December 2013

Small Adult Education Courses Seek to Address Big Questions

Morgane Byloos

Your life is busy. But is it full? That’s the question Polis, an organization that wants to build community around liberal arts and sciences, wants its participants to keep in mind when they take its courses. Polis was created last summer by Mary Finn to encourage people to build a mixed-age community, and meet people they might not otherwise encounter. “Offline conversation can bring meaning to your life,” Finn said. “It’s a gym for the mind.”

Finn, who is 43, quit her job earlier this year to dedicate her time to Polis. She worked for the past 15 years as a teacher and school administrator in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco schools. Finn has master’s degrees in Western philosophy and the foundational texts of the modern liberal arts and sciences, and received two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, which allowed her to study American fictional utopias and complete an in-depth examination of the writings of philosopher Hannah Arendt.

Finn is exploring strategies to grow Polis. Classes are held at the Women’s Building in the Mission, but Finn is testing different neighborhoods to see which ones are the most promising. So far, the organization employs eight to ten teachers, whose primary mission is to facilitate participant conversations, rather than lecture. “I look for teachers who have an expertise but also are incredible facilitators,” she said.

Class sessions are generally held once a week for four weeks, with no more than 16 people and not less than six. According to Finn, readings for each class are never more than two hours long. Class topics include: “Drinkers and Great Thinkers,” “What Does It Mean to Live A Good Life?,” “Do We Have an Obligation to Help Others? What is the Basic Social Contract?”

Potrero Hill resident Giselle Chow, 41, decided to give “Drinkers and Great Thinkers,” a try. She said that she’d been looking for things to do, and that the low commitment of the Polis course appealed to her. Chow, a graphic facilitator and leadership consultant, is the mother of two kids, seven and 13 years old, said it’s nice to be able to get out of the house and meet new people who might have common interests and want to engage in discussions.

Polis has steadily grown since it was launched, with students coming from many different neighborhoods. Some of them are the parents of the kids she taught when she was an administrator and dean of studies at Lick-Wilmerding High School.

Classes are $25 each, with a 50 percent discount for bringing a friend. They are held in the evening, and designed for people who don’t have a lot of time for preparation.


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