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.

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 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.

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.  The UK’s pioneering Open University offers free online courses through its OpenLearn portal. 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.