Chautauqua event to explore Zen, motorcycles and Montana

MSU will host a conference exploring the work of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” author Robert Pirsig Dec. 7-8.

The two-day event will involve lectures by international experts on Pirsig’s work alongside talks by MSU faculty and students, and includes a session inviting audience members to speak briefly about the impact of the book in their own life.

Among the featured speakers will be Anthony McWatt, the first recipient of a doctorate in ‘Metaphysics of Quality’ based on Pirsig’s work, and Lee Glover, who spent five years developing a documentary film project, “Meridian,” inspired by the book. “Meridian” will also have its premiere showing Saturday evening.

Other highlights in the schedule include a speech by MSU President Waded Cruzado Friday evening and a two-hour forum Saturday intended to solicit testimonials about attendees’ relationship with the book.

Michael Sexson, an English professor and one of the event’s primary organizers, said it coincides with Pirsig receiving an honorary doctorate at the university’s inaugural fall commencement Dec. 15. While Pirsig, 84, is unable to attend the conference and ceremony due to ill health, Sexson will accept the honorary degree on the writer’s behalf.

Pirsig taught at MSU, then called Montana State College (MSC), from 1959 to 1961, and wrote “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” partly as a result of a colleague’s passing comment asking if he was teaching “Quality” to his students.

The book, subtitled “An Inquiry into Values,” uses the narrative of a father-son motorcycle trip across the American West to explore themes ranging from mechanics to metaphysics. It was listed in 2011 on Time Magazine’s list of “All-TIME 100 Nonfiction Books.”

“Zen” is a “substantive book that is also accessible on a popular level,” Sexson said. “I can’t think of many other books that do that,” he added, saying that the work has influenced hundreds of thousands since its publication in 1974.

However, Pirsig’s relationship with the school was uneasy, especially amidst the political currents of the late 1950s. He ultimately criticized MSC in the book as a “teaching college” where “you teach and you teach and you teach with no time for contemplation, no time for research, no time for participation in outside affairs.” Sexson remarked that the poetic irony of Pirsig accepting an honorary degree from MSU a half-century later would be a focus of MSU student Dustin Dallman’s talk Friday evening.

The event’s title, “Chautauqua 2012,” is taken from a historic style of traveling lecture series that, in Pirsig’s words, seeks to “improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer.”


If You Go:

Friday 7-9 p.m., Gaines Hall 101:
Speakers including MSU President Waded Cruzado, Michael Sexson and David Buchanan.
Saturday 10 a.m.- 8:30pm, SUB Ballrooms:
Speaker Anthony McWatt, open forum to discuss Pirsig’s work, premiere showing of Lee Glover’s “Meridian” and other events.

RSVP and see the full schedule at

Because the event conflicts with Friday evening’s football game, special event parking will be set aside in the 11th and Grant lot.