Free online event: “The Dignity of an Intellectual Life for All,” Oct. 21, 1-3 pm.

The Dignity of an Intellectual Life for All

Friday, October 21, 2022, 1:00-3:00 p.m., Eastern Time, Online Format

Hosted by Suffolk University Law School ( and co-sponsored by:

Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, University of Chicago, Graham School

Harrison Middleton University (

World Dignity University Initiative of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (

With a focus on Dr. Zena Hitz’s thought-provoking book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (2020), this program will examine the value of embracing the liberal arts and humanities for their own sake and consider how a rich intellectual life for everyone enhances human dignity. The program opens with a conversation featuring Dr. Hitz, followed by a responsive panel comprised of four distinguished educators, with opportunities for Q&A.

Featured Speaker

Zena Hitz, Tutor, St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD, and author, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Press, 2020)

Guest Panelists

Joseph Coulson, President, Harrison Middleton University

Hilda Demuth-Lutze, English teacher (ret.), Chesterton High School, IN, and author of historical fiction                                     

Amy Thomas Elder, Instructor, Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, University of Chicago, Graham School      

Linda Hartling, Director, Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies


David Yamada, Professor of Law, Suffolk University Law School, Boston, MA

UPDATE: A freely accessible recording of this very engaging program has now been posted to YouTube. Go here to watch it!

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.

Me, reading Shakespeare?!

(image courtesy of

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,

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.

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.


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.


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.