Nobody ever fails one of Herbert Ravetch's classes.
Nobody ever says anything wrong or stupid.
Nobody ever takes a test.
Nobody ever gets a grade.
Nobody ever has the "right" answer.
Because there isn't one .
Herbert Ravetch teaches the meaning of life.
None of this academic laxity and apparent philosophic hubris bothers Ravetch, who happens to be a college president.
He doesn't ever grin or look embarrassed when he talks about his favorite subject. He does not think that those four little words--the meaning of life--are a sad joke for the jaundiced, often uttered in bitterness and spiritual exhaustion.
For the 60-year-old head of Pierce College, there is meaning in the well-worn phrase itself.
In fact, he believes he has discovered a stress-free way of communicating the original yearning behind the cliche. At the same time, he can expose adults to classic literature and have a good time himself.
Maybe that's the meaning of life.
But wait, perhaps it's time to hear from Ravetch himself. After all, he's the one who describes his job as mostly talking with people.
One day recently, Ravetch was sitting in a classroom with about 20 students, most middle-aged or older. It was the last session of, naturally, "The Meaning of Life Through Short Story." Students were asked to give their reactions to the 21 works of short fiction by authors such as Joseph Conrad, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Shirley Jackson, John Galsworthy and Franz Kafka.
A woman, who confessed to not being an inveterate reader, had just told Ravetch and her classmates about the connection she made between the character in a story by H. G. Wells and her own life. Her existence at the moment, she said, was much like that of the man tempted by a choice between uninspiring reality and the door to a magically different, untroubled life.
Ravetch responded, "I'm very impressed with your comments. So often it's in the paradoxes and contrasts of life that we find value and meaning and new insight. Adam and Eve really enjoyed themselves in the Garden of Eden, but they would never have understood what you're talking about. You might say, 'Well, is that bad?' But often, when we want to think about human life and the pain and the challenge and the obstacles and the problems, you can compare the life of an animal in a zoo or the life of Adam and Eve and the life we have and you can make a judgment as to which is the best."
This kind of statement--off the cuff, parable-like, apparently open-ended yet conclusive--has kept them coming back for more Ravetch for four years now. During that time Ravetch has offered a variety of courses on a theme--"The Meaning of Life Through Essay," "The Meaning of Life Through Poetry," "The Meaning of Life Through Drama," as well as the short story.
Ravetch teaches these classes at Pierce partly for his own pleasure, he said in an interview. But he added--there is no such thing as a simple answer from Ravetch--that he also was responding to student opinion from his days as an English teacher.
"Students were frequently coming to me, older students, and saying, 'Gee, we're enjoying this course on introduction to literature or this survey of English literature but we wish we didn't have to do the term papers and take the final exams. We'd really just like to read and enjoy,' " he recalled.
Those wishes came home to roost when Ravetch was re-reading poetry he hadn't looked at in years.
"These poets were knocking me out of my chair," he said. "I was older and I was reading much more into the poetry than I had before. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to compare what some of these poets--Shakespeare, Donne, Dickinson, Frost--had to say on death and life. There were commonalities, but they each had different ways of approaching life and death, war and peace, love. Love was an enormous topic, especially romantic love, where love generates pleasure but also frustration and agony. And I said to myself, 'I wonder if a group of people would be interested in sitting down with me and reading a series of poems on a given theme of human existence?' "
The first class drew 30 people, because "that title apparently had a hook in it," he said. He has had to turn down people for later classes because he doesn't want the group to get too large for freewheeling discussions.
Warmth and Willingness
Offered through Pierce College's community services program, the only requirement for the eight-session courses is a warm body and a willingness to read. In the last class, Ravetch would like students to make a statement on what they learned from their reading, but they can demur and Ravetch will only grin and go on to the next student.