Lifelong learning

A recent One Day University event in New York City.

One Day University is coming to the Woodstock Playhouse on November 10 from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Bard professor Joseph Luzzi, a professor of comparative literature at Bard since 2002, will discuss eight groundbreaking books that changed America. The event is a collaboration between One Day University and Ulster Publishing Company, publisher of four local weekly newspapers plus Almanac Weekly and the Hudson Valley One website.

What eight books are a must for every lover of literature? And how did each of these groundbreaking works, in its unique way, change America?

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“We will discuss such world-renowned classics as Dante’s Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s Othello, and also cover more recent works including Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 ,” says the advertisement for the first-time event. “Plus four more! Professor Luzzi will show how these fascinating works help us understand some of the most pressing concerns today, including the nature of religious faith, questions of personal identity, even the quest for the American Dream.” 

Luzzi’s a great presenter. His students say so. 

One Day University is the brainchild of Steven Schragis, a Manhattan guy with an entrepreneurial bent. He’s also a longtime Woodstocker.

Twenty-one years ago, he and his family — his kids were eight and eleven at the time — came up to check the area out. They stayed at the Holiday Inn in Kingston. On television, they watched footage of Princess Diana’s fatal car crash. 

Steven Schragis.

The next day they went searching for “a country haven” in Woodstock. The agent showed them a house that Schragis described as “a complete wreck.” Jimi Hendrix had lived there in 1968 and 1969. The Schragises bought the wreck and fixed it up. They have come up to their second home on many weekends ever since.

Schragis has a law degree and an extensive background in publishing, beginning with his backing of Spy magazine. “Steve is a one-man promotion department,” Spy editor Kurt Andersen told The New York Times in 2001. His marketing-oriented Carol Publishing Group had a long string of successes before running out of steam and selling the business to a large publishing conglomerate in 2000. 

From 2001 to 2005 Schragis was national director of The Learning Annex, whose courses ran from powerful lectures from such leaders as Steve Jobs, George Steinbrenner and even Donald Trump to how-to business seminars to experiential activities like rafting and wine-tasting. Schragis gained a sense of the powerful potential of providing content to a community of like-minded people. As a persistent and persuasive publicist, he thought he could be the ideal person to develop “a remarkable group of educated, engaged people who absolutely love to learn.” The key, he decided, was that the lifelong learning events had to be entertaining as well as educational.

In 2005 Schragis drove over the Rhinecliff Bridge to enroll his older daughter in her freshman year at Bard College. College president Leon Botstein, who’s no slouch in promoting the value of higher education to Bard parents, produced an effective dog-and-pony show. Fifteen-minute lectures delivered by faculty were wildly successful with the parents, including Steve Schragis.

“Why couldn’t I do that?” Schrargis asked himself.

Armed with information from websites where college students rated the performance of their professors, Schragis contacted the highest-rated, who proved both accessible and amenable to his pitch. Spotting a bargain rate in the northern suburban edition of Sunday’s The New York Times, he rented a meeting space and gambled $10,000 on a full-page ad. The phone calls started coming in. One Day University was off and running.

He thought his idea would work in the nation’s cultural capital. Places like the 92nd Street YMHA and the New-York Historical Society provided community centers that regularly presented interesting speakers. Schragis didn’t give much thought to the possibility One Day U might be successful anywhere else than the Big Apple or its suburbs. It was drawing large New York City area audiences. 

Five years later, the editor of The Providence Journal, an attendee at one of One Day U’s events, asked Schragis to partner with his paper. The newspaper ran ads for a Providence event, and it was successful. Having newspapers associated with events has turned out to be a big plus for everyone. In short order, this quintessential New York guy (“I wasn’t aware there were 49 other states”) took One Day University national. Programs have now been put on in 62 cities, mostly large and middle-size ones. 

Attendance usually increases at successive events, and Schragis’ lifelong learning franchise has now developed a national following. Half of One Day U’s income comes through newspapers, he said. 

One Day University sometimes adjusts its basic offering. Last Sunday, for instance, Tanglewood, the music center in the Berkshires, hosted a day of lectures on foreign policy, sleep deprivation and climate change followed by a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This guy will consider stretching lifelong learning in any direction as long as his audience finds the result a memorable experience — classy, educational and very entertaining.

Schragis has also talked about expanding One Day University in new directions. The one constant is having presenters, like Luzzi, of such high skill that any audience will feel it’s getting a memorable experience. Offering specialized seminars to smaller groups at premium prices is one possibility. “Every fake university should have a fake graduate school,” he recently said.  

Ulster County, meet One Day University.

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