It began 10 years ago when David Boren, then governor of Oklahoma, and author Alvin Toffler sat down with a group of students from Oklahoma colleges for a seminar on the future of Oklahoma and the nation.
Today, nearly 2,000 Oklahomans of all ages have gone through the Scholar- Leadership Enrichment Program (SLEP) launched by Boren -- now the state's senior senator. On a recent weekend, several hundred people with an interest in the SLEP program gathered here to celebrate the first decade of this unique and successful educational venture. They ranged in age from some Lawton High School students to people old enough to be their grandparents.
It was a remarkable event. Sitting in seminar rooms in the shadow of the football stadium, which dominates the University of Oklahoma campus, the participants plunged into earnest conversation about the most serious and sweeping topics imaginable.
Though some participants had driven from Chicago or San Antonio or the corners of Oklahoma, the conversations went on into the night -- as they tend to do at the regular SLEP seminars, which last for four or five days.
Boren's original concept has proved its effectiveness and its worth: students from the 21 participating colleges and universities work in a small group -- usually a couple of dozen people -- with a "visiting scholar" on a topic of mutual interest, almost always involving choices for the future.
With morning, afternoon and evening sessions, it becomes a real bonding experience. A faculty member is along to help, and to grade the papers each student is expected to write afterward to get credit for the course.
The mix of students is fascinating, drawing from the undergraduate and graduate ranks of OU and Oklahoma State, from such private and denominational schools as Tulsa and Oral Rob as well. In the seminar I led three years ago, we had a wondrous variety of ages, races and experiences.
There has been as much diversity in the visiting scholars: poet Maya Angelou, sociologist Daniel Bell, geochemist Harrison Brown, political scientist James MacGregor Burns, psychologist Kenneth Clark, editor Norman Cousins, architect Buckminister Fuller, physicist Herman Kahn, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, economist Wassily Leontief, diplomat Donald F. McHenry, theologian Martin Marty, physician-playwright Jonathan Miller -- and too many others to mention.
The general public is invited to a lecture almost every visitor gives, and some sessions are taped for classroom or public television use. But the personal interchange of the seminar room is central, and the experience is intense. OU acting president Martin C. Jischke recalled that when he shared a SLEP seminar on the future of the world with physicist Victor Weisskopf, "Many of us were in tears when it ended."
Much of that same passion to grapple with fundamental questions was evident at the reunion weekend. J. Clayton Feaver, the SLEP director, invited four past visitors to return for a discussion of "critical issues" facing the nation: Catherine May Bedell, a former Republican member of Congress and of the International Trade Commission; James Joseph, the head of the Council on Foundations, a former college chaplain, business executive and Carter administration official; Hazel Henderson, a futurist and critic of conventional economics, whether Marxist or capitalist; and Freeman Dyson, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton.
As moderator of this high-powered panel, all I had to do was lean back and let the ideas fly. Bedell talked about the growing challenge of "economic survival" in international competition and the test it was posing for both the leaders and citizens of this nation. Joseph raised the issue of the "moral use of knowledge," not only with nuclear weapons but with many of the other technologies coming out of the lab. Henderson challenged her listeners to rid themselves of "dysfunctional belief systems," including, she said, the ridiculous idea that "the people of 20th century Central America have to choose between Karl Marx and Adam Smith" for their future. And Dyson stunned everyone by arguing that "if we just stop trying to play nanny to the world" and get about the business of sharing available technologies, "we can get this planet in shape in the next 100 years and then spend the next 1,000 spreading (human civilization) to the universe."
The response from the Oklahomans of all ages was as provocative as the ideas: How do we overcome voter apathy? Have we outgrown nationalism? Do we really want to transfer nuclear technology with terrorists at work? How do we begin to get the dollar back in line with foreign currencies? Is there an ethical approach to immigration issues? Is it a service or disservice to the future to try to help farmers facing a credit crunch?
There were more questions than answers, of course, but I think all of us were struck by Jim Joseph's comment that, "It is more important to ask the right question, even if the answer is not clear, than to come up with the right answer to the wrong question."
As a statewide, cooperative effort by Oklahomans to "ask the right questions," SLEP has more than fulfilled Boren's hopes and could well serve as a model for other states.