Peeking Into a Millennium "Quest"

At Millennium, many of our learning experiences are organized as Quests. Like a heroic journey, a Quest is meant to be immersive, surprising, and of course interdisciplinary, as life is. Each Quest lasts for 6-7 weeks, a concentrated burst of focus leading to a final presentation to an outside audience. Finally, each Quest is organized around a Question, which we aspire to answer in a personal, social, and relevant way. Here is a peek into one Quest currently happening, written and taught by Stephen Lessard.

Greetings from our Quest investigating the life and genius of Leonardo da Vinci!

The question we have been asking is: "Can I Be a Renaissance Person?” In other words, are there habits of mind that Leonardo da Vinci practiced consistently in order to master so many disciplines, and could we emulate his approach to fully realize our own potential? Fortunately, Michael J. Gelb studied Leonardo da Vinci’s life and notebooks over many years and ultimately distilled seven principles for “thinking like Leonardo.” In Italian, these principles are: Curiosità, Dimostrazione, Sensazione, Sfumato, Arte/Scienza, Corporalita, and Connessione. In this quest, we are studying one principle each week and applying it in our lives.

For instance, Leonardo was insatiably curious, producing over 20,000 pages of sketches, detailed drawings, and notes over his lifetime. On the first day of Quest, each student received a “Curiosità” pocket notebook to carry with them and record questions and observations. We jumpstarted the notebook by taking a walk in our neighborhood and exercising our curiosity muscle. (I challenged them to fill up their notebook by the end of the term.) Later, after generating 100 questions at home, students in class ranked the 10 questions that felt most ‘alive’ for them and saw that many of their peers pondered similar topics. Samples from top ten lists include: “What will my profession be?”, “Why is there racism in the world?”, “Why do I get so stressed about homework?”, “Is heaven real?”, “Why can’t we stop cancer?”, “Was I born for a reason?”, “Why are feelings so confusing?”, “Why don’t I have anyone to call best friend?”, “Why do people fall in love?”, “How do we fix climate change?”, “What happens after death?” and “How do you know when you are truly happy?” Half of the students visited Grace Cathedral recently to walk the labyrinth while holding in their mind a question of significance to them, perhaps even one of the questions just mentioned. The other half will have that opportunity in early October.

During week two we practiced Dimostrazione, “the commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistake.” Students examined deeply held beliefs and attempted to isolate how they came to those beliefs and how firmly they hold them, especially when encountering peers who held nearly opposite viewpoints. Then we deconstructed print advertisements—for  a credit card, cologne, e-cigarettes, and sneakers with embedded wedges—by using a “media toolkit” to examine how our beliefs can be manipulated with sophisticated persuasion techniques.


This past week the principle of Sensazione has occupied our attention. In class we took self-assessments of each sense to think about how we currently use each one and specific ways we can enliven our experience of the world, like even just noticing the eye color of our friends. We also looked at the science of synesthesia and experimented with activating all our senses at once: drawing while listening to three different styles of music (represented by Hildegard of Bingen, Vivaldi, and Stravinsky), while slowing down to touch, smell, and taste strawberries, raisins, and dark chocolate. Students now have a descriptive writing assignment that asks them to push the boundaries of at least three of their senses. For some of you parents, it’s an excellent opportunity to share music you’ve always wanted your child to hear, or to have them try a new food they would ordinarily shun!

As a backdrop to the investigation of these seven principles, we are watching installments of Da Vinci and the Code He Lived By and reading the historical fiction book Leonardo’s Servant, which dramatizes Leonardo's life in Milan while painting the Last Supper in a monastery dining hall. We have been using the Harkness method to discuss the book along with poems that illuminate aspects of the text. As part of the Harkness process, students are working on respecting the speaker, building on each other’s comments, and calling each other by name to strengthen our scholarly community.

This coming week we tackle perhaps the trickiest principle: Sfumato, the willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty. Our final project will be announced before the end of the month.




Christopher BalmeComment