Muffins and Montaigne


An open house for the Graham School's Basic Program drew half a dozen prospective students to a Gleacher Center classroom Wednesday morning. They munched on muffins and bagels while instructor Amy Thomas Elder described the "beautiful canonical authority" of the curriculum's reading list. "It's kind of magical," she said. Handed down from Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler's great-books collaboration, the list changes a little every year, but remains timeless: heavy on Plato, Aristotle, and Shakespeare, with plenty of classical poetry and drama, Enlightenment philosophy, and seminal Western literature. Homer is on the list, as are Dante, Chaucer, Rousseau, and, of course, Thucydides. Recent additions, Elder said, include Conrad, Kierkergaard, and Woolf.

Offering a four-year curriculum, the Basic Program includes weekly discussion-style classes. There are no credits—and therefore no papers or labs—but students receive liberal-arts certificates after their second and fourth years.

The open-house group, which included two lawyers and a stay-at-home mom, said they were more interested in great books than bachelor's degrees. "I feel like this is my second chance," said Mary, whose three daughters are in college and high school. "When you're young, you get so distracted by papers and exams. It all looks different from where I sit now." A banker named Stu said he hoped to fill the holes in his education. "An engineering degree at Purdue, a tour of Vietnam, a Chicago MBA, and 20 years of banking—no great books," he said. "I think it's time."

Meanwhile, Mort, a retired math professor, said he'd always been interested in the great books. Elder smiled and said, "Well, we do read Euclid."

Then, after a coffee break and another round of muffins, the group settled back into their seats for a sample class: a close reading of the first three pages of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.


Photo: A room full of prospective students turned out for a 2006 Basic Program open house, for which the sample class was a close reading from Shakespeare's Hamlet.

File photo by Dan Dry.

December 14, 2007