Great Books and Big Lies (“Theirs” and “Ours”)

LECTURES > PREVIOUS

In contrast to Plato’s ideal polity ruled by a “philosopher-king”, an ideal democracy must be ruled by “philosopher-citizens”, each of whom pursues wisdom through independent, critical thinking. One of the central ongoing tasks of such free thinking is the recognition, analysis, and rebuttal of the assorted “big lies” (i.e., propaganda) perpetually perpetrated by foe and friend alike. Lifelong liberal education grounded in the great books can help us do this. As the preface to an old University of Chicago reader once put it: “If citizens are to be free, they must be their own judges. If they are to judge well, they must be wise. Citizens may be born free; they are not born wise. Therefore, the business of liberal education in a democracy is to make free men wise.” Continue reading

The Foundation of Free Speech? John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty

COURSES > LIFELONG | COURSES > ONLINE

Often cited as one of the most celebrated defenses of free speech ever written, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty makes its case on the basis of utility rather than natural rights. But is Mill’s argument sound? We’ll attempt to find out as we consider his argument in detail. Please read chapter 1 prior to the first class. Continue reading

Reading Plato’s Republic … Twice!

COURSES > LIFELONG | COURSES > ONLINE

Using the strategy laid out in Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book, this course is devoted to developing a thorough understanding of Plato’s Republic by reading it once quickly to get an overview and then again more slowly to figure out the details. Along the way, we’ll pay careful attention to both the dramatic and the philosophic features that Plato interweaves to create a Socratic “one man show” (think Fonda as Darrow or Holbrook as Twain) “on justice”. Whether you’ve attempted the Republic before or never cracked the cover, this course is for you. Please skim Books 1-4 of the Republic before the first class session. You may also want to read Adler’s How to Read a Book before or during the course but that is not required.
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21st-Century African-American Perspectives on Race

COURSES > LIFELONG | COURSES > ONLINE

Through close reading and discussion of a number of modern classics this course will seek to better understand two lines of African-American thinking about racism today. The more mainstream, “liberal” school of thought contends that America has always been — and is still today — a fundamentally racist nation. The less known, “conservative” school of thought contends not only that America has made great racial progress, but that the greatest obstacle to further progress is the “liberal” narrative itself. Readings includes works by Derrick Bell, Shelby Steele, Ta-Nehisi Coates, John McWhorter, Ibram Kendi, and Glenn Loury. Prior to the first class, please do the readings indicated on the syllabus and watch the 2020 documentary What Killed Michael Brown? … with as much “critical empathy” for each work as possible. Continue reading

Hannah and Hitler

COURSES > LIFELONG | COURSES > ONLINE

The causes and consequences of the rise and fall of Nazi totalitarianism are arguably among the most important lessons of the 20th century. This course will grapple with these issues through close readings of Hannah Arendt’s controversial classics The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil alongside Adolph Hitler’s notorious Mein Kampf. Prior to the first class, please read the short assignments noted in the syllabus and watch Charlie Chaplin’s famous 1940 film, The Great Dictator. (Please do not watch any of the other films used later in the course.) Continue reading

Two Feminisms: De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind

COURSES > LIFELONG | COURSES > ONLINE

Writing just before and just after the second world war, Margaret Mitchell and Simone de Beauvoir depicted two types of feminism in two types of text. De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) combines source data to make an explicit philosophical case for what might be called “progressive feminism”, while Mitchell’s romance Gone With the Wind (1936) makes an implicit case for what might be called “reactionary feminism” through its depiction of Scarlett O’Hara’s coming of age during and after the Civil War. The course will explore both works in an effort to understand each in its own right as well to appreciate the similarities and differences between the two feminisms. Please do the assigned readings listed on the syllabus prior to the first class session.
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A Matter of Black and White: 20th Century Perspectives on Race

COURSES > LIFELONG | COURSES > ONLINE

Inspired by W.E.B. DuBois’s famous thesis that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line”, this course will try to understand a variety of 20th-century perspectives on race through a sympathetic examination of a selection of classic works of fiction, nonfiction, and cinema by authors and directors Black and White, including: DuBois himself, Rudyard Kipling, Frantz Fanon, Thomas Dixon, Jr., James Baldwin, and Joseph Conrad, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Prior to the first class, please do the short readings and watch D.W. Griffith’s (in)famous 1915 silent film, The Birth of a Nation … from a perspective as “critically empathic” as possible. Continue reading

Home Front, War Front: “Mrs. Miniver” and “Scarlett O’Hara” as the Interpretive Keys to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun

LECTURES > PREVIOUS

Since it was first produced on Broadway in 1959 and by Hollywood in 1961, Lorraine’s Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun has been widely ranked as a modern classic — though perhaps not a completely understood one. For a full appreciation of this self-consciously-literary work requires not only, in general, a deep appreciation of a large number of subtle allusions in the text, but also, in particular, a deep appreciation of a few seemingly-trivial allusions to two of the most important American movies to come out of the World War II era: Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Gone With the Wind (1939). Once these contextual and intertextual allusions are fully understood, individually and collectively, the full significance of A Raisin in the Sun as a “war film” about the “home front” of America’s “race war” — indeed, as an “African American war film” about the “home front” of America’s “race war” — comes easily into view. Hansberry’s work thus exemplifies the dictum of T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: that no artist “has his complete meaning alone” but rather can only be fully appreciated when set “for contrast and comparison, among the dead”. Continue reading