It started with a toast: “To drinking and thinking!” cheered the group of 20 near-strangers sitting in the Women’s Building on a recent Wednesday night for an evening of literary discussion. Two essays by the 16th century French author Michel de Montaigne — the thinking — would be paired with farmhouse ales — the drinking.
Fittingly a Montaigne essay about what makes for good conversation went first.
“Why would Montaigne say he’d ‘rather have his son learn in a tavern versus a university yap shop’?” Mary Finn, the founder of the adult classes, asked the group of men and women who ranged in age from mid-20s to well past middle age.
“Is technology a barrier to conversation?” Finn asked.
Welcome to Polis: Finn’s new Mission-based organization that for the last two months has been hosting a series of courses for adult students eager to discuss everything from Montaigne to James Joyce in the real world.
On the question of technology and conversation, Neal Allen, his grey hair and beard signaling his age, called social media a “natural form of indignation and self-righteousness.”
Scott Bullard, 26, argued that social media was a moot point in the discussion. “It doesn’t mean anything,” he said.
Yes, real discussion and the tone in the room can become tense. Students, who had been given the reading ahead of time, disagreed on interpretations and a talking point can fall awkwardly flat.
Finn steps in to keep the conversation moving — to remind the quieter students to speak up, to cut off speakers who digress too far, and to push the group to think deeper.
“Do we face death the way [the author] encourages us to?” asked Finn, moving on to the second essay ‘That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die’”.
Naoto Yoshizawa, 25, couldn’t wrap his head around Montaigne’s idea of “practicing death.”
“I understand practicing as repeating an act over an over again, how can you do that with death?” he asked the group.
“It’s more about thinking about death every day,” said another student. She suggested that doing so was a way to break free from fears about death.
Jen Miles picked up on the theme of fear. Death wasn’t a scary prospect until she had children, she said. Now thinking about death’s effect on those she loves is terrifying.
And so the evening went — 30 minutes at the beginning to find a seat and chitchat, followed by 60 minutes of discussion directed by Finn. Although most participants dashed out after the class ended, a few hung around to finish their beers and talk.
Polis reminded Bullard of a literature discussion group he was in during college. His first Polis experience left something to be desired: “I wish there’d been more time to get deeper into the text,” he said.
Finn said that starting Polis was like “making the plane while flying,” and she’s adjusting the classes as she learns more about what works. She hopes the single classes like “Drinking and Thinking” will entice students to sign up for a course of four or five sessions.
Amanda Hinton, 32, said she participated in a multi-class series last month that was smaller — six to 10 people. It was easier there to connect with fellow students and dive into discussion.
Hinton said she would continue to come. She is looking for a community and to build a more meaningful life. “Polis promises to deliver both,” Hinton said.
“Drinking and Thinking” classes, which include micro-brews to match the author, are $40 if you work for a nonprofit, are an educator or are unemployed. It’s $45 for everyone else.
Multi-course sessions don’t come with booze. They run $20 to $25 per class depending on your employment.
You can see the schedule of upcoming events HERE.