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Great Books at the Graham School 

Open and rigorous inquiry has never been more relevant and rewarding

Great Books at the Graham School

With only a handful of credits outstanding and his enrollment in medical school already secured, William Greenfield, MD, had an opportunity as an undergraduate in the early sixties to do something he’d long wanted to do but which his rigorous science curriculum had made impossible: He took humanities and liberal arts courses.

“It was candy, the frosting on the cake,” Greenfield says. “Greek mythology, Russian history, medieval history, English Renaissance literature—having a summer of humanities and liberal arts was just wonderful for me.”
In the four decades after Greenfield finished college, he raised his children, cared for his patients, and served his community. Still, the desire to fill the gaps in his education never went away completely, growing stronger as the years went by. 

When Greenfield retired fifteen years ago, he wasted no time. 

“It took me six days after retiring to sign up for the Basic Program,” he says. “The idea of four years studying the classics of Western civilization was just the ticket. The Basic Program filled those holes for me.”

Reigniting dormant passions

Founded in 1946 by University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins and his colleague Mortimer Adler, the Basic Program is a rigorous, noncredit liberal arts program rooted in the Great Books movement and drawing on the strong Socratic tradition at the University of Chicago. 
Similarly to the Master of Liberal Arts and the Graham School’s other rich programming, the Basic Program extends the University’s innovation in teaching and learning to a broader set of learners, who are then given the opportunity to dive deeply into academic areas of their choice while enjoying the benefits of being connected to the University.

“Like everything we offer at the Graham School, the Basic Program is much more than a credentialing program,” says Zoë Eisenman, director of academics for the Graham School. “In addition to all the ways it allows students to plug into ongoing events at the University of Chicago, the Graham School enriches students’ lives while connecting them with a passionate and thriving intellectual community.”

Offering a diverse collection of courses, certificates, and degree programs, the Graham School provides students of all ages an opportunity to reignite dormant passions and pursue new ones. Whether it’s family members or old college friends taking a remote class together from opposite sides of the country, or business professionals looking to keep vibrant intellectual enquiry alive, the Graham School offers a panoply of ways for learners to reconnect and deepen important areas of their lives.

“You read a book like War and Peace when you’re eighteen or nineteen and then you come back and read it when you’re forty five or fifty and it’s just a completely different book,” Eisenman says. “The common driver for Graham students, from those who come for one-off classes to those who do the Masters in Liberal Arts or Basic Program, is their curiosity about the world. They are seekers and we give them the tools to enrich their lives at whatever stage they might be.”

Making connections

When Janis Mendelsohn, MD, first looked into the Basic Program, she immediately knew it was for her. 

“I always wanted to explore other areas in college, but I was too busy fulfilling my premed requirements,” she says. 

“The Basic Program provided me with a platform to fill in those missing areas, from literature to sociology to religious studies, you name it, I’ve touched on all of it and learned a tremendous amount.”

Since completing the program, Mendelsohn has taken as many as three alumni courses a quarter, returning again and again to instructors she’s valued and to topics she’s wanted to learn more about. In this time, she has surprised herself with the intensity of her interest for the historical foundations of the Old Testament, going so far as to learn Biblical Hebrew to read the original text.

“We’ve covered a huge amount of ground, and it’s been a fascinating experience,” she says. “There are so many interrelated steps you take along the way and these classes have allowed me to see all the connections. 

“It’s been one of those experiences that opened more windows and doors than I could possibly ever count.”

Philip Baker

Philip Baker

Staff Writer

Philip Baker is a staff writer at the University of Chicago. He graduated from the College with a degree in English.

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