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


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

A “Great Conversation” Model of University DEI: At the University of Chicago, for Example


The “Great Conversation” model of the university presupposes an intellectual posture of skepticism and humility that is incompatible with claims of epistemic privilege, the notion that some individuals or groups have greater inherent access to truth. UChicago DEI initiatives should reflect this by incorporating perspectives that question all aspects of DEI. Not doing so results in a “Great Monologue” that impedes the quest for truth and diminishes the possibility of truth-based activism, as well as denigrates those holding currently unfashionable views. Continue reading

The White Man’s Peril: Heart of Darkness as Conrad’s Reply to Kipling


Today often considered both anti-imperialist and profoundly racist, Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness can be understood as simultaneously affirming and rejecting the “imperial logic” epitomized in Rudyard Kipling’s contemporaneous poem “The White Man’s Burden”. This lecture will attempt to offer a holistic interpretation of Conrad’s novella that makes sense of its apparent internal contradictions by examining Kipling’s “imperial logic” and Conrad’s critique of it — a critique grounded in the profoundly multivalent contention at Heart of Darkness’s unspoken, “horrific” core: that “Whiteness is only skin-deep”. Continue reading

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

“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

Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice as Christian Comedy


Although modern interpretations of The Merchant of Venice often focus on the play’s characterization and treatment of the Jewish moneylender Shylock, both the play’s title and plot suggest that Shakespeare’s focus was on the Christian merchant Antonio. Through a careful reading and discussion of Shakespeare’s play in conjunction with selections both from Christopher Marlowe’s roughly contemporaneous The Jew of Malta and from the New Testament, this course will explore Shakespeare’s exaltation of “graceful Christianity” in both the major and minor plot threads of one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays. Continue reading

Primary Texts and Personal Empowerment


“The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a center of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.”

The function of this class will be to put these words into practice as we read, discuss and write about a range of important primary texts with a variety of perspectives on the theme of personal empowerment: what it is, what it’s not, and how to get it (both inside and outside of school).  One of the authors we will read wrote the words just quoted; another author we will read disagreed.  Other authors put the emphasis elsewhere entirely.  Along the way, we will also focus on the development of critical thinking skills, including the ability to understand, assess and formulate logical arguments. Continue reading

Shakespeare and His Others: Comparisons across Time and Space


Reading Shakespeare’s plays in the context of similar plays by other great (and not-so-great) playwrights allows one to better appreciate the genius of both Shakespeare and his “others”.  In this course we will look at four pairs of plays in order to examine the similarities and differences in each pairing as we seek to understand the plays themselves in particular and “Shakespeare” in general.  After beginning with The Merchant of Venice and the contemporaneous The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe, we will consider Romeo and Juliet in conjunction with Nizami’s rendering of the medieval Arabian/Persian love story of Layla and Majnun and Antony and Cleopatra in conjunction with Kalidasa’s medieval Indian play The Recognition of Sakuntala.  We will conclude with a close reading of Hamlet alongside Tom Stoppard’s modern Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Continue reading

Great Ideas I


This course is designed both to introduce students to some of the major texts of the Western tradition and to help students develop their critical thinking skills, including the ability to understand, assess and formulate logical arguments. To pursue these goals we will read, discuss and write about works loosely organized around two themes: 1) god(s); 2) power.  The oldest of these texts was composed almost 3000 years ago; the most recent was composed about 300 years ago. Continue reading

Great Ideas II


This course is designed both to introduce students to some of the major texts of the Western tradition and to help students develop their critical thinking skills, including the ability to understand, assess and formulate logical arguments .  To pursue these goals we will read, discuss and write about a number of works loosely organized around the themes of morality and the relationship of the individual and society. Continue reading