The University of Chicago Basic Program Staff as a Genuine Community of Scholars

George Anastaplo


I have not wanted to circulate anything in writing about Basic Program protocols before l have had an opportunity to learn how what I may have to say about such matters seems to my colleagues. This inquiry is timely. It is important to begin to assess and adjust our practices with a view to the Fall 2012 scheduling of the Basic Program Staff.

It should be recognized at the outset of these remarks that the Basic Program approach (and especially its reading list) is distinctive, with echoes both of this University’s Hutchins College of old and of St. John’s College today.


A perhaps troubling fact should be noticed at the outset of these remarks: a significant minority of the Basic Program Staff have not, for some years now, routinely shown up for our monthly Staff meetings, which include invaluable discussions of the texts we presume to teach, Much the same can be said about these colleagues’ routine absences from our public lectures and other such events, Indeed, it can sometimes seem that one-fifth of the ninety-minute seminars offered each quarter are assigned to teachers who rarely appear at our Staff meetings (even as there are other Staff members who attend our meetings even in quarters when they are not teaching in the Program).


Our routinely-absent colleagues are deprived of thoughtful exposure to their colleagues–and, perhaps even more important, the rest of us are routinely deprived of what we can learn from, as well as about, our elusive colleagues.

That is, I assume that such colleagues evidently do want to work with the books we depend upon-and that they should be expected to be competent in engaging the authors we settle upon from time to time.


However that may be, it can be troubling to recognize that since we rarely, if ever, share immediate experiences with them as colleagues, We have a hard time ascertaining what they do in classes. This means that we cannot effectively monitor what is being done, quarter after quarter, to our students and in our name. A proper monitoring is needed both for these colleagues’ good and for ours–as well as, of course for the good of our students (students who, by the way, may not be altogether reliable in their assessments, both favorable and unfavorable, of what is being done with and for them).

After all, each of us has to deal continually with Basic Program students who have been shaped in significant part by our colleagues. We should not want to be, or even to seem to be, either uninformed or unconcerned about what is happening routinely somewhere in the Program.


In short, there is something decidedly unprofessional tolerated among us in the current state of affairs. I doubt that any other faculty in this University would permit such systematic neglect of departmental relations and duties as may be seen by those who simply do not attend the gatherings at which academic decisions are made and at which necessary burdens are undertaken–and at which, of course, the texts we use are usefully discussed. All this is not unrelated to the problems there is these days in Academia with the ever-greater use of Adjunct Faculty in various respectable universities in this country. This sort of thing should be recognized as a scandalous development.


Unfortunately, the people who rarely show up for anything but classes may give the no-doubt-often-unfair impression that the only thing they are willing to do for and with us is what they are particularly paid for. It can even seem that they believe that none of the duties (as well as the opportunities) of Staff meetings which they are not specially or adequately compensated for should ever be their concern. Do they really feel thus? Perhaps not, but it can seem that way. We should recall here the collegiality routinely exhibited among us when we cover each other’s classes when necessary.
However all this may be, the better our phantom colleagues are, the more we all are missing of what they could contribute to our ongoing discussions of texts in our Staff meetings.


Let me emphasize that I have no objection to having the colleagues I am describing offer courses in the Graham School (or anywhere else in the University of Chicago), independent of the Basic Program.

Nor do I care how well compensated they may be for doing this. If they can persuade someone in authority that they, as independent academic entrepreneurs, have something worth scheduling and paying handsomely for, more power to them.


Another, and perhaps the most serious, consequence of the way we tolerate “uncommitted” fellow-travelers as Basic Program colleagues these days is that that there are no openings for new Basic Program Staff members, especially current graduate students in this University. That is the way various of us (as graduate students) started teaching (including such luminaries as Allan Bloom, Laurence Berns and Warren Winiarski). But this is a time when academic openings for newcomers are in short supply and are very much needed. A steady influx of graduate students into the Basic Program Staff can help fashion what we know and do, especially as we learn what is being taught elsewhere on this campus. Besides we should wonder more than we do who will till our places as we drop out one way or another.

In short, we need to have eager, even energetic, youngsters among us who so participate in our noble enterprise that they are likely to get a reliable sense (as teachers) of the problems to be dealt with in contemporary education and the opportunities connected with these problems. Such youngsters can learn from us–and, I must emphasize, they can teach us as well. If we continue as we are now, we become unnecessarily vulnerable to chance developments. Indeed, there may even be something suicidal about our current approach.


The better our current fugitive teachers are, the more harmful may be their determined absence. Certainly, I have noticed, we are all deprived of what “they” have done and learned and hence know. And, of course, some of them may even learn something from what we have to say and do in constantly reworking the materials’ and practices and objectives that we are privileged to have inherited.

In short, it could be instructive for all of us if we could learn from our elusive colleagues what they have learned during their decade of marginal associations with the Basic Program. And this, we should believe, would make for a better-informed and properly-involved faculty.


[These remarks were prepared for a Staff Meeting, March 10, 2012, of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies, The University of Chicago. George Anastaplo is the senior member of that Staff. The final version of these remarks will be posted on after an opportunity has been provided for Basic Program Staff suggestions.]

Memorandum of March 20, 2012

It has been pointed out to me, by a Senior member of our Staff, that if we once again recruit graduate students to teach in the Basic Program we might also get the University of Chicago faculty interested (more than they might otherwise be in the Basic Program itself. It would be prudent, in any event to get more of the senior faculty of the University engaged, one way or another, in both the aspirations and the operations of the Basic Program Of Liberal Education for Adults.

I have decided that it may be less of an embarassment to my Basic Program colleagues and to Graham School administrators if I circulate these remarks on my own (using the United States Postal System) rather through what may be taken by some to be “official” auspices (in the form of e-mail from the Basic Program administration. Of course, I continue to welcome, from all who teach in the Basic Program, any suggestions they may have about what I say in these materials and about how I happen to say it. After all, fundamental to the principles of the Basic Program is the recognition that we all have much to learn.

–George Anastaplo
Chicago Illinois

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