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October 22, 2010

Nonagenarian grad talks about Core

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In his lecture, “How The University of Chicago Opened My American Mind,” Dominican theologian Benedict Ashley explored the strengths and weaknesses of his education at the U of C in the mid-1930s. The talk, given Tuesday in the Biological Sciences Learning Center, explored his time studying under professors Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins.

Ashley, (B.A., M.A. ’37), a student of Chicago’s Great Books Program, was a self-proclaimed Trotskyite during his time at the University of Chicago, and said he frequently changed perspectives as he went through the curriculum.

“I don’t think I understood any one of those books,” said Ashley, adding that by the time he left the University, he could read a text and pick out its main ideas.

The first book the students read was the Bible. According to Ashley, Adler was a terrific teacher who had a sharp and logical mind like that of a prosecutor. Ashley remembered one incident when a student told Adler that he was being unfair in debates because, the student complained, “You are using logic on me.”

As he looked through a recent College catalogue, Ashley noticed “it had a remnant [of the 100 Great Books program], but it was pretty well gone now.”

Ashley said society no longer values a liberal arts education as it did in the past. “The contemplation of truth has been marginalized,” but, he added, “Contemplation and practical work need not stand in opposition.”

He said the University should be wary of investing in research at the expense of a liberal arts education. “The biggest danger for the University is depending on funding for research,” he said. As students focus more on research at an early stage in their college career, they lose sight of the bigger picture of a liberal arts education, Ashley said.

Ashley has written extensively on the ethics of health care and is currently working with California Institute of Technology physicist Anthony Rizzi on a book about the role of religion in science.

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