the Basic Program 70th anniversary Inspired by the Past, Focused on the Future: The Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults 1946 – 2016

On November 17th, the Graham School celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago’s Gleacher Center. Over 200 students and alumni, past and present—some in their fourth decade of study with the program—were present to mark this important date in the history of a program heralded throughout the evening for its singular commitment to the education of adults.

Commencing the evening’s program was Mark Nemec, Dean of the Graham School for Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies, who spoke to the Graham School’s enduring commitment to the radical experiment marking the University of Chicago’s founding over 125 years ago. Citing William Rainey Harper, the University’s founder and first president, Dean Nemec linked the founding of the University with the future development of the Basic Program “as experiments marked more than anything else by inquiry and extension, and not by insularity.”

“The innovation behind the University of Chicago’s founding resides in the idea that higher education can be centered around outreach and engagement with the broader community,” Dean Nemec said. “It was fifty plus years after that founding that President Hutchins established the Basic Program as the most natural and perfect continuation of that radical experiment.”

Directing particular praise to Basic Program staff and students, as well as to its instructors, whose decades of shared governance he called "a progressive staffing model" fostering a commitment to teaching the likes of which he’s never seen, Dean Nemec affirmed that “in an era of ever-increasing specialization, the Liberal Arts are needed now more than ever.”

As the cornerstone to the evening’s program, Basic Program Instructor Adam Rose presented an impassioned survey of the program’s unique history and place in the educational life of the University of Chicago and the United States more broadly. Titled “Only in Chicago, Only at the University of Chicago: The Basic Program at 70,” he traced the Basic Program’s origins to the 1930s, when University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins and his colleague Mortimer Adler pioneered the Great Books program at the University, a course of study founded on rigorous text-based analyses of the founding principles of the Western tradition.

Unveiled to the public in 1946 as a program of education for adults, Rose explained how President Hutchins’ vision for the Basic Program was integral to his overarching vision for education, whose primary goal was the revitalization and continuation of what he called the “ Great Conversation.” Rose referred to this as Hutchins’ shorthand for the enduring and persistent dialogue between the present and the past, a dialogue with tremendous potential for nourishment that, at the same time, stands under the constant threat of oblivion, and which therefore needs to be appreciated and invented anew across generations. For President Hutchins, it was the life experience already gained by adults that allowed them to engage more fully with the central questions posed by the Great Conversation.

Highlighting the Basic Program’s roots in the rise of mass education and literacy over the 19th century, Rose also emphasized that the urgency with which Hutchins advocated for the Basic Program stemmed from an immediate and pressing danger, namely, the potential for catastrophe that arrived with the dawn of the atomic age.

“The fear was that wisdom had not evolved as quickly as technology,” Rose said. “For Hutchins, the specialization of knowledge that led to the development of immensely sophisticated science and technology had arrived hand-in-hand with the fragmentation of human experience.” The most essential lesson the Basic Program has to impart, Rose affirmed, concerns itself less with what to think than with how to think, sustaining the focus of liberal education on the fundamental goal of fostering human excellence, both in our private and public lives—as human beings and citizens.

Beginning her remarks with a quotation from instructor Elliot Krick, whose fifty-one years of service to the Basic Program stand atop an extraordinary list of dedicated educators, Zoë Eisenman, the Chair of the Basic Program as well as an instructor since 1992, went on to focus her remarks on the future. With five new recently hired instructors, each with different backgrounds and expertise, the interdisciplinary scope of the program’s offerings will broaden. Eisenman mentioned new course sequences and new course formats, as well as online discussion courses.

In Spring 2017, Eisenman said, students will have the opportunity to study in Greece, with archaeological guidance provided through a partnership with the Athens Center and discussion sessions led by a Basic Program instructor. With the goal of engaging new students and increasing the program’s accessibility, Eisenman also mentioned the Graham School’s partnership with the Odyssey Project, a scholarship offering Odyssey students an opportunity to become a Basic Program student.

“Going into my second year as Chair of the program,” Eisenman said, “we have many new initiatives aiming to build on the historic and unique strengths of the Basic Program—our dedicated instructors, our commitment to an ever-evolving curriculum of ‘Great Books’, and our incredible community of students who create these conversations in the classroom and beyond.”

In his concluding remarks, Fred Beuttler, Associate Dean of Liberal Arts, affirmed that there is no understating the enduring importance of the Basic Program and its curriculum, emphasizing that the program has continued to thrive in part by being the beneficiary of generous philanthropic support. “These gifts have provided us with an important foundation upon which to build,” he said, “as we now work towards the creation of a larger philanthropic endowment equivalent to the stature and impact of the Basic Program.”

To these ends, he announced a focused fundraising campaign to secure an initial $5 million endowment for the Basic Program. The proceeds from this endowment will help fund increased access to the Basic Program by providing opportunities for lower-income adults to become students of the liberal arts. Additionally, through increased contributed support for scholarships, middle and high school teachers will be able to continue their educations, giving them the capacity to more deeply integrate the liberal arts into their classrooms. And by extending and enhancing the resources available for Basic Program faculty development, new instructors will be trained and prepared, while current staff will have opportunities to broaden their own exposure and areas of expertise.

“As we look to the future of the Basic Program,” Beuttler said, “we look forward to providing an opportunity for those who are willing and able to do so to include the Basic Program in their charitable giving plans, becoming in this way an integral and permanent part of its future by supporting the preservation and evolution of a program that has already touched so many lives.”

With the formal part of the evening concluded, those present—instructors and students alike— mingled and reminisced about their time in the program. One longstanding student, Virginia Tobiason, was only too happy to share her experience. “The Basic Program changed my life,” she said, adding that her career and education had revolved exclusively around science and finance until she started the program. “It opened the whole world of humanities to me. Being in a Basic Program classroom, surrounded by people with different backgrounds and points of view, has been truly amazing. I’m so happy to be here tonight to celebrate it.”

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