Graduation: How I Found My Way Back to School and Realized I Was There for the First Time

When I was young I thought reading the right authors and listening to Beethoven and Mozart might make everyone a better person. No longer young, I realize being “good” isn’t so simple. But, even if education is insufficient by itself, I still believe in the effort to ennoble oneself, to try hard to be guided by virtue. Socrates provided instruction: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

All this sounds like a frightful amount of work and who has the time? Actually, I do. Thus, after retirement, one of the first things my wife and I did was to enroll in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the Graham School of the University of Chicago.

It was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. Now I realize you might find this incredible. Moreover, if you’d asked me when I was 18 to predict whether I’d do such a thing voluntarily, I’d have said, “More school? No way!”

What happened between then and now?

I dutifully plowed through college and graduate school. True, I enjoyed many of my classes, but I always had the sense of “having to” more than “wanting to.” I needed to learn, not for its own sake, but for the sake of getting somewhere: namely, achieving the credentials and knowledge required to make a decent and interesting living — the letters after my name needed to do some good in the world. The shadow of the Great Depression my parents barely survived compelled my work ethic and success.

Then, of course, there were tests to take, papers to write, presentations to give (which I hated until, much later, I decided to master the art of public speaking), and oral exams for my advanced degrees. ACTs, SATs, and GREs, too. Obligation and pressure were what I experienced, what I lived. Looking back, I was a prisoner of my goals and the joy of learning was not even on the list of priorities. School was a grind. I made school into a grind.

Now, 50 years on, I’m a different man on a different mission. Over the past half-century I learned the process is sometimes as important as the product. I learned that when the instructor calls my name I will benefit more if the question is difficult than if it is easy. I am therefore grateful for such questions. I learned that all those old white European males like Socrates, Lucretius, and Kant (and ladies like Jane Austen and Virginia Wolff) knew more about my 18-year-old life than I did when I was 18.

Above all, I learned that learning can be stimulating, thought provoking and exciting. I learned to learn for the love of it.

We live in a time when, more than ever, students are encouraged to be practical and attend university to be trained in technique as a means to a material end. They try to imagine their entire employment future (an impossible task), take classes designed to match their vocational choice, and hope society will be willing to pay them if they guess right. Some people sneer at the idea of taking liberal arts courses, and universities are purging them. Recently, for example, Western Illinois University decided to eliminate four degree programs, including Philosophy and Religion. Poor enrollment and low graduation rates were blamed — saving money, in other words.

With reasoning like this we will be left with a population of people who know how to make a living, but don’t know how to live.

I’ve had the good luck to be able to attend the only program of adult classical education of its kind in the country. The “Basic Program” offers many texts someone like Thomas Jefferson would have read and owned in a library he eventually sold to the Library of Congress, to make up for those burned in the War of 1812. Other “lifelong learning” or senior education programs exist, but none aim to teach those already well-educated to practice a new way to read and reason, based on an integrated program of classics designed to “speak to each other:” to look at the big questions found in life, philosophy, and magnificent fiction, providing a set of different perspectives on the same important issues. Should you be interested, the four-year reading list is here: Basic Program Curriculum. There are no lectures, only the Socratic Method of the instructors — exploring questions by asking questions — and the author’s voice to guide us.

I must explain, too, the Basic Program requires no papers to be written, no speeches to be given, no exams to be taken. Yet, as some of our instructors note, we students devour the material and come prepared to class, often more thoroughly than those who are 50 years our juniors in degree programs around the city. No disrespect is meant to our younger counterparts. Perhaps another half-century of life is sometimes required to prepare the human soil for the seeds of lofty thoughts, to approach the writing with respect, to set aside preconceived notions and be open to the enlightenment a careful reading provides. As T.S. Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

I was honored to be asked to give a speech at the June 4th commencement held at the Graham School. The video is posted above. Please turn up the volume and watch. The view you will see from the Gleacher Center is southeast across the Chicago River. Thanks go to the university, my classmates, and the gifted group of instructors who led us into the joyful intellectual thicket of “the best which has been thought and said in the world,” as Matthew Arnold put it: a journey without end.

13 thoughts on “Graduation: How I Found My Way Back to School and Realized I Was There for the First Time

  1. Incredible — I was just talking to Art last night on the way to dinner that I lamented that I did not further my education past a bachelor’s degree, because I was so anxious to get away from my abusive father. and move out. But I also must take some responsibility for my decision because a master’s degree in journalism was not going to be rewarded career-wise. But it’s now that I look back and played “what if” I had gone further in my education and became a history professor — a true passion, as was journalism. To this day, I love to learn about people’s jobs and what they entail. I also make a point to ensure I keep abreast of current events, but I think the instructor dream will remain just that. No worries — I’ve had a good time. 🙂

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    • Thanks, Harry. Sounds like you made out fine. I sometimes think much of what we call happiness is dependent on how we adapt to Plan B. And, you have time and opportunity to keep learning. Be well.

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  2. Wow! Lucky man! I very much enjoyed my undergrad and graduate school days. Undergrad work really was a lark… I had no idea what I would do with a degree in Speech Communication/Rhetoric but I loved the classes, the papers, the discussion. I got a teaching credential both for the job prospects but also b/c I liked going to school. And, after awhile, I went back to school at night and in the summers, not for job advancement (thought it would ultimately prove to do that) but b/c I missed the world of formal learning. When the job and the family consumed me, well, no more classes. Now I would love to take a program like the one you describe and there might be one like that in the greater SF Bay area but, still, that is a long commute from coastal NorCal…. You do inspire me though and I can look at more local options. There is a community college and a state college within a 45 minute drive but one thing that appeals to me about The Basic Program is that the enrollees likely ARE older. Their focus is different than that of the younger students. Not necessarily better but different. I would love to follow that curriculum for four years (Wait! You’ve been retired for four years???) and have the kind of conversations that I imagine you enjoyed over four years. Lately, I have thought a lot about how much I now know as an older person that I just could never have known as a 20 year old. Faith and reverence for things you can’t see tops the list. Thanks for a thoughtful post and perhaps some inspiration?
    ps – yikes! I hadn’t thought of it that way…perhaps Darwin WAS wrong. That explains a lot.

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    • Thanks, JT. Yes, I’m very lucky. I have also been in an LLI (lifelong learning) program, of which there are very many. They are peer led and can be excellent. In any of these endeavors, much depends on who your classmates are. The joke, by the way, came from Mort Sahl. You can substitute whatever names you want. I heard him deliver it some years ago. It always gets a big laugh — depending on the politics of the audience!

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  3. Wonderful speech! You are an amazing person!

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  4. Thank you, Brewdun, but I think I’m more amazed than amazing. It has been a lifelong process of becoming more open to the surprise of things, more since I retired than ever before.

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  5. Congrats, Dr. Stein! How fascinating! You’ve also been blessed with a partner willing to join you in your quest for further learning in the liberal arts.

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  6. Thank you, Rosaliene. Blessed indeed. I wish there were a formula for predicting whether, in forty years time, a couple would still be compatible and in love.

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  7. Agree totally. Having missed most liberal arts along the way to my PhD in nursing, I found the Basic Program to be a dream answer in retirement. Congratulations. Keep spreading the good word.

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  8. How lovely to hear your voice.

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