Group Efforts: pondering the impenetrable with the College of Complexes | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Group Efforts: pondering the impenetrable with the College of Complexes 

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The College of Complexes could hold a two-hour debate on whether Neptune should become the 51st state. It's discussed odder topics in its 50 years.

Just last Saturday night, a retired air force enlisted man lectured on "Why Tactical Nuclear Weapons Are Humane" and received this inquiry during the question-and-answer period:

"How long will it be until the Latin Kings have a thermonuclear capacity?"

"Every progressive social change of humanity originated at one time or another with us," brags Charles Paidock, program coordinator of the weekly "free speech forum."

He says, "We've discussed 'How to Travel in Time,' one-world government, abolishing foreign aid, astrology, gay rights, police brutality, English as a universal language. We had a witch in on Halloween."

The college first convened on January 6, 1951, when Slim Brundage, raconteur and hobo, opened a tavern on Wells Street with the aim of creating an all-weather home for the soapbox debates then raging in Bughouse Square. The Reverend C. Lee Hubbell, who has pastored several Chicago churches, had often participated in theological disputes in the square across from the Newberry Library. So when Brundage's tavern became the headquarters for the city's freethinkers and bohemians, he followed the crowd.

"I'll never forget the appearance of the place," says Hubbell, now 88. "It would seat about 140 or 150 people, and the walls were all blackboards. [Brundage] encouraged the people who came to write things that were socially irreverent. There was quite a lot of scatology, and political statements that were as far-out as you can imagine."

Hubbell began his clerical career as a student at Moody Bible Institute, but eventually lost his Christian faith and became a "religious humanist." As his liberalism deepened, he found himself arguing the affirmative in the college's debates over legalizing abortion, which were at their hottest in the late 1950s and early 1960s, "long before Roe v. Wade."

Always ahead of its time, or completely out of step with it, the college has hosted an address by a leader of the American Nazi Party and a lecture titled "The Human Condition--Do We Really Want to Know?" After Brundage's tavern closed in 1961, the college became itinerant. For the last several years it's met weekly in a North Center restaurant. The student body usually numbers around 25 people, who run the gamut from armchair philosophers to cranks.

"People just don't care about ideas the way they did in the 40s," laments Hubbell. "I think that probably the rise of television was one thing that kept people from coming to the discussion groups."

Nonetheless, this Saturday the college plans to celebrate its semicentennial with "50 Infamous Opinions on 50 Topics in One Evening." After a keynote address by erstwhile socialist candidate for president J. Quinn Brisben, the meeting will devolve into a philosophy slam, with speakers riffing on whatever topic obsesses them that evening. Hubbell plans to talk on "the untenability of any notion that God created life or human life."

All those who dare seize the podium will receive a diploma, with the top five lecturers winning "scholarships"--a pair of free admissions to a future meeting. "The Entire Spectrum of Human Society--Including All Recorded History--Will be Reviewed--In One Evening!!!" boasts the flyer for the event.

The world's problems will be solved starting Saturday at 8 PM in the Lincoln Restaurant, 4008 N. Lincoln. This night only, tuition is free (but the restaurant requests that you buy something to eat or drink). For more information, or to add your name to the speaker's list, call 312-353-0446 during the daytime or 312-842-5036 in the evening.

--Ted Kleine

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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