Harvey T. Lyon
DePaul University School for New Learning
Chicago, Illinois

The course and students

The School for New Learning is an alternative college within the University and has about 2000 students. All work full-time and must be 24 years old to enroll. We have no academic departments at SNL, and the course offerings are not the standard ones found in the rest of the university. Students must take courses that fulfill certain competences within five areas (Arts of Living, Human Community, Physical World, World of Work, and Lifelong Learning) in order to graduate. (In more traditional terms, these might be listed as Arts-Humanities, Sociology-Psychology, Science, Business, and Basic Skills.) These are very challenging and exciting students to teach. (One of my colleagues described them as similar to the GIs who entered college after World War II, very focused and serious about learning.)

The course takes its name from Jane Jacobs’ book Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics. It meets one night a week for ten weeks and averages 25 students.

Why Ishmael?

I teach Ishmael as a kind of spiritual detective story. It takes hold of the students just as it did me, which is why I’ve used it in more than one context. I use Ishmael in particular in Systems because it provides a point of view completely opposed to that presented in Jacobs’ book, our main text, and does it through a unique novelistic prism.

Class activity

In addition to Jane Jacobs’ book, we read parts of Plato’s The Republic, as well as Machiavelli’s The Prince, and More’s Utopia, and finish the class with Ishmael. Among the questions we explore are: Is work (and should it be) organized inherently differently in commerce and government? Can personal and organizational differences be separated and defined? Can it be argued that there can be only two systems to pursuing a livelihood? If so, what happens in society when the two systems get intermixed (e.g. bringing business efficiency into government and social responsibility into business)? Do past societies as well as contemporary ones give us clues to the answers to such questions? Students give class oral reports and write a term paper on the subject of their choice.