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.