nevertheless, we enjoyed the challenge and, perhaps, it pushed our minds just a bit.  If we need more expansion, Dr. Helfand's book A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age is reported to be another worthwhile challenge.  Maybe.

The Artistic Genius of Michaelangelo       
Dr. Anna Hetherington, Columbia University
Michaelangelo was a genius of a different medium entirely and Dr. Hetherington told his story by presenting a few of his most-famous works.  His first public work was The Pietà, created in 1498 and 1499 to be, according to the self-confident artist's contract,  "the finest carving ever made".  By all accounts, he met the contract condition and this single massive creation established his reputation while he was still in his early 20s.

d171028_16_hethr_michael.jpgMichaelangelo followed up The Pietà with The David, crafted from stone damaged and rejected by others.  The six-ton marble piece became the central attraction of Florence, in his time up through today. 

That success led his sponsor to demand that Michaelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, ignoring Michaelangelo's protest that he was a sculptor, not a painter.  The physically-demanding task almost broke his body, but yielded one of the most amazing works of his time - and ours, perhaps. 

Michaelangelo continued to sculpt into his 80's, with occasional painting commissions such as the High Altar of the Vatican.  However, it was stone, and his insistence of perfection, that drove him to the end. His last  sculpture was another Pietà, The Rondini Pietà,  a piece he worked on for over a decade, discarding parts he found less than perfect along the way.  (Hence a Jesus figure with only one leg!)


One of our presenters asked the audience to suggest what current geniuses might most parallel the four historical figures we had heard about. An interesting question, but one we all failed to answer at the time.  Now, in hindsight, what would I say?

-- Franklin Roosevelt.  Certainly, Donald Trump is Roosevelt's complete antithesis and that suggests that FDR's modern parallel might be Barack Obama, a political leader who led the country out of difficult economic times with lessons learned in early organizing experience. However, even as big a fan of Obama as I might be, I must say Franklin's accomplishments were far more significant.

-- Ben Franklin.  His modern parallel must be one of today's "Silicon Valley" entrepreneurs.  He made a fortune on new technology (large-scale printing), and, in retirement, used that fortune to invent for the good of society.  Maybe Bill Gates or Elon Musk would qualify, but Ben had far greater scope and societal impact.

-- Albert Einstein.  It would be tough to even talk of a modern genius in the same sentence as "Einstein".  Massive theoretical advancement in his early 20s and scientific relevance even a hundred years later. Perhaps Stephen Hawking or Richard Feynman are scientific parallels, but we will need to wait a few more decades for their long-term impacts.

-- Michaelangelo.  For this, I consulted with my editor/partner/fellow student.  Who might be a relatively modern artist whose brilliance in his 20s we expect to still be relevant half a millennium later.  MonetVan Gogh?  It is just hard to imagine artistic fame lasting five centuries.

What next?  Halloween, but more?  Stay tuned.

John and Marianne


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