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.

2022 side gig: Serving as a “Fellow in Ideas” at Harrison Middleton University

This year, I’m delighted to be doing an important “side gig” endeavor as a 2022 “Fellow in Ideas” at Harrison Middleton University (HMU), an online university devoted exclusively to the exploration of Great Books and Great Ideas.  Those selected as Fellows contribute reviews and essays to HMU’s publications and join in various discussion groups.

So far, my participation has included:

I look forward to taking part in more HMU activities to round out my fellowship experience during the fall.

Harrison Middleton University is a unique educational entity. Its strongest intellectual roots trace back to Great Books of the Western World, a series of books first published by the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952, comprised mostly of full works by selected authors of the Western canon. HMU has obtained national accreditation through the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC). Whereas many DEAC-accredited members are for-profit institutions emphasizing vocational preparation, HMU is a non-profit, online university devoted solely to the liberal arts.

HMU’s work is especially needed during a time when independent inquiry, liberal learning, and the Great Books are on the decline in much of standard-brand higher education and under attack from the social and political extremes. It is a gift to be a year-long visitor to this stimulating, intelligent, and welcoming community.

“I read the news today, oh boy”: On following coverage of a war in Europe

Screenshot of an Economist subscriber briefing on the Russia-Ukraine war

I sheepishly admit that until a few weeks ago, I had never paid much attention to Ukraine. But once Vladimir Putin’s Russia appeared ready to invade its much smaller neighbor, I sat up straight and quickly realized what was at stake. And all it took was a look at a map plus my (very) rudimentary understanding of global diplomacy and treaty obligations.

Back in October, I wrote about the importance of developing a global orientation, while confessing that I had a ways to go before reaching that state of insight and awareness:

In my more self-deluded moments, I like to think of myself as being something of a “global citizen.” After all, I do some international travel, engage in work that has some transnational relevance, donate to global charities, and gratefully have friends in and from many different countries. Hey, I even subscribe to the Guardian Weekly and The Economist!

In reality, though, I’m yet another professor whose travel experiences, work, and network of friends have international dimensions. I’m just as likely to check on the fortunes of my favorite sports teams as I am to click to news stories of key developments in other parts of the world.

Well folks, it’s interesting that I touted my subscription to The Economist as evidence of a supposed international perspective. Among the news sources I’ve tapped to understand the European situation right now, this magazine is becoming my go-to authority. Its smart, concise, and historically-informed coverage is spot-on for this moment in time. And to think that I considered not renewing my subscription earlier this year!

What’s not part of my news rotation right now is regularly watching television coverage of the war. Fortuitously, I guess we could say, my cable TV service has been off and on, and for various reasons I haven’t scheduled an on-site service appointment. So I’ve been relying on online news sites and print subscriptions to keep me informed.

My verdict? Television news may provide that dramatic, you-are-there kind of coverage, but it’s thin on deeper perspective and endlessly repetitive to boot. It feeds anxiety over the global situation, without delivering a concomitant benefit of more in-depth understanding.

The heroism and suffering of the Ukrainian people,  the actions and intentions of a tyrant in command of a huge military force, and the diplomatic chess game both transparent and opaque have drawn much of my attention. Two weeks ago, I missed a university committee meeting because I had gone down an internet news rabbit hole about the Russian invasion — clicking like mad from site to site and story to story — and didn’t re-emerge until the meeting had concluded!

When the world initially went into shutdown mode during the pandemic, some pundits said this marked the end of an era of globalization that had defined our international outlook since the 1990s. But this war in Ukraine is showing us, with sudden brutality, how we cannot afford to look at our lives through a narrower lens. Memo to self: We are all citizens of the world, whether we choose to admit it or not. Our day-to-day learning and self-education must encompass that global view.

Walking the streets of Ye Olde London Towne: When a big book satisfies

My current streaming devotion is Netflix’s “The Frankenstein Chronicles” (2 seasons, 2015-17), a mystery and horror drama set in early 19th century London. The series features Sean Bean as Inspector John Marlott, lead investigator of a string of violent crimes possibly associated with a scientist who is intent on bringing the dead back to life. It’s a clever build on Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).

“The Frankenstein Chronicles” depicts the London of the poor and downtrodden, drawing upon real-life historical figures to make for an entertaining mix of fact and fiction. This grim and gritty side of 19th century London has long held a fascination for me.

In fact, this current binge view caused me to reach for one of my favorite books of popular history, Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography (2001).  Here’s a snippet from the Publisher’s Weekly starred review of the book:

Novelist and biographer Ackroyd (The Plato Papers; T.S. Eliot; etc.) offers a huge, enthralling “biography” of the city of London. . . . Ackroyd examines London from its pre-history through today, artfully selecting, organizing and pacing stories, and rendering the past in witty and imaginative ways. . . . Anglophiles and others will rejoice.

London: The Biography is less a chronological history and more a thematic narrative, drawing generously on contemporary accounts from Londoners known and not-so-well known. Its greatest success is an array of especially vivid depictions of everyday life during the Elizabethan through Victorian eras.

Reading this book, you can practically smell the cooked food from street carts and cheap eateries, and the stinking slop of unsanitary streets. You can picture yourself walking into smoky coffee houses and seeing Londoners of all types conducting their business over “dishes” of the hearty brew. You can imagine the awful living conditions of the working poor and the destitute.  And you quickly grasp that stealing a bit of food or an item of clothing, even out of pure desperation, may lead to harsh and humiliating punishments meted out by an unforgiving justice system.

This is a big book — some 800 pages — but fortunately it can be read selectively and completely out of order, dipping and choosing based on one’s specific curiosities. If you decide to take a look at it, do remember that you’re not reading about a city celebrated for its beauty, such as Paris or Venice. Rather, as Patrick McGrath put it in a review titled “A City Much Like Hell” for the New York Times, this is:

…a loving portrait of a rambunctious monster, warts and all. Of the modern city Ackroyd says it ”can hold, or encompass, anything; in that sense it must remain fundamentally unknowable.” His own great accomplishment in this hugely entertaining volume is to make unknowable London to a large extent knowable — by the inspired selection and deft organization of extraordinary materials, and his spirited prose. He succeeds in animating on the page the lived life of one of the oldest and greatest — if dampest and grayest — cities in the world.

 

Aristotle’s invitation to consider the people and events material to our lives

As I wrote in one of this blog’s first posts, since last September I have been enrolled in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, offered by the University of Chicago’s Graham School for Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. The Basic Program is an open enrollment, non-credit, four-year study of the Great Books of Western Civilization.

There are no exams, papers, or grades. Rather, the main activities are reading and discussion, via weekly classes smartly facilitated by Program instructors. Traditionally offered in face-to-face format at the school’s Chicago center, the Basic Program is now available online as well. (It has been delivered exclusively online during the pandemic.) The online format has made it possible for me to enroll from Boston.

Aristotle’s Poetics

Among the books assigned for our current, second-year autumn session is Aristotle’s Poetics, regarded as the first comprehensive work of literary criticism. Aristotle was an inveterate cataloguer and categorizer of knowledge and information. In this compact work (all of 35 pages, in the edition we’re reading), he identifies and discusses the core properties of literature and poetry, including tragedy, epic poetry, and comedy.

I find it fascinating to read how Aristotle sets out basic elements of storytelling that we now teach from grade school on up. At times he keeps it remarkably simple, telling us that a plot “is a whole if it has a beginning, a middle, and an end” (ch. 7). A little later,  he reminds us that “if the presence or absence of a thing makes no discernible difference, that thing is not part of the whole” (ch. 8). It’s basic stuff that we now may take for granted, but Aristotle helped to give us these elementary frameworks for understanding and creating dramatic work.

The stories of our lives

I also find that Poetics helps me to view my own stories more clearly. For example, the two passages quoted above may seem like statements of the obvious, rather than meaningful insights. After all, it doesn’t take a literary scholar to know that stories and plots — including our own — have a beginning, middle, and end. It also doesn’t take much to understand how people and things that pass through our lives with little impact aren’t core parts of our life stories.

But they serve as easy frames for identifying, sorting, and understanding the stories of our lives. What are those plots? What are their beginnings, middles, and ends? Who are the core players in them? Perhaps I’m especially appreciative because I’ve reached a point in my life where events and people in my life seem to be shaping into coherent chapters. On that note, a short passage from Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation (2004), by the late Joseph Campbell, is instructive:

In a wonderful essay called “On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual,” [philosopher Arthur] Schopenhauer points out that, once you have reached an advanced age, as I have, as you look back over your life, it can seem to have had a plot, as though composed by a novelist. Events that seemed entirely accidental or incidental turn out to have been central in the composition.

Making the Great Books your own: Growing in literary literacy or cherry-picking for relevant passages?

Let me confess that I may be guilty here of cherry-picking Poetics to suit my own purposes. Unlike some of Aristotle’s other works, this is not obviously applicable as a self-help volume. And yet I’m juxtaposing two short passages in a way that serves such a purpose for me.

In the Basic Program, our first objective is to understand and appreciate these works as literature. We are expected to read assigned chapters closely before class. During class, oftentimes we read passages aloud and discuss them at length. For many students in the Program, this is a golden opportunity to obtain a classical liberal arts education during the heart of adulthood, and/or to renew a connection with books encountered (and sometimes glossed over, to put it kindly, in my case) in our earlier schooling.

However, as one of our learned Chicago instructors has remarked on several occasions, the Great Books can also work as therapy. In fact, we now have a term — bibliotherapy — that captures how reading works of literature can help people to understand and cope with the ebbs and flows of their own lives. There’s even a book that provides specific reading suggestions, Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin, The Novel Cure, From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You (2013).

Personally, I am happy to combine both programmatic and personal learning benefits in reading these classic books. Unlike some of my more intellectual friends, I am not given to reading great novels and other literary works for their own sake. I need a connection, a point of relevance, to appreciate them more fully. So when a few lines from Aristotle speak to me, I get excited about that. I hope there will be many more such moments during the path of the Basic Program.

Embracing middlebrow culture: The Book-of-the-Month Club

1965 BOMC ad

Not long ago, if you were part of America’s growing middle class and wanted to expand your cultural literacy, the Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC) was a popular option towards doing so.

Founded in 1926, BOMC was the brainchild of New York ad agency guys who tapped into America’s embrace of mail order and the reading appetites of its upwardly mobile middle class. People typically became BOMC members by answering a magazine ad or a direct mail invitation. The Club’s marketing hook was an initial membership package that offered either a free premium volume or allowed you to select titles from the club’s catalog for a small initial sum. However, you also had to fulfill a membership agreement, which meant buying a specified number of books at club prices within the next two or three years.

Every month, members would receive a packet in the mail, containing a flyer describing the editors’ main selection for that month, a short catalog describing alternate and back list selections, and a reply card. If you did nothing, the main selection would be sent to you. You could also use the reply card to indicate that you didn’t want the main selection or to order alternate and back list selections.

Here’s a premium book once offered to new BOMC members, a 1954 illustrated profile of Europe. I can only imagine the different emotions evoked by this volume, published just nine years after the conclusion of the Second World War.

(photo: DY)

BOMC as a middlebrow cultural broker

BOMC offered a way to bring good books into your home with minimal hassle, screened by reviewers who had discerning eyes for the reading tastes of middlebrow America. Over the years, BOMC assembled various panels of judges to evaluate and select books for its catalog, some of whom were accomplished authors in their own right. During the Club’s heyday, serving as a BOMC selection committee judge carried some prestige within mainstream publishing circles.

Commercially speaking, BOMC was a big deal to authors seeking to broaden their readership. Main selection status signaled a stamp of approval by a trusted brand and a guarantee of higher sales. BOMC favored quality fiction and non-fiction for a general, intelligent audience, while largely avoiding books that might be considered too tawdry or cheesy. Its marketing campaigns played on such appeal and the idea of building a good home library, while usually managing to avoid lapsing into higher-level snobbery.

Among some stuffier types, however, this combination of commercial advertising and middle class reading tastes prompted derision of the whole enterprise (and by implication, perhaps, of its customers). Nevertheless, the Book-of-the-Month Club elevated America’s literary intelligence by bringing good books to an upwardly mobile swath of America’s population.

BOMC bestseller

If you’re looking for a sign of where BOMC’s cultural center of gravity rested during its heyday, consider that its bestselling book ever was journalist William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. First appearing in 1960, it was a publishing phenomenon, stunning industry experts who believed that Americans wanted to put anything to do with the war behind them. The Rise and Fall was a BOMC main selection and a favorite backlist choice for years to come.

 (photo: DY)

Big box and online booksellers

Predictably, the appearance of larger, brick and mortar bookstores and the emergence of online booksellers would spell trouble for the Book-of-the-Month Club. I was an off-and-on member from the 1980s through the early 2000s, and I witnessed its steadily declining commercial and cultural significance in shaping reading appetites.

After briefly shutting down in 2014, BOMC quietly reappeared the next year. Its owner, Bookspan, relaunched the Club as a fully online enterprise, using a streamlined subscription model. Its target readership is younger women who enjoy popular fiction.

When more is less special, and less is more special

I sometimes think about BOMC’s classic sales model as I try to manage my personal and professional book collections.

I’m generally careful in my personal spending, except for when it comes to buying books. On that note, I have little willpower. I can justify rationalize a book purchase on multiple grounds: (1) I want to read it now; (2) I want to read it later; (3) I might want to read it later; (4) It’s on sale; (5) It’s a used bookstore bargain find; (6) It’s useful for my work; (7) It’s a lovely edition of a favorite book; (8) Whatever. As a result, I have many more books than I could ever hope to read, even assuming a comfortable retirement someday and many healthy years to follow.

I’m grateful that I can afford to indulge my book-buying habit. I realize, however, that adding multiple books to my home and office libraries each month is not as special as the delicious anticipation of a new book, selected from a curated list. For example, I wonder how cool it was for a hungry reader to receive Marchette Chute’s Shakespeare of London (1949), including a neat little essay accompanying the volume.

(photo: DY)

Highly recommended

I won’t burden you with further observations about BOMC’s place in America’s 20th century cultural history. If you want to learn more about that story, with a big dollop of personal reading memoir mixed in, then I highly recommend Janice Radway’s A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle Class Desire (1997). Ignore the snarky reviews by those who, for some reason, can’t get over (1) a book that’s good with middlebrow culture; and (2) BOMC’s undeniable profit-making motive. This is an informative and entertaining read.

(photo: DY)

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Note: Passages from this post were adapted from a 2016 entry to my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser.

On developing a global orientation

Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic, during a 2017 visit for a law and mental health conference (photo: DY)

In my more self-deluded moments, I like to think of myself as being something of a “global citizen.” After all, I do some international travel, engage in work that has some transnational relevance, donate to global charities, and gratefully have friends in and from many different countries. Hey, I even subscribe to the Guardian Weekly and The Economist!

In reality, though, I’m yet another professor whose travel experiences, work, and network of friends have international dimensions. I’m just as likely to check on the fortunes of my favorite sports teams as I am to click to news stories of key developments in other parts of the world.

By contrast, I know a good number of people whom I count as bonafide global citizens. Whether they travel around the world or not, they have a genuine international orientation that gives them a broader perspective on this planet we inhabit. Some, like friends and colleagues connected with the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network and the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, two wonderful organizations on whose boards I serve, devote significant energies toward furthering peace, justice, and humanitarian initiatives around the world.

How can we become more globally oriented citizens? This question has crossed my mind often and seems especially important right now, as we continue to grapple with a global pandemic and face a world increasingly impacted by climate change. Ironically, these developments threaten to turn us inward rather than outward, restricting international travel (a marvelous way of expanding our horizons) and causing us to protect our smaller circles rather than advancing the well-being of the broader global community.

For those of us who have leaned towards being more local or national in our outlook, it requires intentionality to view the world through a wider lens. This includes paying closer attention to news developments from around the world. It means bringing a more inclusive spirit to our lives, one that celebrates variety and diversity and naturally builds bonds with people from other cultures. And, when possible, travel can be part of the picture. In the words of Rick Steves, the popular travel author and educator:

Of course, travel, like the world, is a series of hills and valleys. Be fanatically positive and militantly optimistic. If something’s not to your liking, change your liking. Travel is addicting. It can make you a happier American, as well as a citizen of the world. Our Earth is home to over 7 billion equally important people. It’s humbling to travel and find that people don’t envy Americans.

. . . Globetrotting destroys ethnocentricity. It helps you understand and appreciate different cultures. Travel changes people. It broadens perspectives and teaches new ways to measure quality of life. Many travelers toss aside their hometown blinders. Their prized souvenirs are the strands of different cultures they decide to knit into their own character. The world is a cultural yarn shop.

And, at its most challenging levels, building a global outlook involves trying to understand and address the seemingly intractable differences that are causing so much strife and division today. For as President Kennedy said in his moving and compelling 1963 speech on the urgent need to curb the nuclear arms race:

And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

My problem with The New Yorker — or is it The New Yorker’s problem with me?

A New Yorker cover for our times

For decades, The New Yorker magazine has aspired to excellence in publishing what we now call long-form journalism. Each week, it delivers well-written, deeply-researched, and fact-checked dives into topics both mainstream and esoteric, along with fiction, poetry, reviews, and its legendary one-panel cartoons. A subscription to The New Yorker is something of a mild status symbol, proclaiming that you seek quality commentary about current events and popular culture.

The New Yorker also has a very lively online presence. In addition to publishing its print issue articles online, it adds a lot of content daily, often on breaking news topics. In all, The New Yorker offers a lot to its subscribers.

But here’s my somewhat blasphemous hypothesis: The New Yorker may also be one of the most unread magazines in existence. If my experience is in any way typical (and I freely admit that it may not be so), then a lot of folks get their magazine in the mail, quickly scan the table of contents, and then put it aside with the best of intentions to get to those beefy articles when free time allows. We rinse and repeat with each weekly issue, thus creating a pile in our homes.

Furthering the blasphemy: The New Yorker sometimes says too much about too little. Too many long pieces are overextended explorations by gifted writers who are very close to narrow topics that may not justify the reading time of many readers. Others — such as lengthy explorations of current news topics — may have a very limited shelf life. (I’m not going to give examples, because my purpose is not to trash specific pieces or writers.)

In sum, The New Yorker strikes me as being a writer’s magazine, but not necessarily a reader’s one.

Of course, my problem with The New Yorker could fairly be recast as The New Yorker‘s problem with my limited attention span and my decidedly middlebrow center of cultural gravity. You see, as much as I’d like to think of myself as the kind of reader who devours each issue in order to be both informed and sufficiently erudite, I am not that person.

Many of my day-to-day interests are of a niche variety, and if The New Yorker‘s chosen deep dive niches don’t match with mine, then I’ll likely flip past them. (To be totally fair, I don’t expect The New Yorker to run pieces about my niches, such as my passion for karaoke or my interest in obscure, defunct professional football leagues.) And I tend to rely on newspapers (online editions, these days) for current news and commentary.

From a lifelong learning perspective, The New Yorker implicates the choices we make about our reading. Given X amount of time available for reading, how much of it do I want to devote to lengthy article Y? Using that calculus, I’m on the fence about renewing my subscription.

In any event, I’m confident that my little critique of The New Yorker will not have a negative impact on its readership. I’m good with that. After all, the magazine stands for quality commentary and stringent editorial standards, at a time when the written word needs such strong support.

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.