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

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

Living Well in Hard Times; Or, Why Liberal Education is Not a Luxury


In tough economic times, people naturally cut back on “non-essentials,” the little “luxuries” in life they can do without until better times return. For many people, these cuts include “culture” in general and “liberal education” in particular. After all, “great books” and “deep thoughts” don’t pay the rent or put food on the table. This lecture, however, will explore the contrary thesis: that it is precisely in hard times that liberal education is most essential, and “great books” and “deep thoughts” are most valuable — when “living well” most depends upon “living smart.” Continue reading

The Great Books Capital of America: The Role of Chicago in the Great Books Movement


Although the partisans of the great books have always emphasized the universal and timeless aspects of the great books, the emergence of “great books” as a widely recognizable concept is an American cultural phenomenon centered on the particular time and place of mid-20th-century Chicago.  Despite roots in New York and beyond as well as branches around the country and now around the world, the great books movement achieved critical mass in Chicago with which it has been and continues to be identified. Continue reading

Read, Think, Listen, Speak: A Guide for New Students


Welcome to the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. You and your classmates are about to embark upon a voyage. A voyage that adults in Chicagoland have embarked upon for 50 years. A voyage that, experience shows, may literally change your life. To help you get your “sea legs,” as it were, I offer the following words of advice. Continue reading

The Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults Archive Highlights


Produced as part of the preparation for the Basic Program’s 50th Anniversary (1996–1997), four volumes of the highlights of archival material gathered from various sources concerning the origins and development of the Great Books Movement with emphasis on the role of the University of Chicago in general and the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults in particular.

  • Volume 1: Internal Documents
  • Volume 2: Public Documents
  • Volume 3: Press
  • Volume 4: 1958-59 Self-Study
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Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults: YEAR 4


Founded in 1946, the University of Chicago’s Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults is a structured, four-year, non-credit curriculum in which students read and discuss the classics of the Western traditions under the guidance of experienced staff instructors. Readings span ancient Greece and ancient Israel to modern Europe and America and include works of philosophy, drama, fiction, poetry, politics, and history. These works present a variety of perspectives on enduring human questions, such as: What is justice and how can we best achieve it? What does it mean to live a good human life? What is truth, does it exist, and how do we find it? Continue reading