My remarks on this occasion are dedicated to the memory of Herman Sinaiko (1929-2011), an esteemed colleague in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults and evidently the last active tenured College teacher in the University of Chicago.
The generous recognition of me on this occasion is not primarily of a single Basic Program staff member but rather of the Program itself as an institution and what it should mean for the University of Chicago’s century-long involvement in adult education.
We of the Basic Program can help remind the Faculty and Administration of the University of Chicago what a proper College education is. It should be an education shaped primarily by an informed faculty, not by what undergraduates are somehow moved to select.
More should routinely be made in the College these days of the great texts of the Western World. They should be texts in courses that most, if not even all, University of Chicago undergraduates should share. A thoughtful community should thereby be created and maintained across decades.
Much of what the University of Chicago undergraduates do now is really incipient graduate school study, some of it quite challenging. It is tempting for them to do this since the University of Chicago faculty is obviously first-rate.
What do we have to teach the University of Chicago? The Basic Program, it should be recalled, is patterned on St. John’s College (Annapolis). This was more obvious when it was a program with classes that met twice weekly, with seminars and tutorials on Monday and Thursday (as is still the seminars arrangement at St. John’s College). The St. John’s College influence could be seen also in the considerably more science texts that the Basic Program had a half-century ago.
The College of the University of Chicago long ago replaced its once vigorous program of traditional (Core) courses for which all its undergraduates were held accountable.
Related to this development is that there is no longer a College faculty, strictly speaking. No one (except at the most junior level, and then only temporarily) –no one is hired these days to teach simply in the College.
The Dean of the College has repeatedly to recruit most of his faculty from professors whose primary interests and loyalty have to be elsewhere –and who were never hired and promoted to teach in the College.
Faculty recruited in this fashion to teach now and then in the College are likely to tailor their “College” courses to serve and reflect their long-term scholarly and career interests. The careers of such people do depend primarily on how they are regarded in their respective departments and graduate schools here and in their scholarly discipline nationwide (if not even worldwide).
In short, there is no College faculty now: it should not be surprising, therefore, that there does not seem to be meaningful, sustained discourse among a transient College faculty with respect to undergraduate education. Nor does there seem to be a College student body with common interests and intellectual influences.
Cannot the Basic Program, by continuing to do what it has “always” done, provide useful guidance for the College? One risk here is that the Basic Program staff may itself become like the College “faculty” –that is, ad hoc, with primary loyalties elsewhere. One can wonder whether students, sensing such divisiveness, tend to become disaffected.
Our influence for the good of the College, and hence of the University, is apt to be enhanced if graduate students should once again begin their teaching in the Basic Program (disciplined by a reading list that is not tailored to their research and “professional” interests).
It helps, that is, that such graduate students have to take seriously a program of enduring books selected by and routinely discussed among the Basic Program Staff, with all this reinforced by Staff meetings and by two series of monthly talks at the Cultural Center in the Loop (which can remind us of the weekly talks at St. John’s College). It could help, as well, if senior University of Chicago faculty should then be more likely to take an interest in the Basic Program because their graduate-student protégés chance to be involved in what the Basic Program does (and in how it does it).
I presume to close with the suggestion that it should help recognize the traditional significance of the Basic Program in the University of Chicago adult education enterprise if its Chair and related administrative personnel could be assigned a large office in the Graham School headquarters on 60th Street, not simply the cubicles now available to them. And when such an office does become available, the name of Herman Sinaiko could well be put on its door, thereby honoring a decades-long friend of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago.
The University of Chicago, November 9, 2012