During my working life as an academic, one of my favorite national education gurus was a man named Harold Taylor. He traveled the lecture circuit and was always referred to in the Chronicle of Higher Education as the “former president of Sarah Lawrence College,” at the time an elite, innovative women’s college in a New York City suburb.
Dr. Taylor, whom I later got to know and even hired once for a gig at my university, was an alien. Yes, that’s right. Ta-ta-ta-ta! He hailed from Canada. Among other accomplishments, he worked one summer with a group of international students to plan and create a truly international university, one in which students would work and study for each of seven semesters in a different world cultural area. For the eighth, they would return to the area where they began to write and present to the students and faculty a capstone project integrating what they had learned along the way. This effort was born thereafter as Friends World University. Dr. Taylor also wrote a corresponding book, The World as Teacher (1969). His thesis was that true students could and would learn from all their experiences of living. The job of education, he argued, was not simply or even mainly to fill young people’s head with knowledge; rather, it was to turn them into true students, forever enrolled in the worldwide University of Life (my term).
I came to the related idea of “aliens as teachers” quite early in my life. The reason: our African American housekeeper, Florine, who came to the Feldman home when I was one. Here she was, a black woman with an elementary-school education, and we were a middle-class white suburban family with the wherewithal to employ her. Yet as I soon found out, little kid that I was, she was the best, kindest, and strongest person I knew. A wonderfully religious person, she was my first spiritual guide, the mother of my soul. Of course, as a Jewish boy, the next set of aliens I met were the many members of the white Gentile world I encountered in our neighborhood and later at school, including the American Baptist boarding school I attended in New Jersey, followed by eight years and three degrees from the then mother house of WASPdom, Yale (now, to be sure, on its second Jewish president!). Along the way I spent my college junior year as an exchange student at Heidelberg University, Germany, just 13 years after World War II. Talk about being with and learning from aliens! This trend continued throughout my life, highlighted perhaps by my 1961 initiation into a spiritual practice founded by a Javanese Indonesian named Muhammad Subuh, whom I later met and spent time with, by then being able to speak and understand Indonesian. Thanks to my alien encounters, I, who had started out as an insulated middle-class Jewish American, had now become, like Socrates, a citizen of the world.