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October 8, 2010

Hyman, JFK speechwriter, touts Great Books

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Although John F. Kennedy’s speeches were spoken with a thick Boston accent, the words on the paper were written by a University of Chicago mind.

To kick-start this year’s Great Conversations lecture series, author, professor, and presidential speechwriter Sidney Hyman (A.B. ’36) spoke at the Gleacher Center yesterday to “anyone concerned about the fate of higher education and the future of the humanities.”

Hyman said Chicago’s Core was once a glamorous lifestyle — Hyman and event coordinator Bart Schultz said celebrities like Orson Welles would sit on the edge of their seats in Hutchins’s class. Hyman remembers standing by Robert F. Kennedy’s side as he listened to JFK read a Great Books-inspired speech he wrote.

“The speech I wrote was really a redraft of a paper I wrote about Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers,” said Hyman, who also helped write the Pulitzer Prize winning “Roosevelt and Hopkins” biography. “The Great Books has popped up with everything I’ve ever done.”

As one of the original students in Robert Maynard Hutchins’s Great Books program, Hyman’s connection with the U of C is as deep as it gets. And the classic texts he learned from, no matter how aged they were, never failed to influence his life and inform thoughts around modern issues, said Hyman.

“So many of the reforms of education… really are rewriting what Hutchins was trying to do,” said Hyman, who also wrote for The New York Times Magazine.

The lecture opened the Great Conversations series, which invites this year’s speakers the freedom to talk about anything in relation to the University’s history. Future speakers will include President Robert Zimmer, Dean of the College John Boyer, and law professor Martha Nussbaum.

“We have an interesting experiment coming up,” said Schultz, adding that speakers can address whatever they feel are the important issues as long as they relate to the University of Chicago’s legacy. “We’re formalizing our informality.”

Hyman was chosen to start the series after speaking in one of Schultz’s classes. “My students loved him and this gave me the idea to develop this year’s Great Conversations [into] intimate conversations with the speakers,” he said.

After Hyman graduated, he fought in World War II in the First Armored Division. He wrote to Hutchins’s colleague Professor Mortimer Adler asking him to send classical texts like War and Peace to keep himself busy.

Hymen said Hutchins once remarked, “It’s as difficult to change a curriculum as it is to move a cemetery.” But the U of C eventually drifted away from the original Great Books curriculum — in 1999, the core curriculum was reduced from 21 to 15 required courses.

Though some universities have switched emphasis from a core or liberal arts education to a math and science centered curriculum, Hyman suggested that a college education should enrich deep thought. “And I cannot imagine a more useful tool than the classics,” he said.

“They don’t solve problems but at least they pose problems,” said Hyman, who taught Core classes as a U of C professor in the 1970s. “The kind of issues worth arguing about, there are really no answers to them.”

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