The Graham School gives its students tools for life
When Alyssa Macuk-Kueffner’s husband floated the idea of doing the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults together, she admits she was a little hesitant.
Having earned her master’s degree in mechanical engineering three years earlier and started work at a medical device company, she wondered whether she was ready to return to the classroom—until she looked at the syllabus.
“There were all the books I’d always wanted to read,” she says. “I’ve always been kind of a sucker for the classics, but my engineering curriculum meant I never got to do much of that in college.”
Once enrolled, she was delighted to find that the program enhanced her communication skills. “The program gave me an opportunity to practice expressing complex ideas while also making sure other people could understand me,” she says. “That sort of skill really flowed nicely into my work. My ability to communicate in a technical environment is much more advanced now than it was when I started the program.”
Connecting to the world
Seeking that type of insight into the surrounding world is what brings students to the Graham School and keeps them coming back. From those who attend lectures or enroll in open-to-all classes, to those in the Master of Liberal Arts program, what unites the community is their curiosity about the world and their desire to learn more about it.
“The pandemic really showed us that there are lots of people all over the country and the world who want access to the University of Chicago and the sorts of opportunities the Graham School offers,” says Zoë Eisenman, director of academics for the Graham School. “While maintaining the strength of our core programming, we’re also trying to find new ways to reach out so that more people can connect with the University and its faculty. At the same time, we’re reaching out locally more as well to some of the underserved communities in and around Hyde Park.”
By partnering with organizations throughout Chicago and developing new collaborations within the University, the Graham School bridges the gap between the cutting-edge research that takes place on campus and the wider world. In doing so, it fulfills its mission of extending the University of Chicago’s intellectual resources and rigorous approach to scholarship outwards to a broader community.
“There are lots of places where you can listen to a lecture or read a textbook and get some facts, but there aren’t that many places where you can directly engage with this sort of material in such a constructive and interactive way. That’s something we try to do as much as we possibly can.”
News you can use
Linda Garrison, who took her first class at the Graham School the year after she graduated from college, keeps a quote by the former University of Chicago professor and Great Book trailblazer Mortimer Adler handy: “The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as we continue to live.”
“That’s the way I think about the Graham School,” says Garrison, who enrolled in the Basic Program after retiring as marketing director at Steppenwolf Theater. “Other than a text and another person, there’s nothing else required to start feeling your brain really grow. Your mind just keeps getting more fertile the more you use it.”
After completing the Basic Program, Garrison has gone on to take three Alumni sequences—two-year courses centered around a specific era or culture. Having completed the American Tradition, Romans, and the Modern Tradition, what keeps her coming back, she says, is the feeling she has in the classroom of seeing more and more into the texts she’s reading.
“I’m always impressed by what so many different points of view, focused on the same piece of text, can bring to a discussion,” she says. “After everyone shares their perspective, you start seeing all the additional layers to the book. At that point, your respect for what went into building the book is enhanced a hundred times over.”
But there’s something else as well, she notes. It’s the frequent experience of how often the readings resonate with her own life. She finds herself relaying thoughts and feelings of her own through lessons learned from Plato and Proust. In those instances, she recalls how one of her instructors would refer to the relevant text as “news you can use.”
“I think one of the things the courses have re-instilled in me is a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world. There’s just so much out there to know, so much history and thought that we’re just oblivious to most of the time. I find that highly stimulating and interesting and I’m just so grateful to the Graham School for opening me up to it.”