Arlene Goldbard - Honorary PhD

“Which is greater: study or action?”

The question was posited by Arlene Goldbard, the honored guest speaker at the Open Master’s first Convocation Feast, held in San Francisco on September 14th, 2014. Drawing on a story from the Babylonian Talmud, the response offered:

“Study, if it leads to action.”

The reply was a fitting refrain during a ceremony focused on concluding the previous term and kicking off the fall semester -- a balance of honoring the accomplishments and the learning journeys of the past and gathering momentum for the action to come.

During the rest of her speech, Arlene continued to ignite the small crowd, emphasizing the value of self-directed learners in a society addicted to ‘certified’ knowledge and confirmation bias. Lauding ‘lived knowledge’ and the self-authorizing citizen, Arlene gave high praise and set high hopes for the work being done in the Open Master’s community, as it is a sure indication that a hunger for such citizenship, and its current revitalization, is at hand. Arlene tempered her congratulations and the importance of this personal and civil renaissance with a call to each take full responsibility for the rigorous search for truth -- meaning that we must challenge our own ideas, interrogate all assumptions, and bear them up to the test of falsifiability.

Arlene, a well-known community artist, author, and speaker who has been self-taught since her teenage years, was conferred an honorary degree following her speech, in recognition of “all self-directed learners who have created their own educations and whose inspiring knowledge, accomplishments, and exemplary contributions have never been recognized by formal degrees.”

In wrapping up their work this summer and getting ready for the work ahead, the Bay Area members put on a formal picnic ceremony, complete with bow-ties, a makeshift speaker’s throne, and plenty of German apple pancake. To commemorate the individual learning journeys of the group, members prepared a wide variety of 5-minute presentations, including a brewing teach-in, a recitation of Rilke, an original song, a putty-and-string workshop on neuroscience, and several speeches. Each member’s production was introduced by a surprise toast from another member, invoking laughter and tears alike.

While individuals were each recognized for their unique contributions and friendship in community, and Arlene received long-overdue recognition for her autodidactic accomplishments, another powerful recognition occurred: that of hardship and failure.

The summer had been one of heartbreaks, transitions, and derailments, beginning with a tragedy that threw the San Francisco community into chaos. The community was ripped apart when one member, and close personal friend, Ann Zeis, passed away suddenly in July. After a period of memorials and mourning, and in the slow picking up of pieces after such a shattering event, the community needed to “name it;” they needed to acknowledge the effect that this was having on the community and on everyone’s journey.

In planning the event, the group had quietly identified that the theme could be summed up as, “learning doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s embedded in the context of everything else in your life.” As such, our journeys and plans are regularly mixed up, turned around, and stalled -- the trick is to try to understand and dig into the space in which your learning dovetails, grates, or crashes into other parts of your life.

Open Masters San Francisco - IV
Open Masters San Francisco - IV

There is incredible power in authentically naming what is happening -- on touching on the realest bit of real, on being brave enough to be vulnerable. It’s only through this process of self-study, of knowing where you are and where you’re coming from, that wise action can occur.

The formal welcome address, given by Sarah Bradley

"Esteemed members of the Open Master's Bay Area community, friends, family, and honored guests Arlene Goldbard and her husband, welcome to the inaugural Open Master's Convocation Feast.

"Today we celebrate the learning journeys of the Bay Area Open Master's, acknowledging the hard work and accomplishments already achieved; the wisdom and lessons gained; the progress made and the future promise our learning journeys hold;the shifts, heartbreak, and changes in course that come with life's turns; the friendships forged; and the self-authorizing of our lifelong education and our commitment to it.

"We take a moment to recognize that a beloved Open Master's member and dear friend, Ann Zeis, is not here with us today, remembering the love she had for this community and the commitment she shared for boldly authoring her life's direction and learning journey. Let Ann remind us that while we may build abundance in our lives, all time is borrowed, each moment calls us to be present to it and it alone, and our lives are exactly what we make them to be, so we should be empowered to build them with our whole hearts.

"A convocation is a ceremonial assembly of a college or university to observe a particular ceremony, such as the beginning of the school year or the announcing of awards or honors. The word, of the late Middle English (14th Century), comes from the Latin, convocare -- "con" meaning together and "vocare" meaning call. Today, we call ourselves together, along with loved ones and supporters, to honor the what has been done and what we have yet to do. Together, we call on each other to step up and take responsibility for our own development as the whole, multi-faceted, self-actualizing people we want to be. We take stock of what has been created, learned, and shared and prepare for the next stage of creation, learning, and sharing. We close the summer term and commence the fall, asking our guests to bear witness and support us in our learning journeys.

"And of course, we must also speak to what are are a part of, beyond our small community here. We are a part of a larger movement -- people seeking autonomy, agency, creativity, holistic care, authenticity, deeper relationships, engaged service, and active citizenship in their education and development. It's more than that though, it's how those things can be integrated into all aspects of our lives. It's the way we learn and work, but it's also the way we play, parent, communicate, buy, serve, govern. We are all seeking a closer connection to the things which make us feel most alive. Some people call that passion, but it's beyond 'the what' -- hobbies or specialties -- it's also the how and why we live the way we live. By being a part of the global community of the Open Master's, we are participants in this communal endeavor: to understand and practice what it takes to be self-authorizing, self-directed, and self-aware -- what it means to redefine, seek, and practice mastery and connection to the what, how, why -- and what tools, resources, relationships, and support systems are key to that community of practice.

"Thank you all so much for being here; we're excited to hear from all our members and our honored guest. Today, you'll hear an Open Master's member toast / roast / introduce another member, followed by that person's quick production or presentation associated with their learning journey. The format is wide open, so there might be some live demonstrations, some spoken word, perhaps even some miming. You'll also hear from our honored guest, Arlene Goldbard, a renowned writer, speaker, and community artist who is also an autodidact, having taught herself without earning degrees the institutions of high school or universities. After her enthralling speech, and in the tradition of convocation and commencement speeches, we are proud to confer upon her an honorary Ph.D. from the Open Master's. Now, before delving into the rest of the ceremony, and in light of the particular circumstances of what we're commemorating and celebrating today, I leave you with this:

"This is for the transitions,the midway points, derailments.This is for your complete and half-baked accomplishments,past, present, and future. This is for lessons that have no books or teachers,for students who borrow no authority from institutions, but have found it in themselves,for schools without walls, and lesson plans penned with the core of our longing, the heart of our hearts.This is for a community that ebbs and flows, sovereign and caring for its creators here, but an active agent in a global community and a grander scale of change.This is for dreaming and doing, failing and flying beyond expectations."