First Annual Excellence in Teaching Award: George Anastaplo

The Basic Program of Liberal Education For Adults,

The University of Chicago

I. George Anastaplo, the Basic Program

by Clare Geiman*


*This award was presented on November 22, 2005 by the Graham School of General Studies. The University of Chicago. Clare Geiman was the Chair of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The University of Chicago.


I am pleased tonight to be able to announce that the Award for Excellence in Teaching for the Basic Program will go to George Anastaplo.  George has been with the Basic Program since the 1950s – that is, for most of its now 59 years.  In that time, he has taught widely across the entire curriculum, spanning the history of Western Civilization and genres from poetry to philosophy and even mathematics and science.  In addition, he has lectured twice a year and has been a regular feature at Basic Program Weekends.  Throughout this time he has been a leading figure in the Program and has given of himself unstintingly.

But he is being honored tonight not for his long and distinguished service to the Program, but for his excellence in the classroom.  George has from early on been a popular and admired teacher, who in his half-century has drawn students to him and kept them coming back hungry for more.  His classroom is regularly filled to capacity, and students speak eloquently about the extraordinarily rich depth and breadth of knowledge he brings to each class.

Let me at this point allow his students’ words to speak directly – and I will quote from just a few of the statements made in the nomination letters:

“Mr. Anastaplo has for many years been an inspiration and a leader.  He always has an open mind and encourages and inspires his students to pursue the truth.”

“His thorough knowledge of the topics, his prodigious memory, his rich life experience and intellectual curiosity are indeed impressive, and I feel privileged to have benefitted from the hours spent with him.”

“George Anastaplo is emblematic of what the Basic Program is about:  probing the depth of the work under investigation, analyzing, testing, seeking parallel comparisons, groping for new interpretations.  He has an ability to draw out the most timid student and to control the most outspoken without limiting or curtailing the discussion.  His homework is always comprehensive, having an inexhaustible list of questions with which to push the class to further analysis.  He has a thorough knowledge of students’ strengths and weaknesses. …And when the discussion begins getting away from the primary subject, he knows how to refocus without offending those who have strayed.  His abilities are unparalleled.”

I can say for myself, in the relatively short time I have known George, that his students’ words ring true.  I have heard him brief the staff on a number of subjects, and am always amazed at the depth of knowledge and insight, which he invariably presents with a genuine openness and humility that is not often to be met with.

Please join me now in congratulating George on winning the Excellence in Teaching Award.


II. On Some conditions for Excellence in Teaching

by George Anastaplo**

** These remarks were made by George Anastaplo upon receiving an Excellence in Teaching Award from the Graham School of General Studies at the University of Chicago, November 22, 2005. He was Lecturer in the Liberal Arts, The University of Chicago; Professor of Law, Loyola University of Chicago; and Professor Emeritus of Political Science and of Philosophy, Dominican University. The Works of the Mind Lecture every November, at the University of Chicago, is named in his honor.


Any teaching award worth celebrating depends among us upon the caliber of the institution where the teaching is done, upon the caliber of the things that are taught, and upon the caliber of those who are taught.

The institution on this occasion is, of course, the University of Chicago=s Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. This Program, at a first-rate University, is probably the best non-credit adult education effort in this country. It is a program which has proved difficult, if not simply impossible, to sustain anywhere else. It very much depends, for its faculty, on the kind of dedicated graduate students reliably fashioned by the University of Chicago, graduate students for whom this is usually their first teaching.

The things taught in the Basic Program are found in books available to us from the best minds in the Western tradition. These are books to which one can return again and again, which means that the Ateacher@ of them always remains a student in their presence. One can, in such a presence, get (at least now and then) a sense of the enduring, if not even of the eternal.

Those taught are, of course, the thousands of students with whom we, as Basic Program seminar leaders, have long shared our inquiries. These are adults who recognize that they really do not have anything better–indeed, anything as good–to do with the hours they devote each week, at home and in class, to the first-rate texts that we read together in the Basic Program. These students, decade after decade, somehow remain the same. This may be, in part, because they come to our view primarily as minds that reflect the seriousness and the beauty of the books we read together.

I am privileged, therefore, to accept this award on behalf of all, students and faculty alike, with whom I (along with my gifted and remarkably tolerant wife) have shared a half-century of inquiry and good fellowship in the Basic Program.

It is fitting and proper to recall, however briefly this evening, some of our fellow-travelers over the years–at least those Basic Program teachers who are no longer living. The ones I happen to recall include

Jason Aronson,

Allan Bloom,

Dan Brown,

Ann Cohler,

Talmage Gornto,

Richard Kennington,

Herbert Lamm,

Lucille Ollendorf,

Earl Tinsley, and

Marvin Zetterbaum.

We should honor as well two men who were critical to the founding of the Basic Program:

Mortimer J. Adler and

Robert M. Hutchins.

Two University of Chicago administrators very much appreciated and publicly endorsed what the Basic Program tries to do:

Maurice F. X. Donohue and

Edward H. Levi.

Mr. Donohue, who served in the 1950s as Dean of this University=s adult education division (now known as the Graham School of General Studies), could speak (a generation ago) of Athe hundreds of thoughtful men and women who have been saved, in some meaningful sense, by the Basic Program.@  And Mr. Levi, while President of this University, could observe that the Basic Program somehow manages to do, with very few resources, what the University tries to do with far more resources. Then there have been (also among those no longer living) three distinguished University of Chicago professors who taught, and otherwise encouraged, a number of Basic Program teachers:

David Grene,

Richard P. McKeon, and

Leo Strauss.

Basic Program instructors, who are entrusted with the sacred legacy of a time-tested reading list, could well take to heart what Chaucer (in the Prologue to his Canterbury Tales)  says about his Clerk, that gladly did he learn, and gladly teach. We can adopt this as our own motto, adding to it the observation that one teaches in large part in order to learn–or in order to recall what one has somehow always known. At least this is so when one is privileged to teach with the aid of books of the caliber that we routinely devote ourselves to in the Basic Program.

In short, we celebrate on this occasion our good fortune in having available such an institution as the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. We can even presume, since this is a festive occasion, to congratulate ourselves for our sensibleness in having taken advantage, year in and year out, of such good fortune.


III.  A Response

by Laurence Berns***


*** A letter to George Anastaplo, February 28, 2006. Laurence Berns (1928-2011) was on the Faculty of St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland. Mr. Berns, while a graduate student at the University of Chicago, taught in its Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. He delivered, in November 2009, the annual George Anastaplo Works of the Mind Lecture at the University of Chicago.


. . . I was moved by the Graham School enclosure I just received  today and your Award for Excellence in Teaching. Official recognition from the University has been a (too) long time coming.

Your remarks were a gem:  thoughts long chewed and digested, most fitting and proper—also in delivery. . . .


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