Walking with Socrates

This company offers learning vacations with a difference

 By Laura Robin, Ottawa Citizen April 2, 2011
Ann Kirkland runs a company called Classical Pursuits that takes people on trips based on readings and ideas. She also puts on summer sessions at the University of Toronto with courses on topics from Virginia Woolf to Chekhov. Next year, Kirkland will start offering intergenerational trips with a trip to Italy.

Ann with Barbara Zabel (left)

Barbara Zabel, of Ottawa, has taken four trips with the Toronto company Classical Pursuits. She says she loved them all, but perhaps her favourite moment was in Palermo, Italy, a few years ago.

“We had read (Giuseppe) Lampedusa’s The Leopard before going. In Palermo, a young local artist and poet read the end of the book to us, right at the spot where the novel is set. You have a real experience. It’s completely different than just reading a book -it stays with you, it changes your world view.”

When Classical Pursuits bills itself as offering learning vacations with a difference, it isn’t kidding.

The company is the creation of Ann Kirkland, who spent most of her career working in health policy.

“When I was 53 and off work after having bunion surgery, I realized that, while I had loved my work, it was time to do something different.”

As she cast about for ideas for a new career, she says she kept coming back to some remarkable courses she had taken at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The college operates according to principles of the Chicago-based Great Books Foundation, which uses a discussion method called “shared inquiry.”

“Professors profess,” says Kirkland, “and much of what I had learned earlier in university went in one ear and out the other.”

With “shared inquiry,” discussion leaders ask only open-ended questions, never giving their own opinion or a “right” answer and leading participants to share ideas and develop their own concepts more deeply. It’s the Socratic method, except that the discussion leader does not have the answer.

“All the books I discussed in Santa Fe stayed with me much more and provided lasting insights,” says Kirkland. “I thought maybe something like this could work in Toronto.”

In 1999, after taking early retirement from her job at a Toronto hospital, she started Classical Pursuits, hiring leaders experienced in the shared inquiry method to offer four different five-day sessions one summer week on the campus of the University of Toronto. Topics included Plato’s Republic and Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.

“It went very well,” says Kirkland.

Those Toronto-based classes have grown; this summer, from July 17 to 22, Classical Pursuits will offer 11 sessions, accommodating 125 to 130 people, and covering everything from Chekhov and Virginia Woolf to “Vienna: World Capital of Classical Music.”

“I try to get a mix of time periods and novels, poetry, music, art, political philosophy and sometimes film,” says Kirkland.

She got into the travel business almost by accident.

“It started in 2003 with what I thought was a one-off. It was called “Classical Pursuits Goes to Medieval Italy,” based on Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.”

The trip was such a huge success that participants asked for more. She followed with “They Came to Paris,” about the wave of Americans who went to Paris in the 1920s; participants read works by Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein.

Now the trips, which are also led by a professional skilled in the shared inquiry method, account for about half of Classical Pursuits’ business. Kirkland offers five or six trips each year; upcoming ones include “In Search of the Newfoundland Soul” (based on works by Michael Crummy and Bernice Morgan), “Sachertorte and Paprikash” (subtitled “Musical meanderings along the Blue Danube, Vienna, Budapest and the Tokaj wine region of Hungary”), “Art and Life in Renaissance Florence” and “Taking Your Soul for a Stroll -a walk along 100 miles on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.”

Kirkland doesn’t just talk the talk. For her 65th birthday, she gave herself six weeks off work and walked the entire Camino pilgrimage trail from France through northern Spain by herself, covering 18 to 30 kilometres each day, with a pack on her back.

Zabel met Kirkland on a plane as Kirkland was flying home from that first trip to Italy. They struck up a conversation, then a friendship, and now Zabel has taken four of the Toronto-based sessions as well as four trips and is one of a handful of repeat customers from Ottawa.

Zabel is a retired teacher with a background in science and says she has chosen subjects -her first session was on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude -“to offset the strictly science thing.”

Now Zabel, along with two other Classical Pursuits participants from Germany, has helped Kirkland plan a June trip to that country called “Made in Germany: Tales from three cities.” The trip will take in Dresden, Weimar and Berlin, with readings from Goethe, Nietzche, Günter Grass and Peter Schneider.

“We’ve come up with a great set of readings, and participants will get to meet the daughter of a man who ran an underground newspaper in East Germany,” says Zabel. “It’s through things like this that special moments come about.”

Kirkland says one of the things she has to counter is the perception that you need to be well-educated or highbrow to enjoy her learning vacations.

“Men, especially, seem to be afraid that they will make fools of themselves, but once they come, they know it’s not like that. One of my favourite participants is a bartender from Pennsylvania. Nobody needs advanced degrees. Some people do have PhDs, but generally not in the topics they come to discuss.”

Kirkland says she’s had participants as young as high-school students and young 20s, but the biggest age group is between 50 and 70.

“I get a lot of lawyers and judges. I think maybe they enjoy it because they get a chance to entertain ambiguity -there’s no right answer.”

Kirkland says people tend to choose a trip because of the destination, but in the end “it’s the conversations and the books and the exchange with local people that give people that most satisfaction.

“They connect on a deeper level. Lasting friendships form. We’ve even had a marriage.”

Laura Robin is the Citizen’s travel editor.


The company: Classical Pursuits

What it offers:

– Toronto-based learning vacations: 11 different sessions will be offered July 17 to 22 at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College. The cost of $1,250 per session includes seminars each morning as well as lunch, afternoon and evening activities, two evening receptions with drinks and hors d’oeuvres and a film night with dinner. Price does not include accommodation, but participants can stay in a student residence for $50 a night (which includes a hot breakfast) or get a preferred rate at a nearby hotel.

– Trips: Five “opportunities to travel through space and time” are being offered for 2011; six in 2012. Prices range from about $2,200 to about $5,300 and do not include airfare.

– Made-to-Measure: Kirkland is now offering custom trips, aimed at book clubs, groups of friends or school groups or cultural institutions. “We can take you anywhere in the world and expose you to a selected thematic aspect of a chosen place in a way that is authentic, stimulating and memorable,” Kirkland says.

– Suggested themes include “Rugged Love in a Rugged Land” (Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights transplanted to Cornwall) or “The Algonquin Round Table” (with readings by Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and others in Midtown Manhattan).

– A Grand Tour of Italy for Grand Children and their Grandparents: Kirkland will start offering intergenerational trips with a trip to Italy that includes seeing how mozzarella cheese is made, a visit to a Venetian boatyard where gondolas are made and a visit to an artist complete with a sketching class.

More: Call 1-877-633-2555 or see www.classicalpursuits.com

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen


  1. Very nice article!

  2. what a great write up!Look forward to seeing you again soon.

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