Friends of the Heyman Center

The Friends of the Heyman Center, under the direction of Gareth Williams, Violin Family Professor of Classics and Chair, Department of Classics, comprises people who help ensure the advancement and vitality of the Heyman Center for the Humanities. For more than twenty-five years, tuition and donations from the Friends colloquia have contributed to a variety of activities, most significantly, the Lionel Trilling Seminar, which is free and open to the public.

The Friends of the Heyman Center offers discussion courses led by Columbia's most renowned teachers and scholars to alumni and friends of the University who wish to continue organized education without the need for academic credit. These colloquia, titled the Carl Hovde Colloquia, are planned as active discussions rather than lectures, and the faculty leaders are among the best teachers in the University. No papers or examinations are required. We charge only a small fraction of normal tuition, and after expenses, these funds help both to improve our programs and maintain the building -- one of the most congenial on campus.

If you would like to donate to the Friends of the Heyman Center, you can do so here. Please enter “Friends of the Heyman Center” in the comment box so that your donation is properly credited.  Thank you!

Spring 2020 Colloquia

Understanding Meritocracy A Noble Ideal or a Serious Mistake?

Roger Lehecka
Tuesdays, 6:00pm-8:00pm

While it appears to be an ancient word, like democracy or aristocracy or oligarchy, meritocracy was invented as an English word about sixty years ago by a British sociologist named Michael Young. As unlikely as it sounds, his book The Rise of the Meritocracy was a novel, not a work of social science. Since the time of the word’s invention it has become the name for what most people say a society should be: fair, recognizing talent and effort, removing inherited privilege and advantage. This is ironic because, in describing a fictional future society that was fully meritocratic, Michael Young wrote a dystopian novel, not a utopian one. Furthermore, despite the obeisance paid to merit and meritocracy in public discourse today, meritocracy is under attack by writers on the political right, left and center.


The colloquium will explore what merit and meritocracy mean in the United States today, and why those words produce so much contentious debate. Because sorting people through education is central to current meritocratic ideals, higher education is inevitably a vital instrument in realizing a meritocratic society. Therefore, discussions of American colleges generally, and Columbia in particular, will occur throughout our six class meetings. Other subjects we will cover are how notions of merit have evolved since the founding of the United States; how the word meritocracy has come to have connotations opposite to what its creator intended; how meritocratic American society, or a part of it like admission to selective colleges, is today; what it would take for the United States to become truly meritocratic; the wisdom of equating school success with promise of professional success; and whether Young was correct to see meritocracy as a flawed or even incoherent ideal.

Download Syllabus and Schedule

Operating Instructions: The How and Why of Reading Greco-Roman Literature

Gareth Williams
Thursdays, 6:00pm-8:15pm

This colloquium will be led by Gareth Williams, the Anthon Professor of the Latin Language and Literature. The overriding objectives of the course will be to explore (i) what lies beyond the modern reputation of, and beyond modern critical orthodoxies about, many of the famous Greco-Roman texts from Homer down to the first-century CE Roman philosopher-politician Seneca; (ii) what forms of commentary and illumination those texts potentially offer on/about modern lives, attitudes, and socio-political issues; and (iii) how several of these Classical authors have been drawn on and exploited to support and help articulate certain modern ideologies and belief-systems. A further aim throughout the course will be to experiment with close readings of the assigned texts, to show how their meaning is so often encased in and complicated by the finer nuances of what might at first seem like a fairly innocuous path of narration. 

Download Syllabus and Schedule

Books for both courses can be purchased at Book Culture, 546 West 112th Street (formerly Labyrinth Books), located on 112th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave, and can be reached by phone at 212-865-1588. These courses are not listed in the regular University Bulletin; if there is confusion, ask for the text-book department.


Additional support beyond our fees is very much appreciated and brings notices of the Thursday Lecture Series at the Heyman Center. All support beyond the course charge is fully tax-deductible. A gift of $25 or more also brings a subscription to the Columbia University Record. Acceptance is on a first come, first served basis, and you will be notified of your registration status upon the Heyman Center's receipt of your registration form with payment.

To register for one or both of this semester's colloquia, download, complete, and return the:

Registration Form

Please contact Ms. Lisette Oblitas-Cruz with any questions ([email protected]; tel.: 212-854-4631).

$500 Brings admission for an individual to one colloquium; $750 for both colloquiums

$750 Brings admission to one colloquium for registrant and guest (spouse, friend); $1000 for both colloquiums