Why a blog about lifelong learning and adult education?

Some might wonder why I’m starting a new blog about lifelong learning and adult education during a global pandemic, but this actually makes good sense to me. During this challenging time, hundreds of millions of people around the world have sheltered in place, donned masks, and practiced social distancing in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus. While this is hardly an ideal way of living, perhaps this time offers opportunities to engage in healthy learning activities.
 
I’ve actually been planning to launch this blog for some time. I’ve been a lifelong learning devotee for, well, all of my life. And though I’ve earned various degrees and worked full-time as a law professor for nearly 30 years, many of my most enjoyable educational experiences have been outside of formal, degree-earning settings. Among other things, I love to read and am awash in books. The internet has enabled my news junkie status and provided many online learning opportunities. Quality television, podcasts, and social media content abound. Music is abundantly available via multiple media as well.
 
Sadly, travel — another wonderful form of learning — isn’t an advisable activity as of this January 2021 writing. This means that many rich learning experiences associated with visiting other places aren’t currently available. I look forward to the day when that aspect of our world re-opens, perhaps as early as later this year.

In any event, I hope that a blog devoted to lifelong learning and adult education will both inspire and inform. Here I’ll share personal observations and insights, tales of my own educational adventures, and plenty of learning suggestions and resources. I hope you’ll enjoy More Than a Song!

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For the story behind this blog’s title, More Than a Song, please go here.

Masterful, self-directed learners: The Wright Brothers

A wonderful, fascinating story.

At this stage of my life and career, most of my learning is self-directed. I know that I share this trait with many other middle-aged adults. This understanding has led me to be thinking a lot about the philosophy and practice of self-directed learning lately. It also has caused me to return to  historian David McCullough’s wonderful book, The Wright Brothers (2015).

Before we dive into the main story, let’s start with a definition. In Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers (1975), renowned adult education professor Malcolm S. Knowles defines”self-directed learning” as:

…a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.

That’s as good a definition as any. It covers what a lot of us are doing to enrich our lives and hone new skills.

It also captures what Orville and Wilbur Wright did on their way to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, when they invented and flew the first successful airplane.

Going back to my boyhood days, I had long been familiar with the historic narrative of the two brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio and used virtually all of their spare time to learn about flying. I figured that I knew what I wanted to know about that story, until I started reading McCullough’s book and became enthralled.

McCullough writes about how Orville and Wilbur were raised in very modest surroundings by a missionary father who strongly believed in the power of reading, how their sister Katharine strongly influenced and supported their work, and how an intense devotion to teaching themselves the science and mechanics of flight led to their success.

The brothers were smart and eager to learn. Wilbur, notably, demonstrated qualities of genius. Their accomplishments were especially remarkable given that, as McCullough states, they had “no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own.”

At the time Orville and Wilbur were reading the existing scientific studies about the prospects of manned flight and conducting experiments with homemade wind tunnels in their bicycle shop, other more prominent, well-funded, and well-credentialed inventors and scientists were also working tirelessly to become the first to achieve motorized flight. But this did not dissuade the two brothers from pursuing their goal, with a giant assist from sister Katharine. In fact, they would largely rewrite the book on the science of flying. and in the process refute previous theories and studies advanced by many “experts” on aviation.

Talk about self-directed learning…with a learning outcome that was literally airborne and with consequences that would change the world! If anyone doubts the power of self-directed learning, then let Orville and Wilbur Wright be prime examples that prove otherwise.

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For more about self-directed learning, check out the International Society for Self-Directed Learning and the Alliance for Self-Directed Education.

Some passages in this piece are drawn from a 2015 article about David McCullough and the Wright Brothers posted to my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.

Me, reading Shakespeare?!

(image courtesy of clipart-library.com)

Well folks, if we need any more evidence that life during this pandemic has led us into some unexpected activities, then I submit for your consideration that I have spent the past 10 weeks reading works of Shakespeare. The full period was devoted to Hamlet, while the past two weeks added The Tempest into the mix.

The prompt for this has been my enrollment in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago.   As I wrote here back in January, the Basic Program is an open enrollment, non-credit, four-year study of the Great Books of Western Civilization. There are no exams, papers, grades. Rather, the main activities are reading and discussion. Each week during every 10-week quarter, we have a three-hour session, divided between the “Seminar,” during which we examine several works, and the “Tutorial,” during which we study one book intensively.

Gifted University of Chicago instructors who are thoroughly steeped in these books lead these courses, but they do not lecture. Rather, they ask questions and facilitate discussion in a Socratic fashion. The three-hour sessions are intense but often fly by. We covered the following during Year 1:

From the website of the Graham School, University of Chicago, https://grahamschool.uchicago.edu.

Long offered only via in-person classes at the University of Chicago’s Graham School of Continuing and Professional Studies, the Basic Program began experimenting with a distance learning approach a few years ago. Then came the pandemic, and everything went online via Zoom. While the Program will eventually return to providing in-person instruction, it will retain the online format as well.

I decided to enroll in the Basic Program last fall. During recent years, reading the Great Books had become a “bucket list” item, and I was well aware that the Basic Program was a unique, even legendary adult education offering. (To learn more about it, click here.) When the pandemic hit, I knew that I would benefit from having a meaningful, engaging intellectual activity during this time of relative isolation. I decided to go for it.

Which brings me back to Shakespeare. Yup, I avoided these books like the plague during high school and college. But I looked forward to diving into them through the Basic Program. 

I confess, it was challenging. I do not easily digest works written in Elizabethan English. It’s kind of like eating vegetables for me. Without Program’s expectation that we show up to class ready to discuss the week’s readings, I would not have finished either Hamlet or The Tempest on my own. But thanks largely to our awesome cohort of instructors and fellow students, it was a rewarding experience. Vegetables can be good for us, even if we prefer burgers and pizza.

Enrolling in the Basic Program has been one of the unexpected gifts of this otherwise largely difficult time, and I look forward to the next three years of reading and discussing these important works. Most significantly, I’m getting more out of these books as a middle aged adult, because their themes and lessons intersect with life experience and a more mature understanding of human nature. In terms of Shakespeare, I am no better now than as a college student at deciphering Olde English. But I’m appreciating the content and underlying ideas much, much more.

We begin anew with Year 2 of the Basic Program in September. In the meantime, I will devote part of my summer to a Graham School elective offering, a course on the history of Chicago. Having grown up in northwest Indiana — long considered part of “Chicagoland” — and taken many trips into the city, Chicago’s history has fascinated me for many years. Chicago is, I believe, the most quintessentially American big city, with all of the good and bad that comes with it. The University of Chicago is an integral part of that history, so there will be a cool connection to both my past and present in the explorations of this course.

Revisiting a classic: “The Civil War” by Ken Burns

I’ve been thinking a lot about the relevance of the American Civil War (1861-65) to our current political and social milieu here in the U.S. I have been fascinated by the Civil War since my boyhood days and long understood its ongoing significance in defining our civic life. Events of the past five years, in particular, have underscored the war’s continuing hold on this country.

Starting last week, I opted to re-watch Ken Burns’s 1990 award-winning documentary mini-series “The Civil War.” The debut of “The Civil War” was quite the television event in the fall of 1990, captivating millions of viewers who tuned into their Public Broadcasting Service stations over five consecutive nights. I was among them, and I have watched the full series on multiple occasions over the past 30 years.

In terms of production values, Burns set a new standard for historical documentaries. He recruited renowned historian David McCullough to narrate the series. He used well-known actors and other public figures to be the voices of historical figures. He utilized innovative camera work to bring contemporary still photos to life. He interspersed interview segments with leading historians and public intellectuals to provide authoritative commentary on the war. And he wove in popular music of the day to evoke the era, while brilliantly opting for an exquisitely haunting, modern folk instrumental, “The Ashokan Farewell,” to serve as the series theme music. (Listen to it here.)

Although “The Civil War” won dozens of awards and the hearts of reviewers, it also attracted its share of critics. Some claimed it was too sympathetic to the Northern, anti-slavery point of view. But others asserted that it was too soft on the slave-owning Southern side and critical questions of race and racism, feeding into the mythology of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.

Especially in light of events in the U.S. during the past 15 months, I was curious to gauge my own reaction to this re-watch. How does “The Civil War” hold up against the backdrop of America of the early 2020s? How do criticisms of the documentary play out against our current situation?

Yup, I understand the criticisms that the series is too easy on the pro-slavery South. Historian Shelby Foote, a masterful storyteller who receives a lot of airtime, uses his aw shucks persona to romanticize the Rebel side. He also claims that the main cause of the Civil War was a failure of America’s remarkable ability to compromise, without explaining whether “compromise” includes permitting slavery to exist.

That said, the opening episode of the series devotes considerable time to framing the war in the context of the extraordinary evils of slavery. Also, the series explains how ending slavery increasingly became a central purpose of the Northern cause, in addition to reuniting the nation. Foote’s main counterpart, historian Barbara Fields, helps to take apart the Southern mythology, and her final remarks at the conclusion of the series eerily anticipate our present circumstances.

All in all, I found that “The Civil War” remains a compelling, even epic portrayal of this signature event in American history and a great example of narrative, historical storytelling via film. More than during any previous viewing, it underscored for me the painful reality that, as a nation, we have not resolved the fundamental differences that led to these four years of awful carnage.

Stamps as stories: The Penny Black

In a previous post, I wrote about reviving my boyhood hobby of stamp collecting. As a long-time amateur student of history, I especially love the educative value of stamps that commemorate significant events and individuals. Avid collectors often remark that the ways in which stamps tell stories is one of the great appeals of the hobby, and I heartily agree. 

In addition, some postage stamps constitute historical markers in and of themselves. I offer as a prime example the Penny Black, the world’s first postage stamp, printed in England during 1840-41. As mail service became an increasingly important part of English life and commerce, a British educator named Rowland Hill proposed an easy way of paying for postage, by using bits of printed paper that could be affixed to envelopes. 

Hill’s proposal eventually took hold, and the result was the Penny Black, featuring the profile of Queen Victoria. This marked the beginning of a long British tradition of adorning postage stamps with the profiles of monarchs. However, this took some getting used to, as initially some British subjects found it disrespectful to lick what they regarded as the back of the Queen’s head! Queen Victoria herself intervened to endorse the use of stamps, assuring everyone that no such offense was taken.

For the most part, stamp collecting is a very affordable hobby, at least at my level of engagement. But like any hobby involving collectibles, the rarer, more notable pieces can cost a chunk of change. From an affordability standpoint, the good thing about the Penny Black is that the Brits printed a lot of them, a fair number of which have survived in various conditions. Thus, while select specimens can run into the many thousands of dollars (or pounds, if you’re across the pond!), used Penny Blacks in lesser condition can be obtained at a cost equivalent to picking up the tab for a meal and drinks at a nice restaurant.

Earlier this year, I decided that I wanted a Penny Black as the cornerstone of my budding collection. So, here is my modest specimen, purchased online. It gives me goosebumps to think that this is an authentic piece of Victorian England, having once been affixed to a letter that made its way through the mail system during the 1840s. I can only imagine the story this stamp could tell!

Go online to take free courses from leading professors

If you’re looking for an opportunity to engage in free, college-level learning on topics of personal and professional interest, think about taking a MOOC or two.

MOOC is short for Massive Open Online Course, a form of learning that started to become popular about a decade ago. A typical MOOC is a short-term, non-credit, continuing education course on an academic or professional topic, taught by leading professors in their fields. The course usually mixes online text, pdfs, recorded lectures, and various exercises, quizzes, and tests. Although students enrolled in a MOOC usually do not have direct interaction with the professors who prepared it, they do get the benefit of watching faculty lectures and reading their publications.

You can enroll in most MOOCs for free, though you’ll often have to pay a fee for a formal certificate of completion that can be listed on a resume.

Two of the leading providers of MOOCs are Coursera and EdX. You can also utilize Mooc List to search for other MOOC offerings.

I’ve taken several MOOCs over the years, including “The Science of Happiness,” offered through EdX and taught by professors associated with the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley, and “Psychological First Aid,” offered through Coursera and taught by a professor at Johns Hopkins University. The Psychological First Aid course is required for students enrolled in my Law and Psychology Lab at Suffolk University Law School.

If you’re interested in exploring the vast array of free courses available online, then I recommend checking out the sites I provided above. They may be of special interest to those of you who are looking for easily accessible, no-cost intellectual pursuits while we continue to get through the coronavirus pandemic.

Lifelong learning by reviving a boyhood hobby

Among US air mail issues, the Diamond Head, Hawaii stamp (bottom row, second from left) is a favorite (photo: DY)

Going back to boyhood days, I have been an inveterate collector. Even many of the hobbies I pursued involved collecting. This included baseball/football/basketball cards, coins, and — spotlight, please — postage stamps. I collected stamps through grade school, and I credit that hobby for nurturing my love of history. After all, stamps, especially commemorative issues, tell stories, often those of notable historical events and figures. You can learn a lot about history by building a stamp collection.

At times I have dabbled in stamp collecting as an adult, but I never truly dove back into the hobby. Until now, that is. During my university’s semester break, the pandemic-induced semi-quarantine that has been my life during the past year prompted me to look into collecting again, and this time it stuck. I now have a couple of new stamp albums, a box of supplies, and subscriptions to a two mail order stamp approval services. I also hunt around eBay for stamp bargains.

All sorts of famous people have collected stamps, including such varied figures as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Warren Buffett, Queen Elizabeth II, Sally Ride, and George Bernard Shaw. But the name that stands out to me is Simon Wiesenthal, Holocaust survivor and renowned Nazi hunter. Three years after the Second World War ended, he began collecting stamps. As explained by the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.:

Simon Wiesenthal once wrote that he became interested in stamp collecting in 1948, when he visited a doctor for severe insomnia. “He suggested that I do something at night to take my mind off my troubles, and that’s how I began collecting postage stamps,” Wiesenthal explained. “My hobby has since given me many pleasant hours and helped me to meet people in many countries.”

My life is not remotely as momentous as Wiesenthal’s, but I, too, am already finding that stamp collecting is an absorbing and relaxing hobby as an adult. The subjects captured on the stamps themselves stoke my curiosity, and the process of sorting and placing stamps into my albums has a therapeutic effect. I have a pretty strong feeling that I’ll continue this satisfying and educational hobby, even after it’s safer to be out and about again.

I love US commemorative issues from the post-WWII through mid-60s. Mini works of art. (photo: DY)

What’s behind “More Than A Song”?

So why name a blog about lifelong learning and adult education More Than a Song? A couple of stories provide the answer to that.

A Beginning Voice

Back in the spring of 1995, I was finishing my first year of teaching at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, where I had accepted an appointment as an entry-level assistant professor. It had been a grueling and sometimes stressful year. It started with a move from New York to Boston during the previous summer, followed by a heavy load of classes that required new course preps.

As the school year was coming to an end, I was looking for something fun, different, and distinctly non-legal to do. I had picked up a catalog from the Boston Center for Adult Education (BCAE) and saw a course listing for “Beginning Voice,” accompanied by a short description explaining that learners would sing in a mutually supportive setting. Although I had never done any formal voice instruction before, I had always enjoyed singing, and from the description I assumed this would be like a group chorus experience. On a whim, I signed up.

On a Tuesday night in May, I showed up for the first class, and I was in for a surprise. Jane, our Juilliard-trained instructor, explained the course format: Each week, students individually perform a song of their choice to piano accompaniment and then are coached in front of the group.

From the songbooks that Jane brought to class, I picked a Cole Porter classic, “I Get a Kick Out of You” (featured in the show Anything Goes). Eventually I got up and went to front of the room. Bruce, our accompanist, started to play, and I managed to channel Sinatra finish the song. After polite applause, Jane gave me a few coaching tips, and I sat down, extremely relieved.

Despite my initial shock over the class format, I returned for the remaining sessions. In fact, I registered for every session of the class thereafter, until the BCAE closed its doors in December 2019 because of budgetary and other issues. That class covered 25 years of my life! My repertoire revolved around the Great American Songbook, singing old standards made famous by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and other prominent 20th century composers and lyricists.

I’ve reached a point where I’m a decent singer, so this activity has definitely included personal growth and development, not to mention a lot of fun and source of valued friendships. Singing has also become a form of therapy, a sort of mindfulness practice. It’s about being in the moment and stepping away from everyday ups and downs.

I don’t have any great singing ambitions. We plan to revive the voice class at another adult education center once the current pandemic crisis is over. Regular karaoke sessions and occasional open mic/cabaret nights have become part of the mix as well. (At this writing, karaoke has gone online — a surprisingly fun option!) These modest activities aside, singing with friends has become an important part of my life.

A Friend’s Memoir

John Ohliger (1926-2004) was an iconoclastic, pioneering adult educator, activist, and public intellectual. John’s wide-ranging career included the fostering of a unique, self-styled non-profit entity called Basic Choices, Inc., located in Madison, Wisconsin and described as “A Midwest Center for Clarifying Political and Social Options.” Prior to that, he held a tenured professorship in adult education at Ohio State University. In 2002, he was inducted into the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame.

John was also a cherished personal friend. Although we met in person only twice — via visits to Madison and Boston joined by wonderful company of John’s wife, Chris Wagner — we maintained an ongoing friendship through hundreds of email exchanges and collaborated on several projects. After John’s passing, his work was the subject of a unique collection of essays edited by Andre Grace and Tonette Rocco, Challenging the Professionalization of Adult Education: John Ohliger and Contradictions in Modern Practice (2009). I was delighted to contribute a chapter to the book, “The Adult Educator as Public Intellectual,” which can be accessed here.

Although I knew that John pursued an eclectic array of personal, intellectual, and artistic interests, I was nonetheless mildly surprised when he crafted his unpublished memoir around the framing theme of music and song. Titled My Search for Freedom’s Song: Some Notes for a Memoir, he repeatedly built the short chapters using anecdotes about the role of music in his life.

When I read it, however, I understood. This was no artificial literary device. Music and song were ongoing parts of his life. It became altogether clear why John chose this theme for his memoir.

Epiphany

Perhaps with the exception of my friends from voice class and karaoke sessions, many folks in my life are likely to associate me with the work I’ve been doing for many years as a law professor. (See my Minding the Workplace blog for a taste of that work.)

And yet, when it came to naming this blog, I found myself bowing to John Ohliger’s framing device of music and song. My life of learning has included both, in abundance. Music has always been a meaningful part of my personal culture. Singing has become my favorite pastime, thanks to voice class and karaoke. I mean, think about it, I took a group voice class for some 25 years, with the same teacher and an ongoing cohort of fellow students — and I’d still be doing so now if things were different.

So, dear reader, welcome to More Than a Song. I hope it will provide you with insight, entertainment, and inspiration to pursue your own life of learning.

Libraries as learning hangouts

Main stairwell, Central Library, McKim Building, Boston (photo: DY)

Among the things I miss most from pre-pandemic days is filling up my backpack with papers, books, and magazines, joined by my laptop or iPad, and heading out to the Central Library of the Boston Public Library. It is a truly wonderful place. I had come to enjoy a modest ritual of enjoying a light breakfast or lunch at the library café before finding a place to set up for a few hours.

There are two main parts to the Central Library. The original research library building is an architectural classic, designed by Charles Follen McKim and opened in 1895. When out-of-town friends of sufficiently bookish orientation visit Boston, I often take them on a quick stroll through this building. The BPL’s research collection (not available for lending) is one of the nation’s richest. Its Bates Hall reading room is a showpiece. There are plenty of other beautiful spaces in the building, as well as a fancy tea room with table service.

Bates Hall reading room, Central Library, McKim Building, Boston (photo: DY)

The research library connects to a newer part of the Central Library via this lovely Italianate courtyard, which also serves as a nice spot to read outside or enjoy a picnic-style lunch when the weather cooperates.

Italianate courtyard, Boston Public Library (photo: DY)

The newer library building, added in 1972, was originally designed by Philip Johnson. A recent, beautifully done renovation has made it very appealing and spacious. It houses all of the books and other materials available for borrowing; tables, carrels, and chairs for reading and working; computers and other facilities for public use; a basement auditorium for public events; and the aforementioned (and very good) café. WGBH, one of Boston’s NPR stations, has set up a satellite studio adjoining the café. 

Johnson building, Boston Public Library (photo: DY)

I mention Philip Johnson because he also designed another library that I spent countless hours in when I lived in New York City, NYU’s Bobst Library. Bobst is the university’s central library, and it was my main study location while I was in law school. After I graduated, I obtained an alumni card and continued to use it frequently. Its exterior isn’t all that appealing, a giant red brick structure on the southeast corner of Washington Square Park, which is NYU’s unofficial campus quad in Manhattan. Its interior is also rather utilitarian. But what counted for me were millions of books available on open stacks. I did a lot of exploring in that library during my 12 years in New York.

In fact, I credit Bobst Library for nurturing yet another bookish habit, that of taking a weekend afternoon and going to the library, simply to read to my heart’s content. I’ve done the same at the Boston Public Library. Typically I mix reading stuff that I brought with me and browsing the stacks for new discoveries.

Bobst Library, NYU (photo: Beyond My Ken/Wikipedia)

Libraries are one of humanity’s greatest creations, and they are incubators for lifelong learning and adult education. Once we have the pandemic wrestled down, I look forward to returning to the Boston Public Library. Perhaps you’ll consider a visit or two to your local library as well!

In the meantime, if you’d like to ponder the place of libraries in society, I have some recommendations: First up is The Library: An Illustrated History (2019 ed.), by Stuart A.P. Murray. Call it a delightful, paperback equivalent of an enriching coffee table book, with lively text, photos, and illustrations. The final long chapter takes quick looks at great libraries around the world.

Next is a more serious work, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life (2018), by Eric Klinenberg. It’s not specifically about libraries, but rather discusses them in the broader context of vital civic institutions that help to build community and foster connections.

Finally, there’s a book I confess I haven’t read yet, though it awaits my attention: Susan Orlean’s The Library Book (2018), an bestselling ode to libraries, crafted around the story of the Los Angeles Public Library and a devastating fire in 1986. It has received so much praise from reviewers and friends alike that I list it here, with a reminder that I need to put it on my short list.

Studying the Great Books at the University of Chicago

Let’s face it: Anyone who starts a blog about adult learning for fun must be living outside of the fast lane. If you’d like further confirmation of that, consider that one of my other “fun” activities is a demanding program of reading and discussing classic works of literature.

For many years, I’d had my eye on the University of Chicago’s Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. The Basic Program is an open enrollment, non-credit, four-year sequence of courses featuring close study of what have been called the Great Books. It starts with ancient Greek philosophers and poets (e.g., Plato, Sophocles, Homer) and proceeds to examine other canonical works of Western civilization.

Here’s how the Basic Program describes itself:

The Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults is a rigorous, noncredit liberal arts program that draws on the strong Socratic tradition at the University of Chicago and covers the foundations of Western political and social thought.

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The starting point for the Basic Program is the Four-Year Core Curriculum. Each year is made up of three 10-week Quarters. New Students begin in Year 1 Autumn. They choose from morning, afternoon, or evening sections held online and earn a certificate upon completion of the entire curriculum.

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Each section meets for three hours once a week. Class sections consist of: a 90-minute seminar (discussing several texts) with one instructor, a 90-minute tutorial (discussing a single text) with a different instructor, with a 15-minute break in between.

Go here to view the full Core Curriculum. And here’s the lineup for Year 1 of the Program:

Going online

Of course, from my vantage point, there was always one huge catch with the Basic Program. Until recently, the classes were taught in Chicago, and I’m living here in Boston.

But a few years ago, the Program began offering sections via distance learning. Then the pandemic caused U of C to move all sections online, using the Zoom platform. I happened to check their website over the summer, and I saw they were offering Year 1 sections of the Program at multiple times throughout the week in the fall.

So, in the midst of this pandemic, I decided to enroll.

The seeds of this decision were planted in the spring, when it quickly became evident that the coronavirus would not be going away any time soon. Although I found myself adapting better than I expected to the situation generally, I soon came to realize that simply waiting out this crisis would not be healthy for me. I’m old enough, and (finally) wise enough, to grasp that time squandered will not be replaced. I figured, if I’m going to be at home like this, then I need to find a way to grow intellectually, beyond my immediate work as a law professor.

In addition, my appetite for reading and studying classic books was whetted by an excellent online course that I took in the late spring on Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby-Dick, through the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, which offers courses in the humanities and social sciences taught from critical studies perspective.

When the Basic Program offered a free, sample class session on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address during the early summer, I jumped at the opportunity. I participated in the session and enjoyed it immensely. I decided that this was the right time to jump in.

Zooming back to school

I started during September, with a four-session, introductory class called “How to Read Classic Texts,” a sort of warm-up and test drive for the four-year core curriculum.

In late September, I began Year 1 of the core curriculum, and I’ve now got the first term under my belt.

In the seminar component of the course, we read Sophocles’s Antigone, Plato’s Apology and Crito, and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

The tutorial component was devoted entirely to a very close reading of one work, Plato’s Meno. Over the course of 10 weeks, we read, studied, and discussed this short book on practically a line-by-line basis.

I’m going to be writing a lot about the Basic Program on this blog, but for now let me simply say that the first term was a demanding and very rewarding intellectual workout. I enjoyed learning in the company of both instructors and my fellow students.

We’ve starting up again this month, beginning with Herodotus’s The History and Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics.

Unfinished business

I can be a person of contradictions. I have long resisted required courses and curricula at just about every stage of learning in my life, going back to grade school. If a subject doesn’t interest me, then I don’t want to sink any time into it.

But here I am, delighted to participate in a four-year, prescribed curriculum of courses and books.

You see, I have long wanted to read the classics of the Western tradition, considering this to be a big gap in my education. To the extent that I have a “bucket list,” reading these works has been on it.

The problem is that I’m just not self-disciplined enough to read the Great Books on my own. They require a sustained, concentrated commitment. Although I don’t need the prod of tests and quizzes, I do need the presence of a teacher and fellow learners, along with a set schedule.

That’s exactly what the Basic Program provides. The instructors are dedicated, gifted teachers in the Socratic tradition, and they facilitate dialogues among very bright fellow students who are excited about participating in this course of study.

Back in the day

As a callow young undergraduate at Valparaiso University in Indiana, I had a chance to immerse myself in some of these books. The curriculum of VU’s honors college in the liberal arts and humanities was (and remains) built around the study of core works of the Western canon. I sampled a few literature courses in the college and decided it wasn’t for me. I was much too focused on my own interests in politics and government, and I was way too immature to appreciate these works beyond their most elementary levels, if that.

I would go on to attend law school at New York University, where my focus was on becoming a public interest lawyer. I would practice in the public interest legal sector for six years before entering law teaching. Even after I became an academic, it would be some time before the Great Books crept back onto my radar screen.

Intellectually, I consider myself a late bloomer. But that’s okay. Some growth processes can’t be hurried. Now that I’m delving into these books as an adult, I can understand (1) why I wasn’t drawn to them as a young man; and (2) why they resonate with me much more deeply today. These are full-blooded works, rich with complexity and humanity. To appreciate them, it helps to have some life experience under my belt.

Nerd fantasy

One of my major nerd fantasies has been to engage in a lengthy period of serious reading, contemplation, and discussion for personal intellectual growth, but without tests, term papers, and other graded assignments hovering over me. And somehow this would all be doable along with my other obligations.

I think I’ve found that learning opportunity. The Basic Program is all about reading meaningful books and discussing them in class. No one need ask, “will this be on the exam?” Furthermore, while a solid time commitment is required to read and participate in classes, it’s not as demanding as a formal degree program.

The second part of this nerd fantasy is being able to study in the setting of an ivy-covered college campus, replete with beautiful old libraries, cozy study nooks, and nearby cafés to create the right atmosphere.

The University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus would certainly fit the bill. However, instead of basking in the surroundings of Ivy-covered U, I’m connecting via Zoom. It very likely will remain so for the rest of the Basic Program. When the public health situation improves, I’ll do some of my reading at the main branch of the Boston Public Library — a truly beautiful location in its own right — but for now my apartment-sized condo is my “campus.”

So be it. I have learned to better appreciate my blessings during this pandemic. Among these are opportunities to engage rewarding learning activities. In the case of the Basic Program, I am experiencing the life of the mind in the company of smart, engaged learners and teachers. It’s a splendid, freeing activity during an otherwise confining time.