‘The Great Conversation’ at Chicago: The First 125 Years


Chicago — both the city and the university — is arguably the “Great Books Capital of the World”, having developed and disseminated a concept (“The Great Conversation”) and a technique (“The Socratic Method”) that briefly took America by storm in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and even now continues as a flourishing sub-culture. As part of the celebration of the 125th anniversary of founding of the University of Chicago in 1890, this lecture will survey Chicago’s Great Books history and place it within the larger context of the University of Chicago’s enduring adult liberal education mission. Continue reading

‘We Must Not Be Afraid To Be Free’: The Trials of George Anastaplo


George Anastaplo (1925-2014) has long been a legend for his decade-long Cold War fight against the State of Illinois’s refusal to admit the young World-War-II veteran to the practice of law on the basis of Anastaplo’s assertion of fundamental rights he believed enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. This lecture will combine a review of Anastaplo’s case (from its obscure 1950 Chicago beginning through its famous 1961 U.S. Supreme Court culmination) with a survey of Anastaplo’s understanding of the constitutions of the United States in an attempt to illuminate both the man and the myth. Continue reading

‘It Can’t Happen Here’? A (Frightening) Look at American Dystopias


Although a long line of American authors have written about the United States in positive and even utopian terms, others have written about a darker place, even imagining a dystopian America. For example, in 1935 Sinclair Lewis published a novel depicting a fascist dictatorial takeover of the United States along the lines of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. For many the very notion of an “American dictatorship” is a contradiction in terms and thus too absurd to merit serious consideration: America is often believed to be self-evidently “exceptional” and thus immune to ills that can befall other nations. As Lewis’s title somewhat mockingly put it: It Can’t Happen Here. This lecture surveys several 20th-century works whose authors thought that political evil can indeed “happen here” and that Americans ought to be vigilantly on their guard against “it.” Continue reading

The Gospel According to Muhammad: The Qur’an’s Account of Jesus as a Non-Canonical Gospel


Although a relatively late Abrahamic scripture, the Qur’an has quite a bit to say about figures and events in the Abrahamic tradition that preceded it and that Islam understands itself to be built upon. Among other things, the Qur’an contains within it an account of Jesus’ life and mission that in some sense amounts to yet another “gospel”. This lecture will present an introduction to this “Gospel According to Muhammad” and consider the Qur’anic version of the Jesus story in comparison with New Testamental versions of the story as well as with several non-canonical “Christian” versions. Continue reading

Online Socratic Method Seminars in Adult Congregation Education: A Look at Today’s Realities and Possibilities

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For most of its history, “distance education” meant correspondence courses in which teachers’ lessons and students’ responses (if any) were transmitted by surface mail. With the development of the Internet, however, it is now possible for individuals who are separated physically to come together intellectually in shared virtual learning environments — including virtual environments that are beginning to support the most “high touch” learning of all: “Socratic Method” seminars structured to facilitate students’ critical, collaborative, first-hand engagement with classic texts. After providing a brief overview of distance education in general and contemporary online learning environments in particular, this lecture will examine the realities and possibilities of online Socratic Method seminars today and consider the contributions that such seminars might make to adult congregation education. Continue reading

‘For He Shall Save His People from Their Sins’: The Gospel According to Matthew as Jewish Literature


Although the Gospel According to Matthew is generally and naturally thought of as a “Christian” work, historical and literary evidence suggests that both the text’s author and intended audience may well have been Jewish. Indeed, in some ways Matthew “makes more sense” as one of the last books of the Hebrew Bible than as one of the first books of the New Testament. This lecture will survey the historical and literary contexts in which Matthew was originally produced as well as the religious contexts in which it has been subsequently read in order to consider a new thing in an old light. Continue reading

‘A Rich Man Who Dies Rich Dies in Disgrace’: Andrew Carnegie and ‘The Gospel of Wealth’


As perhaps the classic embodiment of the “rags-to-riches” American Dream, Andrew Carnegie developed a well-thought-out perspective on the proper place of wealth — the getting of it, the living with it and the giving away of it — in a democracy. Indeed, Carnegie both articulated what came to be known as his “Gospel of Wealth” in numerous writings and speeches and manifested it in his life, including in his numerous charitable gifts. Through an examination of Carnegie’s works, this lecture will explore Carnegie’s perspective on wealth, with special attention to those aspects that drove Carnegie to become the father of modern philanthropy. Continue reading