When I was a senior in high school, I experienced an intellectual awakening that prepared me for college and lifelong learning as nothing else had.

During my junior year I applied and was accepted into a project-based learning program that was available to seniors. There were various projects and courses within this program, but one in particular revolutionized my mind. Part of what made this experience unique was a combination of scope and intensity. We were given a daunting assignment over the December holiday: to read The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski and Civilization by Kenneth Clark. When school resumed after the holiday break, I had the richest learning experience of my life.

Bronowski’s book charts the development of humanity from prehistoric times into the 20th century. He views the developments through various scientific and anthropologic lenses. Clark’s book explores the question, “What is civilization?” and he uses the lenses of art and culture to help the reader see more deeply into this territory. Each book contains 13 chapters, and a BBC video series was produced for each book, with a one-hour episode for each chapter.

In less than two weeks, my classmates and I viewed all 26 hours of video, and each one-hour segment was followed by a one-hour facilitated dialogue. At the conclusion of that experience, we submitted an essay capturing key learnings for critique by the teachers. As demanding as that concentrated period of time was, I see it as an exceptional gift from two visionary teachers. It is difficult all these decades later to recount the specifics of those dialogues, but what I can tell you is that the experience awakened in me a voracious intellectual curiosity. It led me to a summit of learning from which I could see, as never before, the world of ideas. I was thrilled by the adventure of learning. Certainly the rich content of this mini-course contributed greatly to my learning. But I believe that part of the power of this experience, is that it was an experience — concentrated and distinct. During those couple of weeks, we did attend other classes, but this deep dive into humanity’s ascent across the millennia and the emergence and growth of civilization became a vivid world unto itself. It’s where we lived for those weeks.

We as educators need to be attentive to experience. What a student experiences in school is their education — whether that experience is a series of disconnected and sterile exposures to subject areas or enriching explorations that engage their hearts, minds, and aspirations.

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