Reflecting on the Sufi Samuel Lewis' life in writing a biography, I find myself in the early 1930s in middle of the Great Depression. We also find Sam ever active among those wishing to bring change to society and willing to look for creative solutions.
He had just returned to the Bay Area from New York in 1932. Now a Khalif for Murshida Martin, Sam wrote lessons for Sufi students; he gave talks at Theosophical Lodges, he began researching a book on the California movements of the times, and he was active in political circles.
His association with Alexander Meiklejohn, a famous revolutionary educator reveals one part of the story. Meiklejohn had moved on from being a highly controversial president of Brown University to the University of Wisconsin where he was empowered to start an Experimental College that inspired scores of innovative programs. From there he went to the Bay Area, where he founded a free adult school, the San Francisco School of Social Studies. Samuel Lewis attended as a student.
Meiklejohn's ideas about what was needed in our culture and his purpose in founding the school was described by him in an explanatory article in The New Republic about his purpose:
"Our scheme of government and of life can succeed only if, in their more mature years men and women will engage in careful, enthusiastic and guided study of common values, common dangers, common opportunities… The end to be served will not be vocational…. The deepest question in American life today is not economic or political; it is educational. It is the question of the thinking power of a democracy. Can our people understand and direct their own living or must someone else do their thinking, make their decisions, for them? As a democracy we are pledged to try the first of these."1
In 1934-35 Sam lived primarily in San Francisco. He attended Meiklejohn's school in its very first year in California. Speaking of this program in The New Republic article, Meiklejohn wrote:
"…The first task of the teachers has been that of selecting the books in which the best minds of our civilization have expressed themselves upon our common problems in ways suitable for popular reading. In the nature of the case, most of our technical, scholarly books will not serve the purpose. But the "Dialogues of Plato", the Bible, the Constitution, the writings of Emerson, Whitman, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Emily Dickinson, Dreiser, Jeffers, Dewey, Veblen, Tawney, Brandeis, Turner, Beard, Lenin, Bourne, Mumford, Dos Passos, these and a host of others in poetry and prose, tell us of the attempts of our intellectual leaders to solve the human problems that we in America now face. The motive here found expression in the "Great Books" course at Columbia and again in the similar venture carried on at Chicago by President Hutchins and Professor Adler….
"The second task of the faculty has been to furnish guidance in the study of the books selected. To this end groups have been formed with six and fifteen as the lower and upper limits of membership. At weekly meetings the books have been discussed chapter by chapter, all the members being pledged to careful reading of the assignment in advance. The reading time of a single book has ranged from five or six to twelve weeks. In the guiding of the discussion, the teachers have tried to avoid lecturing… We need the practice of democracy rather than the preaching of it…."
This approach to adult education matches up with Sam's learning style. From an early age he had studied the Great Books of the world in depth with much attention to world religions. Thoughout his life, his goal was always to gain actual experience from going deeply into the teachings. Following the guidance of his Sufi initiator of being a bridge between mysticism and what passed for knowledge in American universities, he frequently found himself railing against those who preached what they did not practice, and who assumed knowledge in areas they had not actually experienced directly.
Reflecting on my own life, as a Graduate student in a Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt University one summer I was invited to teach in a Great Books of the Western World Course at Salem College in North Carolina for high school rising seniors who tested at genius level on their IQ's and those gifted in the arts who qualified by their work in drama or music. Little does one know how much one's own life reflects cosmic themes in the life of the person who would become one's teacher.
Spies were sent by The American Legion of California to the classes in the school in San Francisco and they "determined" that un-American teachings were going on, dangerous ideas. They ferreted around finding to their satisfaction that Meiklejohn posed a threat to national security. The House Un-American activities committee would follow up in the same vein harassing many creative Americans.
Even so, now we are in similar conditions. The times try our souls, and ask us to respond to the cry of humanity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and ask that basic respect be given to all. According to Meiklejohn and according to Sufi Sam, a proper approach would encourage actively thinking about ways that serve the human race and the world we inherit. Take heart. Don't be discouraged, actively engage in the process.
Love and Blessings,