Reviews: Toronto Pursuits – Kathryn Ruth Bloom, Boston

Toronto Pursuits: Summer

Toronto Pursuits, 2002

Kathryn Ruth Bloom, Boston

The ad in The New Yorker said it all: Opera and Great Books in Toronto. I knew I had to respond. Spending a week in one of my favorite cities pursuing two of my greatest interests was a summer vacation made for me!

That was how I found myself at the elegantly named University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto (known to everyone as St. Mike’s) enrolled in its annual summer great books discussion course, known as Classical Pursuits. Based on the shared-inquiry model, there’s no “teacher,” a trained leader (often an academic) guides participants through a discussion of a text. There are no tests, no grades, no papers; what you’re part of is a group of highly motivated adults exploring classic texts together. No previous knowledge is assumed and all insights must be drawn from the text itself. It’s telling that our classmates can see the part of our nameplate with our names on it, while the part facing us has a reminder to listen as much as we talk.

Classical Pursuits is modeled on Summer Classics at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. American ex-pat Ann Kirkland decided to create a similar program in her adopted city. Classical Pursuits uses the Shared Inquiry method of discussion and draws many of its leaders from the Great Books Foundation. It reminds me of the Slow Food and Slow Cities movements. During my annual week in Toronto, there’s the luxury of time that’s in such short supply in my real life – time to sleep late, time to read and reflect, time to explore the Royal Ontario Museum and Art Gallery of Ontario (both of which are within walking distance of St. Mike’s), time to talk to my new friends. Many years ago, I received an M.A. in English literature from U. of T.; file it under Small World, but at Classical Pursuits I’ve run into an old boyfriend (who was pleased to see me), his wife (who wasn’t), my former landlady’s niece and a bunch of fellow members of the Graduate English Association. Newer friends come from Toronto, Montreal, Montana and Mexico. A number of people return each summer – like the Spanish-Canadian novelist, Bea Gonzalez, first came to Classical Pursuits as the “Don Quixote” discussion leader and return as a participant. Others, like Tom Jones, a music teacher from Brooklyn, began as a participant and returns each year to lead a discussion of opera.

Two-hour discussions take place each morning, followed by lunch. Afternoons are free for exploring Toronto or participating in a group outing or listening to a lecture by one of the leaders – an excellent way to “attend” seminars in addition to the one you’re enrolled in. In the evening, there are group dinners at some of Toronto’s wonderful ethnic restaurants, theatre parties and informal get-togethers.

The most difficult part of the program is deciding which of the 12 wonderfully appealing seminars I want to enroll in. I’m still vacillating between Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, a course in bioethics, Canadian literature and Mahler. Or perhaps “Illusions of Leadership: Our Biblical Heritage” or a seminar in storytelling. Another decision is where to stay. When I’m feeling flush, I check in at the Four Seasons Hotel on Avenue Road, just a few blocks off campus, and enjoy a week of elegance and the advantages of a strong U.S. dollar. There’s also the option of staying in a more moderately priced hotel or on campus in the new St. Mike’s dormitory.

Classical Pursuits has become an important part of my life. It’s an opportunity to wind down from the hectic pace of everyday life, to catch up with old friends and new and experience and re-experience one of North America’s most sophisticated cities. As I round Queen’s Park on my way to Brennan Hall at St. Mike’s, the young girl I once was and the grown woman I am today meet on their way to an annual adventure of the mind, the soul and the spirit.


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