this (philosophical) life
HOW could 50-odd people make so much noise! It almost sounded like a school reunion, as I distinguished some girlish shrieks and much laughter among the deeper timbre of the men’s voices. There was a lot of milling about, many cheerful greetings exchanged and palpable pleasure and enthusiasm in the air before we all finally settled down to the year’s first session of the long-running University of the Third Age’s philosophy class.
A few years ago, when I retired, I was asked what I would do with all that time on my hands. This of course is one of the assumptions, or should I say cliches, about retirement, when time, in reality, turns out to be more fleeting than abundant, and ‘‘all’’ becomes ‘‘not much’’. When my answer included a reference to joining the University of the Third Age, the response was ‘‘Why do you want to hang around with old people? They’ll be complaining about their health all the time and, worse, you’ll make friends and then they’ll no longer be there.’’ Actually, the words used were a little more direct, but I still don’t know whether I should have been flattered that I was seemingly not considered to be old, a moaner or at risk of disappearing in the near future.
Three years later, I’m still a member of the U3A philosophy class I joined at the end of 2009, and was one of the many noisy people at its first session in February this year. There are many aspects of the class that appeal to me. To begin with, the topic is both vast and on a minutely human scale as there is nothing in life that cannot be viewed through a philosophical prism, from the ethics of financial markets to science as the new philosophy. Additionally, the encounter with the clash of ideas of philosophers through the ages, each era repudiating or building on the preceding generation’s thinkers, is illuminating. There are no definitive answers. In philosophy, all we can expect is a different perspective on the essential questions — questions whose core does not alter much, though their outer appearance may differ significantly through time.
To understand why the tutor, with his enthusiasm for philosophy from its beginning to its contemporary incarnations (and his respect for different opinions) is greatly appreciated, you need to remember that the members, and mostly also the tutors of the many U3As across Australia are volunteers and not young in years. Some arrive with their sticks, some don’t hear too well, and some attend only sporadically. But others go on excursions and long bike rides, dance and are fierce bridge players, or, whizzes with technology, share their knowledge and help the less technologically literate members.
The vast programs, year-long or short, wholly organised by them, can range from Spain’s Golden Age to brain research, from languages to photography, and much more.
The members of my philosophy class are well-informed and live in the present. They are irrepressible, opinionated, lively and possibly more engaged than they ever were in their youth, and many have participated in the class for several years. When new faces appear it’s fun to watch them take measure of the class, and to see how quickly they feel comfortable enough to join in the debates. Unobtrusive concern for others, generosity in sharing the wisdom and knowledge gained in the past and an openness to the new, enrich each of us and make this class a delight. Long may it continue.
Review welcomes submissions to This Life. To be considered for publication, the work must be original and between 600 and 650 words in length. Submissions may be edited for clarity. Send emails to thislife@ theaustralian.com.au