A known lefty, Leonardo da Vinci adopted “mirror writing” (right to left and backward) because his ideas came so rapidly that he would smudge the ink if he wrote in the normal left-to-right fashion. I learned this while viewing his Codex on the Flight of Birds
, on display last January at The Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan.
The codex was part of the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin
, which also included the famous drawing Head of a Young Woman
and the Codex Huygens
. The small show was a perfect way to see why Leonardo—whose curiosity and knowledge encompassed science, engineering, architecture, philosophy and art—came to epitomize the “Renaissance man.”
I left the Morgan uplifted. I had been feeling discouraged by our current national conversation about higher education, with its emphasis on narrow learning and job-focused skills. This is the opposite of what we need to be creative thinkers and problem solvers. So, as a homage to Leonardo, I made a new year’s resolution to broaden my education and seek out widely disparate subjects, from physics to literature to history. Above all, I wanted to be guided by my curiosity instead of my résumé.
The obvious way to start was with online courses, like Khan Academy or The Great Courses. I tried both, but each languished, barely touched, on my desktop. I’m simply not an online learner; I need the physicality of people and place. I looked for continuing education courses at local universities and community colleges, but again I was disappointed, because they were geared specifically toward professional development.
Then I stumbled upon Meetups.
Meetups began after 9/11 in response to the desire for community. Meetup.com
is a website that facilitates ways for people worldwide who have common (and wildly diverse) interests to gather on a regular basis. Groups usually meet in public places (bars, cafés, etc.) to share activities or information about a chosen topic. Often, a Meetup announcement is a notification for an event taking place through an established club or venue, like Toastmasters (for public speaking) or The New York Society for Ethical Culture (for promoting civil society).
Over the past three weeks, my chosen subjects have ranged from philosophy to astronomy, art history to drama. I’ve attended a philosophical discussion on privacy, a tour of the new Islamic galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a “Behind the Scenes” workshop on the production of King Lear
. Next week, I’m signed up for “Your Busy Brain,” a one-day course at the American Museum of Natural History.
The philosophy Meetup was part of an ongoing series of conversations organized by the NYC Public Philosophy Network. NYCPPN believes “philosophy is most important when it helps everyday people better understand themselves and their world.” The meeting was held at a bar in Midtown in the late afternoon. We began with a fifteen-minute introduction about privacy by one of the organizers. Then we broke into two groups of about eight. One of the participants spoke about the Panopticon, Jeremy Bentham’s architectural model of the ideal prison: a design in which prisoners are never certain if they are being watched. This led to a discussion of Edward Snowden, social media, Google, the NSA and how the possibility of being watched at all times affects one’s actions. Each of us came from a different area of expertise, but with the shared curiosity of exploring privacy through the lens of philosophy.
My next Meetup event was at the Explorer’s Club (through the Brainiacs group), for a lecture titled “Black Holes and Gravitational Waves.” Jason Kendall, a lively speaker, helped our lay audience understand black holes, using analogies like “those socks that disappear in the dryer.” He talked about Stephen Hawking’s recent exciting discovery that his theory about black holes might be incorrect, that the holes are instead “grey,” meaning that matter and energy can be temporarily held before being released back into space. In other words, those lost socks might come back. What inspired me most about this was that the cycle of discovery allows you to be enthusiastic about proving yourself wrong!
At the reception, while chatting with a few other guests, I asked about the merits of a broad education in a time when it’s difficult for many people to find jobs. The woman next to me said, “I work as a recruiter at an advertising agency, and to me, the most important thing is to hire people who know how to think.”
This column favors curiosity over professional development. But the thing is, exposure to broader knowledge will inevitably infiltrate your work. You will find the pieces that are relevant, and process them through your own filter. If you honor your curiosity, you will advance your career. I guarantee it. ca© 2014 W. Richmond