In 2009, speaking to the incoming Class of 2013 at Rockefeller Chapel, Jonathan Lear, philosopher and professor in the Committee on Social Thought, defined what it means to be educated not in terms of enumerable knowledge, but as a way of being.
“The aim of education is to teach us how to be students…,” Lear said. “A student in the deeper sense…a person committed to holding him—or herself open to the lessons the world has to teach.”
He was delivering the annual Aims of Education lecture, a lecture series which has been asking the University community, for decades, one consistent question: What is the purpose of an education?
Aims of Education is a title adapted from that of a famous lecture by Alfred North Whitehead in Cambridge, England in 1912. At the University of Chicago, the address is not only a venerable tradition, but also a characterizing institution, which reflects the University’s stated commitments to encouraging high-level thought and discourse.
It grew out of what was called the Aims project. In the fall of 1961, then-Dean of the College Alan Simpson wrote to the Ford Foundation, seeking funding for this project, which envisioned a series of matriculating lectures, delivered annually by distinguished members of the University faculty, to discuss the goals of liberal arts education. Next autumn’s address will be the 55th delivered at the University.
In Simpson’s letter to the Ford Foundation, he argued unequivocally that liberal education was “under pressure everywhere.” To counter this pressure, Simpson insisted on the necessity of supporting a public discourse that debated the general issues facing liberal education. Simpson believed that the efficacy of such conversations depended on their generality: they must cut across “departmental and disciplinary boundaries.” Therefore, it would be a single matriculating lecture to address all incoming first-years, no matter their intended majors or careers.
Simpson’s argument was accepted; the Ford Foundation granted the money. Professor Christian Mackauer, the William Rainey Harper professor of history in the College, began in the fall of 1962 what is known to subsequent generations of students as the Aims of Education Lecture.
Delivering the Aims lecture is considered an honor among faculty members, and past speakers have come from a diverse set of disciplines and divisions at the University.
According to John Boyer, dean of the College and Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of History, speakers are given “few prescriptive instructions and even less substantive guidance.” They are to offer their own takes on the question at hand, from whichever perspective they deem fit.
For instance, sociologist Andrew Abbott answered in his 2002 address, that the aim of education is to recognize that there is no such aim. “There are no aims of education. The aim is education,” he said. “If, and only if, you seek it.”
Philosophy professor Candace Vogler said in 2008 that the aim of liberal education is to teach one to embrace doubts and disruptions to one’s established thoughts, in order to achieve better and truer ideas.
Freedom has also come up in many of the speeches. Robert Pippin, philosopher and chair of the prestigious Committee on Social Thought, declared in his 2000 speech, to the first class of the new millennium, that to learn is to liberate.
“Perhaps no other university in the country takes such an ideal so seriously or asks itself so interminably what exactly a liberal arts education is, and whether it is so all-fired important,” said Pippin. “It describes an ideal to which we all aspire throughout the student’s time here and the general ideal already evinces the root meaning in the ideal of a ‘liberality of mind’; that is, the realization of a certain sort of freedom.”
Among the legion of O-Week events every fall, where practical advice is offered to students on matters big and small, this lecture seems to aspire to something wholly different. It is often necessarily abstract and unabashedly lofty. It invites economists to the podium, but not to give financial advice. It asks physicists to speak, but not on the practicality of scientific discoveries. All the while philosophers are welcomed to elaborate away, to a group of first-year students, on notions such as meaning and truth.
This incessant grappling with the integrity and purpose of liberal education reflects the character and commitment of this University.
“This is a time in the history of American society when the ultimate purposes of universities have never been more severely questioned and when the value of liberal education has never been more seriously challenged,” wrote Boyer in 1997 in an introduction to the lecture series.
“At such a time it is vital that we be willing to debate candidly and openly the purposes and the meaning of liberal education,” Boyer continued. He was saying almost exactly what Simpson had said decades prior.
In more than a handful of the delivered addresses, and in Boyer’s official introduction, two persons figure prominently: University presidents Robert Maynard Hutchins and William Rainey Harper.
Both are overwhelmingly consequential figures in the University’s formative years. Both were known as vehement defenders of a liberal education in its purity, as the breeding ground of a modern democratic citizenry, and both were staunch opponents to reducing an education of the mind to an education of mechanical skills for employment prospects.
President Hutchins was also a key architect behind the Common Core curriculum, for which the University is renowned. The curriculum has its professed goal not in the mere transfer of knowledge, but in the “[raising of] fundamental questions and [familiarity] with the powerful ideas that shape our society.” In other words, thoughts, genuine thoughts matter seriously.
When Vogler said liberal education is about embracing disruptions in thought, she similarly meant a cultivation of real thinking. “Thinking,” she said, “the thing that we value almost above anything else…”
However, the University has not committed to a single answer to the aims of education, nor a uniform definition of what constitutes meaningful education. In subsequent ages, there have been pushbacks to Hutchins’ vision for the University, including a downsizing of the Core curriculum. The economist Hugo F. Sonnenschein, for instance, who was the 11th President of the University from 1993 to 2000, was one proponent of a smaller Core. (He was also the Aims speaker for the Class of 2018, though he curiously elucidated an understanding of liberal education that appeared much closer to those of Hutchins and Harper).
But the Aims of Education Lecture Series continues. It persists, perhaps precisely because incongruent opinions on this complex issue have never ceased, and each year, the University invites a faculty member to re-ignite the debate.
When Robert O. Anderson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the Humanities J.Z. Smith, stood behind the podium in Rockefeller Chapel, he ended his address with the following remarks:
“For, in the end, to guess about education is to guess about the world. To undertake the work of education is to undertake the work of the world,” he said. “In challenging you to accept these tasks, I charge you in the words of an ancient teacher: ‘If not by us, then by whom? If not now, then when?’”