Skip to main content

A friend of mine went trekking in Nepal this spring, somebody else went whitewater rafting. Call me a slug, but a big adrenalin exertion, the sort that tosses you around and leaves you wet and panting, leaves me cold.

So what if the number of people signing up for outdoor-adventure trips has climbed 12 per cent in as many years? My idea of a vacation is staking out my turf on a lakeside rock and consuming the stack of paperbacks at my side.

The chance to stretch my mind, rather than bruise my body, drew me to Classical Pursuits, a week-long learning vacation at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto. For two hours every morning, a group of us met with a tutor to discuss and compare three versions of Death in Venice: The novella by Thomas Mann, the opera by Benjamin Britten and the movie by Luchino Visconti.

Before you write me off as a masochist, consider the following: There were no prerequisites, no essays and no exams. Okay, there was no diploma at the end, but there was no pressure either. Like all the best vacations, I learned something new, exchanged addresses with some interesting people and returned to work refreshed and invigorated.

While we travelled to Venice, other groups immersed themselves in St. Augustine's Confessions, Cervantes's Don Quixote, Dante's Purgatorio, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra and Mozart's Don Giovanni. At lunch we compared notes; afterward we listened to a talk from one of the other tutors, caught up with our reading, visited art galleries, watched videos of the operas, attended to business or had a nap -- whatever seemed appropriate or pressing.

We made a pretty sedate crew -- all of us consenting adults, and some by several decades -- as we gathered for the welcoming cocktail party and dinner in Brennan Hall the evening before class began. Looking around for a friend, trying to size up my tutorial leader (a musician who suffered under the name Tom Jones), sniffing out alliances and potential rivals, I realized it was like Grade 1 all over again except we were all shopworn and nobody cried for their mother.

Over the salsa and chips, I glimpsed the two writers who were moonlighting as tutors: Novelist Ray Robertson ( Home Movies and Heroes) was leading the Nietzsche discussion and poet Bruce Meyer, who frequently talks about Great Books on CBC Radio's This Morning, was doing Hamlet. I also spotted a woman I hadn't seen since a mutual friend's divorce, the sister of somebody I volunteer with, my son's former Latin teacher -- he was quaffing red wine in preparation for Augustine's Confessions -- and people I had run into either at dinner parties or picking over the vegetables in the grocery store -- if only I could remember which. Is this what baby boomers like me do, I wondered, as I dabbled in an anonymous swirl of conversation about book clubs, rebellious teenagers, ailing parents, cottages and other people's medical disasters and romantic flings. Classical Pursuits is the brainchild of Ann Kirkland, a health administrator with a passion for opera, an entrepreneurial bent and a yen for reading what is now called "The Canon." She invented the program and offered it to St. Mike's. Last year, roughly 40 people spent a week in a student dorm so they could discuss Plato's Republic, Dante's Inferno, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment or Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. This year enrolment has grown to 52, with more than a dozen repeat customers. The seminar options have stretched from four to seven, and the add-ons have grown to include a trip to Stratford, a harbour cruise, tours of art galleries and a group dinner in a Greek restaurant.

One of the repeat participants is Tom Jones. A composer and a conductor, Jones was intrigued by an ad 18 months ago in The New Yorker that offered him the "wonderful prospect" of spending six days with Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. But he had another reason for coming. Jones is also an administrator and a teacher in a school board on Long Island, N.Y., that offers continuing-education classes. He considered Classical Pursuits a busman's holiday that would give him a chance to see how somebody else organized a great-books program. He bonded with his first group to such an extent that a few of them, including organizer Kirkland, joined him in New York last fall to attend a performance of Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera House. Somewhere along the way the idea sparked of doing three versions of Death in Venice this year, with Jones as the group leader.

On the first morning, a dozen or so of us, all freezing in the air-conditioned summer chill, gather around the seminar table. Most turn out to be opera fans from Toronto, several are retired, a couple are long-ago graduates of St. Mike's, and a few are Americans who responded to newspaper and magazine ads. All of us are intrigued by what somebody suggests is the "transliteration from the verbal to the aural to the visual."

Patrick, the lone male participant, begins with a speech: "My name is Joe and I just wandered in from the hockey rink. I'm a school teacher and I have an ordinary life. I live on the outside every day. On the inside I'm somebody else, but I don't know who that is. I'm here to explore the subterranean world of Thomas Mann." Yikes, I shudder, fearing a week held hostage to Male Explanatory Syndrome. My worries are unfounded. Patrick proves to be perceptive, and besides, he misses two sessions because his car breaks down and he has to leave to go on vacation.

Jones, who loves Britten's operas and who has studied and written about Mann in the past, began immersing himself in Death In Venice in January. The novella, which tortured Mann for decades until he finally completed it in 1912, explores writer Gustav Aschenbach's trip to Venice and his fatal obsession with Tadzio, a beautiful Polish boy he meets there. From the text, we moved to a video of the Glyndebourne version of Britten's opera and then to Visconti's film and played scenes, images and metaphors off against each other as though we were weaving a tapestry.

Two members of the Death group arrive with pre-set attitudes. Shirley, a retired editor and journalist from New York, is in awe of Mann's accomplishment in Death in Venice, which she thinks is a perfectly constructed piece of work. Helen, a psychoanalyst from New Jersey, disagrees. She expects artists to be passionate and freewheeling and she's irritated by Mann's impotent fretting about the role of the artist. There'll be tears before it's over, as my granny used to say, and sure enough they have a spat in the final session. "Can I finish," says Helen with an edge in her voice after Shirley interrupts her analysis of why pedophilia is a perversion. "Sorry, it is hard to know when you have finished," responds Shirley. "Because you never stop talking," retorts Helen, as Jones shakes his head and mumbles "Please," and the rest of us seek solace in our texts. Studying the great works -- in the original Greek and Latin -- was once the bedrock of a classical education. That was before choice and the notion of training infiltrated the sacred and elitist groves. A nostalgic yearning for the best attributes of that old-fashioned approach to education has fostered Great Books programs at places such as the University of Kings College in Halifax and St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M.

Kirkland first sampled the program when she signed up for a parent weekend at St. John's College in 1994, while her daughter was a student there. "We read Antigone," she recalls, "and I was blown away by what happened." There were no professors and no teaching modules and yet all sorts of ideas emerged from people who weren't literary critics and barely knew each other.

There is nothing new about adult education. In the 19th century, we called it self-improvement, now it is known as lifelong learning. Whether it is pottery, gourmet cooking or life-drawing, the desire to express ourselves aesthetically is as old as drawings on the walls of caves. Adding something new to our storehouse of knowledge, through conversation, self-study, or taking a degree by correspondence, is the impulse that makes us human. Just look at the numbers: More than 14,000 people signed up last year for about 500 courses and programs at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies, and even more are expected this year. As for book clubs, even though this is supposed to be a postliterate age, they are popular enough to provide a steady gig for freelance critics as discussion leaders, and a regular stop on the circuit for touring authors.

What captivated Kirkland about her weekend course in Antigone was the group approach. Instead of an expert standing in the front of the room and delivering his wisdom to a group of placid note-takers, a tutor asked questions that sparked discussion. The method, which is really an update on Socrates, is a style of learning called shared inquiry.

As long ago as 1947, Robert Maynard Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago, persuaded a group of local businessmen to establish The Great Books Foundation, an independent, non-profit, grassroots organization that nurtures discussion groups in libraries, schools and community centres. They championed the idea of taking group discussions about great books out of the classroom and into the community. Today, the foundation publishes cheap collections of traditional and modern literature as part of its programs for adults and children and trains more than 15,000 people each year to lead shared-inquiry discussion groups. The irony is that they have been so successful that the model is moving back into the classroom as a teaching method.

Basically, shared inquiry turns traditional lecturing inside out. The role of the group leader is to ask the perfect question, one to which there is no single answer, and then sit back and direct traffic while the participants exchange ideas and insights. Jones is an apt student of the method. Every day he arrived with a provocative question, such as "Why is Tadzio so compelling," and threw it out to us like a stick to a pack of unleashed dogs in the park.

For somebody like me, who has a keen eye and a tin ear, it was exhilarating to "read" the opera with accomplished listeners. My two favourite moments were musical rather than literary. The first came when Jones pointed out that Britten ends Act I of the opera with Aschenbach singing "I love you" and picks up again, after an intermission, in Act II on the same two notes, E and B. I could have watched that opera a million times without catching that nuance. It is cemented in my consciousness now because Jones illustrated the point by replaying the scenes from the video and then played the notes on the portable keyboard that he brought to class every day.

My second moment occurred in the musical evening, when one of our group, Jo-An, a mathematician from York University, stood up and sang an aria from Don Giovanni. I got almost as squishy as if a member of my family were performing. And that ultimately is the secret of a good group: Everybody has a combination of talent and awareness to bring to the table, but what you take away is the synergy of shared experience.

Who says self-improvement has to be a body thing? For more information, e-mail:

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe