Santa Cruz, Calif. — It's a university with no application forms -- no grades, no set faculty, no courses, no tuition, and no degree, either. But there's rarely a lack of ``students.'' The ``Penny University'' meets inside the Caf'e Palomina in Santa Cruz every Monday afternoon at 4:30, as it has for 11 years now.
PU, or ``the Penny,'' offers education of a different kind. It's the old-fashioned discussion group -- with a libertarian twist. Started by professors from the University of California at Santa Cruz as an alternative to formal learning, the Penny is a place to discuss ideas -- physics, art, values -- so that anyone can join in.
The Penny forms around three or four tables set against the caf'e wall. During the 90-minute session, people straggle in or leave as they wish.
Penny session leaders -- often faculty or ex-faculty from the college -- always begin with a topic, but the discussion is deliberately open-ended, working under the assumption that learning takes place in unexpected ways.
Mary Holmes, painter and lecturer on art at UC Santa Cruz, says the virtue of the Penny is that ``you can talk with people who are concerned about serious ideas -- and not just politics or economics. There's not really another place around here to do that.''
The caf'e itself, like Santa Cruz, exudes a West Coast sense of sunny well-being. There's a garden courtyard, ceiling fans, strains of violin and lute, checker players, dreadlocked artists, barefoot ecotopians, serious students drinking Espresso Mocha Decaf, blissed-out ex-students nursing egg creams -- alternative people saying alternative things.
But though one can usually cut the informality with a knife, the atmosphere changes when the Penny convenes. Participation depends on the topic and the time of year. Usually, 20 to 40 people show up. For a recent seminar on ``The Brothers Karamazov,'' however, ``you couldn't get a seat in the house'' says Paul Lee, a Santa Cruz resident who used to be a teacher assistant for theologian Paul Tillich at Harvard.
Frijof Capra discussed the relationship of quantum physics to Eastern thought at Penny University long before he wrote his best seller, ``The Tao of Physics.''
Historian Page Smith, who helped form the Penny, uses the discussions to help prepare position papers for various conferences at which he speaks.
On this day, ``memory'' is the topic -- one dear to Mr. Smith, who feels that Americans ``have an astonishing capacity to forget their history.''
The tone is set by Ronald Nichol, a UC Santa Cruz professor of religion and Oxford-educated, self-proclaimed ``born-again Californian,'' whose eyes and hands expressively link up, giving him the aura of a storyteller. He starts by saying people shouldn't forget that ``memory'' can be a sacred part of life. He mentions St. Augustine's ``Confessions,'' and its stress on a ``remembrance of God.''
Professor Nichol also suggests that the modern reliance on technology should not mislead as to the true character of memory. ``People don't remember in the same way computers do.'' Thoughts we need often occur to us unbidden, he says. He describes how one of Dostoyevsky's blackest nights in prison was transformed when the image of ``the blackened fingernail'' of a peasant-gardener who used to pick him up as a small child suddenly returned. The remembrance opened up a world Dostoyevsky had forgotten -- one that transcended the prison cell.
With that, the discussion is opened up. Smith tells of an experience psychologist William James had as a youth of being saved from insanity by remembering and repeating a Bible passage to himself.
Next, someone illustrates how many different kinds of memory there are: The composer Bela Bartok, looking for a more primitive harmony among the Gypsies of Eastern Europe, came upon an illiterate Hungarian peasant woman who had perfectly retained more than 640 folk tunes.
A woman near the back complains that Memorial Day is not taken seriously anymore. ``It used to honor something,'' she says; ``now it is trivialized -- a day for shopping sales.'' This is discussed.
A young bearded fellow feels that a certain memory is retained in early architecture -- the cathedrals in Europe and the Colonial town houses in New England -- that is missing today.
The floor goes to Smith again, who relates that his company in the Army had a song that memorialized each battle it had been in since the American Revolution. Smith takes this chance to say that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have to be kept alive in the nation's collective memory. The Founding Fathers, he says, were very mindful that the Constitution was provided ``for millions yet unborn.''
The discussion continues in this same vein. The Penny has ``a curious kind of rambling quality to it,'' says Mary Holmes. ``We don't mind if someone introduces a novel subject -- which doesn't always go over with people who want things to be very set.''
No formal conclusions about memory are reached at the Penny today. Yet it is decided that the need for memory ``will be met through a much greater humility and sobriety'' -- at which point someone chimes in to say that comment applies to society in the same way that John De Lorean's comment applied to himself before his religious conversion: ``I was so egotistical, I thought I was humble.''