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.