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:
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.