CEU Program Opens University Doors to Adults with Limited Educational Opportunities

The Socrates Project launched by the CEU Community Engagement Office offers evening classes in the humanities and social sciences to adults in both Vienna and Budapest.

Following the success of its 2019 pilot course in Budapest, the Socrates Project launched by the Community Engagement Office has returned to offer several evening courses for adults outside the traditional university communities of Vienna and Budapest. Applications are being accepted for all adults who have had limited educational opportunities until June 15 in Budapest, and July 10 in Vienna. Classes begin in September and will run until the end of November.

What makes the Socrates Project unique is that it opens CEU’s doors to anyone who would like to experience the university environment. No certificates or diplomas are required. Participants only need to show motivation and an enthusiasm to read and discuss the great ideas of politics, literature or philosophy in a small group, with the ability to do so in either English or German (Vienna) or Hungarian (Budapest).

This year’s curriculum by the Socrates Project revolves around the theme of Freedom and Society and includes modules on philosophy, literature, sociolinguistics, legal theory and gender studies, taught by professors from CEU, the University of Vienna, Eötvös Loránd University and other partner institutions. The Socrates Project is an OSUN funded project and is a collaborative endeavor between CEU’s Community Engagement Office and the Civic Engagement Initiative at Bard College Berlin. In total, 10 different full-length undergraduate-level courses will be offered across three cities (Vienna, Budapest and Berlin) in three languages (German, English and Hungarian) during the first semester of operation, with plans to increase capacity in 2022.

Inspired by the Clemente Course in the United States, the Socrates Project seeks to open the academic world to adults who were unable to continue their education for reasons beyond their control, such as financial difficulties, professional obligations or caring for a relative. Much like Socrates did in the public squares of ancient Athens, the Socrates Project brings academic conversations into the public realm, engaging anyone who is interested and willing to take the time to read and discuss.

“Everyone is welcome in the Socrates Project, as long as they are open to dialogue, regardless of whether or not they finished high school. If you missed out on educational opportunities and want to engage in an intellectual challenge, then the Socrates Project is the right place for you,” explains Aaron Lambert, the Socrates Project’s director and initiator.

There are no exams or mandatory assignments in the Socrates Project. The focus is on discussion and the learning experience. “This is a course where curious people come together to discuss the important questions of life and society in a friendly yet academically rigorous way,” Lambert notes. This lack of pressure allows participants to feel at ease while engaging in an intellectual dialogue where everyone is equal, including the university professors who teach the courses.

“This is why,” Lambert stresses, “our courses are based on discussion, much like a seminar, and not on lectures. Students and instructors are equal partners in a conversation where everyone learns something.” Engaging in a conversation about literature, art, politics or philosophy allows participants to develop their critical thinking skills and their ability to communicate their thoughts. As a result, students participating in the Socrates Project are empowered to continue educating themselves.

To understand the impact that the Socrates Project has on its students, it is worth reading a few of the testimonials by its graduates. Ágnes, for example, highlighted the appreciation she felt during the course: “I have never received as much attention, support and encouragement as I did from the organizers and professors of the Socrates Project.” Szabolcs echoed this feeling and added how instructors in the Socrates Project challenged students to be critical thinkers: “The instructors were curious and inquiring; our opinions did matter. They didn’t influence us, but rather urged us to think independently.”

Adrienn described how students were engaged in the discussion: “It’s completely different from traditional education, since it includes all of the students, who feel that the experience is their own, and are actually affected by the topic itself. They are not just passive listeners, since everyone adds a new aspect to the given topic, complementing each other.” Gitta was astounded at the level of commitment shown by her fellow students: “To me, it was new that everyone did the assigned readings in advance and we then had a discussion on those in class. This was very different from secondary school, where the teacher recites the material, which the students then have to cram, whether or not they actually understand it.” Additional profiles of the Socrates pilot participants are available here.

While the Socrates Project does not explicitly aim to be a preparatory program for university, it can help guide potential university students in their ambition to enroll for an undergraduate degree. This was the case of Ibrar, a young Afghani man currently completing his bachelor’s degree at Bard College Berlin. Ibrar was a student in both the OLive Program and the Socrates Project at CEU, which then led him to apply to Bard College Berlin. In Ibrar’s words: “It was through the Socrates Project that I discovered how interested I was in philosophy. Not just philosophy, but history and literature.” That is, perhaps, the essence of the Socrates Project: inspiring people to read and study, and to do so together, regardless of whether they have the resources to pursue a degree or not.