New Year 2014: Metamorphosis and Preservation

New Year Resolutions: Community and Learning

The new year can be a time for us to reflect on our lives: what do we want to change and what would we like to preserve?

New year’s resolutions can be cliched and fleeting (just look at the spike in new gym memberships that tends to happen each January!) but they don’t have to be. We can take the opportunity that the new year affords us to start something fresh and commit to small and sustainable changes.

If you have been hoping to have a stronger sense of community in your life or if you would like to add a dose of learning for pure enjoyment and challenge, then check out our upcoming classes at Polis.

We thought it would be appropriate to kick of the new year with a classic work on change and renewal: Kafka’s, “Metamorphosis” paired with Czech beers curated by Healthy Spirits (all part of our Drinkers and Great Thinkers monthly series) on January 21st.  Sign up with the promo code “new year” and receive a 20% class discount.

Our 2014 Polis classes are as short as one session (some even include beer samplings!) and as long as four sessions with topics ranging from the question, “What Makes Us Human?” (Dawkins) to “What Is Our Responsibility to Others in This Sometimes Absurd World?” (Camus).  If you have always wanted to read (or you are dying to re-read) works by Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Herman Melville then why not dive into a Polis class in the new year? We will be adding even more classes in the months ahead so be sure to check back regularly.

New Year’s Lists, Lists, and More Lists…

With the new year comes the annual onslaught of “best of” lists from best travel spots around the world to best films of the year.

Of course it is important to take these “best of lists” with a grain of salt (after all, we don’t have to agree with the critics). That said, we thought we would close out the year at Polis with a few of the “best books of the year” lists. And with no further ado…

Best Books of 2013 (A List of Lists)

And, finally while it is not a year in review book list, here is the book list that became the basis for the NYT best seller, The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe.

We hope that these lists will serve as inspiration for future reading. We welcome you to make a resolution to try something new this year and join us in community and discussion at Polis.

Thanksgiving, Polis in the News, and a Small Dose of Wendell Berry

Polis In the NewsPolis in the News

I am happy to share a feature article about Polis that appears in today’s Mission Local newspaper. This is the first article written about Polis and it captures the spirit of spontaneity and unpredictability in the Polis classroom, the overall goal of creating a mixed-age and diverse community, and the joys (and challenges!) of authentic conversations filled with divergent opinions. 

Check out the full Mission Local feature article here.

Thank_You_GratitudeGratitude For The Polis Community

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to pause and express gratitude. In fact, there is a growing body of research that links expressions of gratitude to better overall health- it’s a win-win!

At Polis, we are so grateful for all of the people who have dedicated their time, expertise, and talent to create this new and vibrant community.

  • Thanks to all of the incredibly talented and dedicated Polis instructors who have taken on this project as a true labor of love and have helped to shape and grow the community.
  • Thanks to the dozens of people who have given us business and organizational advice. As a new organization, we have benefitted tremendously from the expertise of Polis supporters who have offered start-up business advice.  We have avoided so many potholes because of their wisdom.
  • Thanks to our board of advisors who have been tireless in offering encouragement, academic and course offering suggestions, and who have been cheerleaders throughout the process of getting started.
  • Thanks to the Women’s Building in the Mission for being a community space for organizations like Polis.
  • Thanks especially to all of our students who leaped into this new community and took the risk to engage in meaningful in-person discussion with their neighbors.


Join Us At PolisA Small Dose of Wendell Berry

Fall is a perfect time to read some Wendell Berry. If you are not familiar with Berry’s writing, a great essay to start with is Men and Women In Search of Common Ground.

An excerpt from the essay that may ring true as we approach the holidays and spend time with family and friends:

These ways of marriage, kinship, friendship, and neighborhood surround us with forbiddings; they are forms of bondage, and involved in our humanity is always the wish to escape. We may be obliged to look on this wish as necessary, for, as I have just implied, these unions are partly shaped by internal pressure. But involved in our humanity also is the warning that we can escape only into loneliness and meaninglessness. Our choice may be between a small, human-sized meaning and a vast meaninglessness, or between the freedom of our virtues and the freedom of our vices…” (Berry, Men and Women in Search of Common Ground)

Top Five Reasons Reading Books Still Matters

open a book this weekend.Happy Friday!

What are you going to do this weekend to feel fulfilled and recharged?

Do you have that book that you’ve been staring at for months and haven’t found the time to dive into it (*check out this new way of dealing with that problem  from Japan)?

When was the last time you browsed your local bookstore or library and serendipitously fell into a new topic or author? Book browsing is much more difficult online. Why not make some time this weekend for some browsing?

Why not, unplug for an hour if you can and dive into that book you’ve been meaning to get to.

We hope this top five list of reasons that books still can matter in our lives will be a motivation for you as you head into the weekend!

Top Five Reasons Reading Books Still Matters*

1. Reading books helps us to become more interesting people to be around. Tired of having the same conversation over and over again with your spouse or friends? Read a book and have something new to talk about.

2. Books are a gateway drug to increasing our curiosity. When we read we want to know more. We want to know how it ends. We want to know what else this author wrote. We start to ask “why” again.  Neil Gaiman writes: 


 Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable.

3. Books can be beautiful. Check out some of these images of books on display.

4. Reading books provides us with “souvenir of ideas“. Author Seth Godin writes:

A book is a physical souvenir, a concrete instantiation of your ideas in a physical object, something that gives your ideas substance and allows them to travel.

5. Reading Can Make Your Dating Life Better. Single? Reading books may help to improve your dating life. A new dating website in London is focused just on book lovers. Speed dating for readers is becoming a hot new trend in Canada.

* Okay, so these aren’t THE top five reasons for reading. But, they are a start. We want to hear from you. What are your reasons for reading?

Let Polis Help You Get Your Reading Groove Back!

Join us for our brand new December Polis course. This class will help you to find your reading groove, make time for reading, and meet new friends. We’d love to see you in class. Sign up today.

Only 2 spots left in our Drinkers and Great Thinkers class for next Wednesday (Nov. 13th). We are reading two essays by Montaigne and pairing the experience with Farmhouse Ales. Sign up today.

Building An Intentional Community

Polis Classroom: Welcoming our First Polis Classes, Sept. 2013

Polis Classroom: Welcoming our First Polis Classes, Sept. 2013

Is it possible to create an authentic adult community in a time when we are pulled in so many different directions? Between work, family, and all of our other life obligations can we find the time for community?

At Polis we believe that not only can a busy adult find a time and place for community (if the conditions are right) but that we must.  

We know that a sense of togetherness and a feeling of being truly known are often missing from our online interactions. Despite the scope of online connection, we still need face to face conversation with our neighbors. There is evidence that having strong ties to neighbors and community members can increase our overall health and happiness.

We’ve set out to create the space and time for Bay Area adults to find and cultivate in-person community through discussion of the big ideas in the liberal arts.

Last week we ended our first ever round of courses and by all accounts the discussions proved be a strong first step in building a lasting community. One student wrote  about his experience in class, saying:

I feel encouraged knowing that I now have a community in which I can read great books and discuss great questions together, which are activities that I really care about and are important for my well-being. 

This week, members of the Polis advisory board finished writing our “What We Believe” statement. It’s worth a read because it helps to further define and solidify the ideas behind the community that we are trying to build.

Last Sunday night we had our first Polis open gathering for students, prospective students, and instructors. The get- together was low key and filled with conversation about books and ideas but also about the raw material of our lives: love and dating, children, work, and travel. The majority of Polis members who attended our first gathering did not know one another before becoming affiliated with Polis.

Building a community will take time and patience.  But, we are in it for the long haul.

Will you join us?

Ways to get involved:

  • Follow this blog. You will then be placed on our our newsletter list and be kept up to date about future social gatherings, events, and courses.

Upcoming Courses. Register Today and Join the Polis Community.

readCOURSE: The Drinkers and Great Thinkers Series

This course series offers a chance for students who cannot make the commitment to a multi-part class to experience a Polis seminar. Students will read one seminal essay or short story for a single session class and the conversation with be carefully paired with a variety of micro-brew beers. The Drinkers and Great Thinkers series provides a good balance of community and meaningful discussion.The Drinkers and Great Thinkers course series are currently planned for November (2013) and  January, March, May (2014).

November Drinkers and Great Thinkers Course: Is There Meaning in Everything? What Can We Learn From the Mundane and Routine Parts of Life? The Essays of Michel de Montaigne + Saison Farmhouse Ale

In this one session Polis course, students will discuss a set of short essays (some are just one paragraph!) written by the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. Those who have never read Montaigne are in for a real treat. Montaigne is curious about nearly everything in his world: from the usefulness of thumbs to the purpose of love. Montaigne is a funny, pithy, and accessible writer. Our class conversation will focus on the essential question: Is there meaning in everything? We will engage in discussion about whether or not the mundane and routine parts of our lives can be instructive to us and if so, how? All classes in the Polis Drinkers and Great Thinkers series will pair the great thinker with an appropriate great beer selection that we will sample during class. In this case, we plan to pair Montaigne with a variety of Saison Farmhouse Style Ales (rooted in French and Belgian history and culture). The beer sampling is included in the course price.

Instructor: Mary Finn

When: November 13, 2013 (Wednesday) 7:00-8:30 PM

Where: The Women’s Building, 3543 18th St, SF

Eventbrite - Drinkers and Great Thinkers Series (class one: Montaigne's Essays + Saison Farmhouse Ales)

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Do We Have an Obligation to Help Others? What is the Basic Social Contract?

If a family member is going through a rough patch, of course we’ll do what we can to help them out, right? But what about a co-worker? Not so fast. And let’s say you’re on BART late at night and see a guy who looks like he’s had a few too many. Who among us is going to make sure he gets home safely? Of course, we can’t possibly offer help to everyone in the world who needs it. So where do we draw the line? Friends but not neighbors? Bay Area but not Central Valley? California but not Oklahoma? America but not Afghanistan?

In this course, we will be reading two classic short stories: Katherine Mansfield’s  ”The Garden Party” andHerman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener.” They are different in just about every way (for example, one is short, the other is long; one is creepy and dark, the other is sweet and bright, etc.), with one big exception: They both ask us to consider the ways we’re connected to the people around us, and the responsibilities of our shared humanity. We will discuss these weighty questions, and whatever other questions may come up.

Instructor: Daniel Herman

When:  December 3rd, 10th, 17th (Tuesdays)  7:00-8:30 PM

Where: The Women’s Building, 3543 18th St, SF

Eventbrite - Do we have an obligation to help others?


Doppelgängers: Is There Such a Thing as an Independent Individual? What Does it Mean to Claim Individuality?

The short story “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol and the novella The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad play with the notion of alternatives. What if there were another person or being just like you, but not you, who lived a parallel life alongside of you? These magnificent works explore the tantalizing, horrifying and sometimes hilarious possibilities of having a doppelganger or ghostly double whose appearance makes both characters and readers ask, “What does it mean to claim individuality? Is there such a thing as an independent individual?” During this three-week Polis session, we will examine together the sometimes mutually-exclusive notions of individuality and the longing for connections with others.

Instructor: Elen Greenblatt

When:  January 7, 14, 21 (Tuesdays) 7:00-8:30 PM

Where: The Women’s Building, 3543 18th St, SF

Eventbrite - Is There Such a Thing as an Independent Individual?

Share Polis With Your Friends

What Makes a Thriving City?

open book

Do you live in a great city?

5 billion people (60% of the world’s population) live in cities. I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about what makes a city great. The people? The landmarks and cultural institutions? The politics? The ability to get around easily?

You may wonder why we’ve decided on the name Polis for our organization.

When I think about what makes a thriving city (or “the Polis”) some books and historical examples come to mind.

The sociologist and journalist Jane Jacobs wrote in her The Death of American Cities (1961) about what she called the “street ballet” of robust cities: the vibrancy and “choreography” of city streets that are alive with interaction.

If you haven’t read Pericles’ Funeral Oration in a while (or ever!) check it out with the question, “What makes a city?” in mind. I think of this speech as a timeless shout-out to the concept of the city.

In a recent post about what makes a city great (in his case, NYC), author Seth Godin came up with this list:

  • It’s different here (as in not the same)
  • You can find someone to have an argument with, about just about anything
  • There are fringes–cultural, educational, architectural, societal
  • More than 42 languages are spoken at the Queens public library
  • You can get something that’s not the regular kind
  • There are profit-seekers who will happily sell you something, anything
  • There are many who do things for no profit at all and will eagerly entertain, entrance and change you for the better
  • You will find a diversity of religious belief like no other
  • It’s changing
  • The food hasn’t been entirely homogenized
  • People are active
  • A stranger will go out of his way for you, perhaps, and more often than you expect
  • There is more information per minute, per meter and per interaction
  • Neighborhoods are more important than homogeneity, and co-existing is most important

In ancient Greece the idea of the polis was, in large part, meant to provide a space where ideas could be exchanged between people (though, of course not all people at that time) with differing perspectives. The thinking was that if people had a public space where they could appear, speak, and listen then the frailty that exists in human relationships would become that much stronger. Conversation would bleed into other parts of city life and make the city stronger overall. The sociologist Robert Putnam proposed a similar theory about modern American city life in his book Bowling Alone.

The Greeks used a phrase, “Wherever you go, you will be a polis”meaning, in essence, you are the city. 

Many philosophers and writers have grappled with the question, “What makes a city”?  The philosopher Hannah Arendt (mid- 20th century) saw the polis as an absolutely necessary part of what it means to be human. Arendt’s ideas about the polis have fundamentally inspired and shaped the founding of this organization (and we plan to offer a class on Arendt in the future!).

“The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be” (Arendt, The Human Condition, 198)

Arendt believed that the polis is the space and time where people come together, in public, and participate in what she referred to as “acts of disclosure” through a sharing of ideas. The city, according to Arendt, requires the spontaneity and unpredictability that is found in authentic (and sometimes messy) conversation.

At Polis we aim to be just that: A space where the unpredictable in conversation is encouraged. A chance for people with different perspectives to meet and talk about texts and ideas in spontaneous ways. A community that will strengthen the city.

Let’s take a look at the cities where we live. Here are a few questions that I’ve been thinking about and that have been floating around in the media recently. I don’t have answers to these but want to give readers some Friday food for thought and articles to read about the essential question, “What Makes A City?” (by the way, another feature of a Polis class is that we begin each session with an open-ended question as a means of starting the discussion).

What do you think makes a city great?

Join as for a Polis class. Courses start next week and there is still time to register.

Lunch Bites: A Taste Of A Polis Conversation

The Beauty of a Non-Judging Mind

(Welcome Guest Blogger and Polis Instructor/Advisor, Daniel Herman. In today’s blog post, Daniel gives us a taste of what it feels like to be in a Polis class. Read his post and the accompanying (very) short story during your lunch break!)

This morning I’m thinking about one of my very favorite short stories, Tobias Wolff’sBullet in the Brain.

Want to read something amazing on your lunch break? It won’t take longer than ten minutes, and it’s guaranteed to give you something to think about the rest of the day. You can find it here.

Go ahead and read it! We’ll be right here when you come back.

Are you back? Wasn’t that a great story? Okay, let’s talk about it for a minute. The story begins like this:

Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders—a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.

Notice how, from just those two sentences, Wolff sets up everything to come in the rest of the story. For example: put much less poetically, I could say something like this: “Anders is a book critic. He went to the bank.” But it’s the word choice that communicates the most important information. Simply by adding the words “of course” in the first sentence, he puts us immediately in Anders’s cynical, misanthropic mindset—which, for example, dismisses the women in front of him as “loud” and “stupid” (contrasted strikingly against Anders himself, who is described as “weary” and “elegant”).

Anders doesn’t review things—he dispatches them, or dismisses them. And this, if you ask me, is what I think the story is really about: our tendency to make judgments—in particular, reflexive, habitual, judgments—about the things we encounter in our lives. Rather than allowing things to exist on their own terms, we filter and interpret them through the prism of our own experience. And those judgments tend to do us more harm than good.

In this case, Anders is thus so thoroughly removed from reality—so incapable of a simple, plain awareness of what’s going on—that when two bank robbers take the bank hostage, he can only experience it as a drama unfolding in real time before him. The robbers remind him of Hemingway’s short story “The Killers.”

Their violent threats, he can only hear as “the stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.” Finally, with a pistol pressed under his chin at his throat, he does a quick flash critique of the garish mythological figures on the bank’s gilded ceiling, and its “fleshy, toga-draped ugliness.” He just can’t stop his chattering, judgmental mind.

So he gets, as the title promises, a bullet in the brain. From there the story takes an abrupt turn, and in the second half there’s little more than a succession of images (of memories, really) from Anders’ life. And each one is an occasion where he was, in fact, able to actually experience an event, and meet reality with simple awareness.

The first two put this into sharp relief, describing the process whereby this hypercriticism took over his mind, and the obvious detriment it caused. First, a memory of “what he had most madly loved about someone…before it came to irritate him.” Next, a memory of his wife, “whom he had also loved before she exhausted him with her predictability.” In other words, these women aren’t changing, but rather Anders goes from loving them for who they are to judging and resenting them for who they aren’t. In a memory of his daughter, now a “sullen” professor herself, we find this same world-weary cynicism.

As we continue through Anders’ synapses and neurons, we find the passion he once had for the written word, the richness and beauty it brought to his world: “the hundreds of poems he had committed to memory in his youth so that he could give himself the shivers at will.” Those poems, Wolff tells us, are gone. So too are the strong emotions they once kindled—ecstasy, agony, pride and fear—the things that, positive or negative, give our lives shape and meaning. Where would we be today without our memories of agonized teenage heartbreak, the buoyancy of achievement and success, the heaviness of grief? For Anders, he’s cut off from experiencing these things, trapped instead in a world where “everything began to remind him of something else.”

But wait! Don’t despair! Wolff pointedly tells us that these are things that he does not remember. The final memory Wolff describes, the one that actually does register in Anders’s final moments, is the crucial one, for it contains within it all the aspects of the others. It goes like this:

This is what Anders remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whirr of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They have been worrying this subject all summer, and it has become tedious to Anders; an oppression, like the heat.

See what he’s doing here? First, he sets up bare awareness: “Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whirr of insects.” It’s all five senses, right there: looking at the field around him, feeling the heat on his skin, hearing the insects, smelling the grass, maybe placing a blade of grass in his teeth to see how it tastes.

Then an argument—whether Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays is the better baseball player. This is exactly the type of argument that comes to consume Anders’ life in later years! And what happens here? It’s an argument which the child Anders finds “tedious,” and “an oppression, like the heat.” Get it? He’s able to just allow things to be what they are, without placing his ideas on them from without.

And here’s the final passage:

Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle’s cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they’ve chosen sides and someone asks the cousin what position he wants to play. “Shortstop,” the boy says. “Short’s the best position they is.” Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle’s cousin repeat what he’s just said, but he knows better than to ask. The others will think he’s being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn’t it, not at all—it’s that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.

The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, They is, They is.

So why do I think this is so great? No, it’s not because I’m a grammar nerd, though that doesn’t hurt.

Rather, it seems to me that Wolff is suggesting that even something as technically-founded as grammar, something we can legitimately characterize as “wrong”, even in this the young Anders can be “strangely roused, elated,” by “their pure unexpectedness and their music.”

We can say much the same thing about things that happen to us in ways we don’t want them to — even in things that are logically wrong, even morally wrong — even here we can appreciate “their pure unexpectedness and their music.” We can appreciate the sheer profound beauty of their existence—that even the most miserable and painful events that arise in our lives, a profound wonder that this is what it feels like to be alive. 

Isn’t that something? Even from a story as short as this, we can be reminded to return to the things most important in our lives: how to be happy, how to be nice,  how our past continues to influence and inform our present, how to recapture the joy and openness we had as kids.

This is what the story brings up for me. But I’m sure you read it and were struck by totally different things. This is what Polis is all about—bringing together divergent ideas and having meaningful conversations about a text.

These are the kinds of conversations we aim for in a course at Polis. Together with a group, we dig deeper into things that we ever would alone, simply because we have more viewpoints to consider. Just think of all the questions I haven’t addressed here: Why does Wolff choose those poems in particular? Is there something special about the way he describes his memories? Why does this all take place in a bank?

So much more to explore in just this one short story. Sign up for an October Polis course today!

Daniel Herman

Three Good Reasons

3 booksLife In The Polis: Needed Now More Important Than Ever

Last week we launched our first Polis courses and the response has been incredible.  Students are signing up for classes at a steady clip and we are all getting so excited for the first sessions to begin in just three weeks. There are still a few seats available in both classes- sign up today and spread the word  about Polis to friends and family in the Bay Area.

One of the major challenges that we face at Polis: How to convince adults who are busy and stretched thin that they need to take time out for a discussion class in the liberal arts?

In the midst of work deadlines, family obligations, errands, and of course our favorite TV series (with Breaking Bad ending and Homeland starting this Sunday- I am fully aware of the power that a good show can have on our time!):  Why should the busy adult consider a course in the liberal arts?

1) The Liberal Arts Can Make Us More Creative Thinkers:

Diving into a great book in the company of interesting people can have an impact on our lives well beyond the classroom. We become more expansive and creative thinkers in all of the other parts of our lives (by the way, Steve Jobs felt strongly about this fact). We build the mental muscle of creativity through the liberal arts. But, we don’t necessarily need to rely only a traditional university to be the gym for our minds.

Joseph R. Urgo, President of St Mary’s College of Maryland : We live in a data-driven era, where increasingly we do not want to make a move without a clear plan — a plan in advance that outlines goals, execution and results. True, almost all we do on a mundane, daily basis is done better by such systematic approaches. On the other hand, nothing stifles creativity and originality more effectively than such rational demands. The urge to control abstract, cognitive pursuits represents a cynicism about our existence, a loss of hope, an abandoning of the human spirit. The only antidote to despair is creation and intellectual revival, and this is the business of an unfettered liberal education.  Baltimore Sun, March 03, 2013

2)  Face to Face Conversation= True Connection

Many of us have hundreds of online connections (the average American has over 600 social connections!) but at the same time we feel that there is something missing. We sense that as we acquire more connections we are losing the quality of being known well. Sherry Turkle, MIT researcher and author of Alone Together, reminds us:

FACE-TO-FACE conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters. It is as though we have all put ourselves on cable news. Shakespeare might have said, “We are consum’d with that which we were nourish’d by.”

3) Reading Literature (and Discussing It With Others ) Can Make Us More Empathetic and Patient:

Research on the long lasting impact of reading literature shows:

“Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, reported in studies published in 2006 and 2009 that individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective. This link persisted even after the researchers factored in the possibility that more empathetic individuals might choose to read more novels. A 2010 study by Mar found a similar result in young children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their “theory of mind,” or mental model of other people’s intentions.”

Of course these are not the only reasons we need the liberal arts integrated into our daily lives. More to come in future posts!

What are the reasons that YOU think continued engagement with the liberal arts can lead to a life well lived?

We want to hear from you! What would you tell a friend who asks, “What can reading  books and talking about ‘big ideas’ do for me?”

Creating Community: Polis Launches in San Francisco With Fall Courses

stack of booksThe Polis adventure begins: a letter from founder, Mary Finn

I have spent the past year planning for the opening and launch of Polis. I talked with over 80 people from all different walks of life in one-on-one conversations (a skill I was trained in as a staffer on the Obama campaign in ’08. Who knew it would come in handy again!). I met with each person as an attempt to test my assumptions about the need for the type of adult learning community that Polis could provide. I’ve read dozens of business books and gone to loads of small business workshops throughout the past year. No doubt, all of this preparation and data has been helpful.

But Polis is primarily built on the foundation of a gut instinct- now more than ever adults crave community in the “real” world.

Polis is not a new idea.

Salons have been around for hundreds of years. Yet, the traditional intellectual’s salon tended to be elite and undemocratic.

Liberal arts colleges have taught seminar classes in Socratic style since the inception of this education model.

Community-based adult education in the liberal arts is also nothing new to the Bay Area.

In fact, I was fortunate to be part of an incredibly vibrant community called Symposium (a combination book store and seminar program for Great Books that was in Hayes Valley for a number of years). There is an active off shoot of the Symposium brick-and-mortar experience can now be found through the Symposium Great Books Institute where rich conversation happens in seminars with students all over the world. Check them out. I am in awe of the community they’ve built and maintained.

So, why Polis and why now?

I have had this gnawing feeling for the past few years that something is missing from my busy life. With the rise of technology and social networks as the primary force for creating and sustaining community, I find myself yearning for an in-person adult community of learners. I find myself wanting to meet new and different types of people than I typically interact with. I want explore big ideas but I don’t have the time (or money) to commit to a semester-long university course.  Through my conversations last year in preparation for launching Polis, I know that this feeling resonates with many other busy, working adults.

Your life is busy, but is it full?

This is the essential question that Polis is designed to help to answer. Polis will be a community of busy adults who seek more meaning in their day-to-day lives. My goal in creating Polis is to hold on to the best parts of the liberal arts and sciences and community-building experiences that I have been a part of and let go of the elements that a working adult just cannot sustain. I have designed Polis with the busy, working adult in mind.

I invite you to try one of our classes in this experiment to build a new (and hopefully long-lasting) community.

All are welcome.

Once Is Not Always Enough

read“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”

– Vladimir Nabokov

Polis is dedicated to reading, learning, and discussing for life.


image courtesy of Michal Marco at

The Humanities are Thriving

3 booksThe Decline of the Humanities — and Civilization

By Rosanna Warren

New Republic – July 2013

Homo sapiens has always hungered for story and song. We are narrative and rhythmical creatures. Music and rhythmical language awaken our intelligence, as has been observed since Aristotle. We construe our meanings through plot: Who dunnit? Why? What happened next? And we sift our meanings—often the meanings we can hardly articulate abstractly—through song, poetry, images. Why else would we be glued to our screens, large and small, following the adventures of endless fictional characters, whether in video games or films, and why else would we mosey through the streets with digitized music and delirious rhymes flooding through our earphones? We hunger to make sense of our experience, we hunger to understand right and wrong, we hunger to name and plumb our feelings, whose intensities often blindside and bewilder us. Even generals and senators stumble into passion. We have not stopped being human, so we still need ‘the humanities’.”

image courtesy of boykund at