Group Therapy with Great Books: On the Remaking of Adults through Lifelong Liberal Re-Education


Over the 70 years since 1946, the University of Chicago Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults has provided opportunities for intellectually curious adults to read and discuss selected “great books” under the guidance of staff instructors. Why? And why have intellectually curious adults continued to take advantage of these opportunities? In this lecture, I will attempt to answer these and related questions as part of a general reflection on the ends and means of lifelong liberal learning, drawing upon my own 20+ years of experience as a Basic Program instructor along with ideas as old and distant as Socrates’ and as recent and near as those of the late University of Chicago professor Herman Sinaiko. My starting point will be a 1958 observation by Warren Winiarski, then a Basic Program staff instructor, that in the Basic Program:
“[W]e re-open the universal problems and questions, and thus call into question the particular and specific answers which constitute the adultness of adults; we unmake adults — we make adults into children. Adult education of this kind is not a continuing of their education; it is the possibility of their being re-educated. For to be educated in this way means, in so far as the principles, answers and beliefs constitutive of adultness are questioned — to be de-educated or to unlearn what we learned before.” Continue reading

Aeneas Gets an Epic: Virgil’s Aeneid and the Invention of the ‘Greco-Roman’ World


Both in its conception and in its execution, Virgil’s Roman epic the Aeneid is intimately dependent upon Homer’s Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Indeed Virgil goes out of his way to both imitate Homer’s poems and to connect his story with Homer’s stories.  This lecture will explore the various relationships between Virgil’s work and Homer’s works in order to better understand both the Aeneid as a work of literature and Virgil’s cultural project to portray Rome as an integral part of the classical Greek world. Continue reading

Strategies for ‘Negro Advancement’: Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery vs. W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk


Although often pigeonholed as “African-American intellectuals”, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois thought deeply about the nature of man and America when developing their programs for “Negro advancement”. This lecture will examine their analyses and conclusions as reflected in their two best-known works, Up from Slavery and The Souls of Black Folk, as well as consider how and why they arrived at what are often understood as diametrically-opposed and mutually-exclusive perspectives and programs — for African-Americans in particular and human beings in general Continue reading

The State(s) of the Union: Evolving Notions of ‘Nation’ in America’s Founding Documents


Although there is a long tradition of projecting contemporary understandings of the American polity back onto its beginnings, a close examination of America’s “Founding Documents” reveals a range of notions about the nature of “America”. This lecture will survey some of the key documents and notions in an attempt to understand the documents themselves, the evolution of the concept of “America” and the vestiges of these various notions that survive to this day. Continue reading

The Many Meanings of Meekness; Or, Taking the ‘Uncle Tom’ Out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin


Despite the fact that “Uncle Tom” has become a negative cultural stereotype connoting a Black who is abjectly servile to Whites, a close reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin suggests that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom was no “Uncle Tom”. Indeed, imposing such a characterization on the novel’s protagonist undermines one of the central messages of the book. This lecture will examine the novel and the history of its interpretation as a means of deriving a fair reading of both the text and its key character. Continue reading

Shakespeare’s ‘Letter to the Romans’: ‘Anti-Judaism’ (Not ‘Anti-Semitism’) in The Merchant of Venice


Although The Merchant of Venice is today often perceived as “anti-Semitic”, a careful consideration of both the play and the label suggests that this is not so. Rather, Shakespeare’s play dramatizes both a critique of “legalistic Judaism” similar to the one made by Paul (who arguably lived and died a Jew) in his “Letter to the Romans” and an exaltation of “graceful Christianity”. As such, The Merchant of Venice can be properly understood as the “anti-Judaic comedy of Antonio” rather than as the “anti-Semitic tragedy of Shylock”. Continue reading

Agent in Athens, Patient in Jerusalem: The Cosmic (Sense of) Self in Ancient Greek and Judaic Cultures


One of the great insights of the modern era is that notions of what a “person” is, as well as notions about the “cosmos” those persons inhabit, vary from culture to culture. Indeed the two are linked. In this talk, we will explore the interconnections between cultural notions of “self’ and “cosmos” by considering the cases of ancient Greek culture on the one hand and ancient Judaic culture on the other. In each case, notions of creation were correlated with notions of the cosmos that in turn were correlated with notions of the nature of man and the nature of wisdom. In Athens, the cosmic (sense of) self was that of a cosmic agent, while in Jerusalem it was that of a cosmic patient. Continue reading

On the Cutting Room Floor: Books that Didn’t Make It into the Bible


Despite our habit of talking about it in the singular, “the Bible” is an anthology of many books from different times and places. But not every book that could have made it into the Bible did so. This lecture will survey the processes by which the biblical anthology was put together and explore some of the books that were left “on the cutting room floor.” Continue reading