Plymouth Harbor resident Bernie Phillips has a plan to change the world. He’s starting with his neighbors at home but has designs to bring his ideas of personal evolution to Sarasota in general, then the American Sociological Association and eventually, the world.
Phillips, a retired sociologist, wants to promote the idea of continual growth through personal evolution. He believes that by focusing on the individual, humanity can develop an evolutionary way of life that leads to problem-solving galore and a cure for the ills of society.
It begins with a seminar and retired people who have enough time to listen to Phillips and his teaching partner, Tom Savage. The eight-week program is halfway over as of June 28, and Phillips is optimistic about how it’s going.
“This whole thing was on my mind about, ‘Hey, how can we apply this to ourselves?’” Phillips said. “We’ve got to apply it to ourselves or you can't teach it to anyone else. So that's when I got the idea. Here I am in Plymouth Harbor, people have plenty of time on their hands and the people have accomplished all kinds of things, and now here they are, retired. They're active people, so I figured, ‘Hey, this is a good place. Let me do it here.’”
As the seminar goes along, Phillips is tweaking his approach and adding a bit more to the reading materials. He started his students, who are his Plymouth Harbor neighbors, with the book he wrote with Savage and others, “Creating Life Before Death,” and now assigns them reading every week. Half of the seminar is a lecture and the other half is discussion. It’s robust with plenty of questions and often centers around how to get the interdisciplinary idea out into the world.
“It’s what the self-help industry has been trying to do, but they haven’t had the interdisciplinary angle like we have,” Phillips said.
Phillips operates with a Japanese proverb at the forefront of his mind: Vision without action is a daydream, action without vision is a nightmare. After he and his colleagues wrote the book, they knew that it had vision, but not enough action, so in came the seminar.
“We need the vision and we need the action,” Phillips said. “So maybe we can change the world, we'll see. But our vision is really very far out in terms of changing the world. We're not fooling around.”
The goal is personal evolution, but on a grand enough scale that it shakes people free from what Phillips calls a bureaucratic, or outward thinking, way of life. That way of thinking, he said, is predicated on three things: dividing society into a hierarchy, focusing on narrow specialization rather than interdisciplinary thinking and working to conform people to an ideal, which has led to growing problems without solutions. To focus on the individual means to integrate knowledge and grow intellectually and emotionally, leading to more problem solving.
“We have accomplished a great deal, but what we have failed at is the development of the individual,” Phillips said in the first seminar on June 7. “We have fantastic potential.”
Basically, Phillips wants to see humanity on an upward slope. He was put on this path in college when he was introduced to the work of C. Wright Mills, a sociologist and the author of “The Sociological Imagination” who advocated for interdisciplinary studies and communication between branches of fields. The separation of the more than 50 branches of sociology frustrates Phillips to no end, and he wants to bring it all together.
“Now, with language, we don't have to wait for biological evolution,” Phillips said. “We could evolve all of us, if we only had a direction for how to evolve. But what happened to us is that we got sucked into early on into a way that was very hierarchical, and it was not very individualistic, so we learned to conform to this bureaucratic way of life.”
The seminar represents years of work in the making, and Phillips hopes to be able to take it to bigger and bigger scales.
“If they believe that they can make a big difference in the world, that's what I'm going to try to motivate them to do,” Phillips said.