An Introduction to the Annual Lecture on the Aims of Education

By John W. Boyer

John W. Boyer is the Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of History. Since 1992 he has served as Dean of the College. The following text is a revised version of the introduction to The Aims of Education (1997), a selection of Aims of Education speeches given from 1963 to 1995.

Most colleges and universities have celebrated customs and traditions, and the University of Chicago is fortunate to have its full share. Characteristically, many of Chicago’s most venerable traditions have involved thinking about and even contesting the aims of liberal education. This is hardly surprising, for the College of the University of Chicago has been a major center for imaginative curricular thought and action in American higher education since the University’s founding. The Chicago College is perhaps best known for the bold experiments beginning in the early 1930s, which saw the creation of a system of  year-long general education (or Common Core) sequences as the defining organizing principle for the first two years of  the collegiate experience, as well as for the equally bold experiments of   the 1940s and 1950s, which included an emphasis on the close study of  original sources (the familiar Great Books), the comprehensive examination system, and the seminar course format as the most appropriate way to teach first-year students.

More recently, the College has embarked on ambitious programs to strengthen cross-cultural educational opportunities and foreign-language programs for our students, reflecting a long-standing conviction on the part of the University that a knowledge of world civilizations is a key component of a true liberal education. As the great Chicago anthropologist Robert Redfield argued in 1947, “to describe this process of getting acquainted with people, with a culture different from our own is to recognize the experience as liberalizing. We are all limited in our understanding of our own conduct and that of our neighbors because we see everything by the preconceptions offered by our own culture. It is a task of education to provide a viewpoint from which the educated person may free himself from the limitations of these preconceptions. We are all islanders to begin with. An acquaintance with another culture, a real and deep acquaintance, is a release of the mind and the spirit from that isolation. It is to learn a universal language.”

The College has thus long been a site of thoughtful and rigorous experimentation. Equally important, it has profited over the generations from a sustained commitment by senior, tenured faculty in the University to teach on all levels of the College’s instructional programs, and especially in the general education sequences taken by first- and second-year students. In fact, it is fair to say that at the University of Chicago much of our history—and indeed our identity—has been both shaped by and constituted by the faculty’s preoccupation with the College’s curriculum.

Today, the College continues to affirm the importance of general education as the foundational principle for liberal learning. It continues to believe that the purpose of liberal education on the collegiate level is to provide our students with those empowering skills of critical thinking, writing, and argumentation, and that capacity for bold, self-confident questioning which will serve them well through the decades that follow and which will continuously enrich their lives. In the relatively small classes of the Common Core our students have their first chance to get to know each other, to practice that civility and respect for intellectual divergence and for open-ended criticism that is one of the hallmarks of a thoughtful life, a life that strives for wisdom, for compassion, and for friendship. As a recent faculty statement on the College’s curriculum put it, “the College aims to produce persons who are capable of full and intelligent enjoyment of the full range of the world’s cultural achievements, persons to whom nothing humanly productive is alien. The College aims to produce persons who will grow and learn throughout their lifetimes of work, affection, creation, and reflection.”

The College is dedicated to the proposition that liberal education is an education for life, and not merely a recipe for instantaneous gratification—careerist, consumerist, or otherwise—in the first thirty days after the receipt of the bachelor’s degree.

The Start of the Aims of Education Address

One of the more attractive occasions for Chicago’s ongoing engagement with thinking about liberal education comes at the beginning of each autumn quarter, when a senior faculty member is invited to address the entering first-year class assembled in Rockefeller Chapel on the Aims of Education. The general name accorded to these talks is adapted from the title of Alfred North Whitehead’s famous lecture on The Aims of Education, given in 1912 to the Educational Section of the International Congress of Mathematicians in Cambridge, England.

The institution of Aims speeches dates to the autumn of 1960, when the president of Student Government, James Thomason, A.B.’61, suggested to the student Board, which was charged with helping to organize the College’s Orientation Week programs, that they sponsor a series of lectures on the “aims of education” as a way of introducing new matriculants to key educational issues facing them in the course of their college careers.

No immediate action was taken on Thomason’s suggestion, but in the spring quarter of 1961 Joseph Schwab, a professor of natural sciences in the College and a legendary teacher of the Hutchins era in the College, suggested to the Orientation Board that they apply to the Ford Foundation’s Fund for the Advancement of Education for financial support to implement such a program of lectures. At that time the Fund was chaired by Clarence Faust, a former Dean of the College at Chicago, and a man deeply concerned with fundamental issues involving liberal education.

Finally, in August 1961 Alan Simpson, then Dean of the College, wrote to Clarence Faust on behalf of the Orientation Board asking for support for the project. Simpson argued that liberal education was “under pressure everywhere” in the United States, and that the situation was especially critical in research universities, since “[i]n the universities, undergraduate liberal education tends to take second place to the special interests of departments, which increasingly control budgets, personnel, and therefore policy as well.” Simpson was convinced that it was all the more important that general issues involving liberal education that cut across departmental or disciplinary boundaries be publicly discussed and debated. The Ford Foundation apparently agreed with Simpson’s assessment, at least to the point of providing a modest subsidy in October 1961 for a year’s worth of activities.

In its first version of the Aims project, for the 1961–62 academic year, the Orientation Board presented two clusters of lectures, beginning in the fall quarter with talks by former Deans of the College Aaron J. Brumbaugh and Clarence Faust, as well as by Joe Schwab himself, on the history of the College and its curriculum, and concluding with a more ambitious series of lectures in the spring quarter of 1962 on contemporary issues facing universities and colleges in American life. For the latter assignment the Board was able to bring such noted authors and scholars as Seymour M. Lipset, John Noonan, and Paul Goodman to the University of Chicago, and it was also able to persuade Robert Maynard Hutchins to return to campus. Speaking in Rockefeller Chapel before a packed crowd of over 2,000 students and faculty, Hutchins delivered a stirring attack on the growing vocationalism that he saw afflicting American universities, turning them into purveyors of a “service-station” concept of learning. What had originally been conceived as an Orientation activity for new matriculants to campus had mushroomed, in good Chicago fashion, into a broad-ranging confrontation with a number of key educational issues, involving students from across the University and concluding with a defense of the most cherished values of the Hutchins era by the charismatic former President himself.

Following the experimental program of  1961–62, Alan Simpson and other College officials decided that one well-conceived and well-presented lecture on the Aims of Education, given before the entering first-year class during Orientation Week, might be preferable to a string of  divergent, if  sometimes fascinating, lectures offered throughout the academic year. In late September 1962 Christian Mackauer, William Rainey Harper Professor of History in the College, and one of the architects of Chicago’s famous year-long course on the History of Western Civilization, was invited to launch the new format. Mackauer’s lecture discussed the inevitable, but also productive, tensions between general and expert knowledge and concluded with Aristotle’s injunction that “happiness lies in the fullest use of man’s highest powers.”

Each year thereafter, for the last 50 years, a distinguished senior scholar has come before the entering class of new College students with his or her thoughts about liberal education, and its meaning and value to their lives. The Aims speaker is given few prescriptive instructions and even less substantive guidance, so that the resulting talks are truly a combination of Chicago-like academic laissez-faire and sheer faculty ingenuity. It is also no accident that most, if  not all, of  the Aims speakers have been colleagues not only esteemed as important scholars but also as brilliant teachers.

Indeed, to be invited to deliver the annual Aims lecture is considered an especially high honor by the faculty of the College, and over the course of the years many different conceptual approaches and rhetorical strategies have been manifest. Still, the challenging (and slightly daunting) opportunity to reflect publicly, before a crowd of bright, ambitious, and skeptical first-year Chicago undergraduates, on the aims of  liberal education, has led to a number of  wonderful and memorable lectures.

Relevance For Us Today

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, when the dogged pressure of vocationalism on the one hand and the hazardous luxury of curricular incoherence on the other jeopardize the possibilities of and the conditions for liberal learning. At such a time it is vital that we be willing to debate candidly and openly the purposes and the meaning of liberal education.

In his most pessimistic moments Robert Maynard Hutchins feared that many American university academics really cared little about education at all and that, left to their own devices, they would gladly abandon their responsibilities to produce a liberally educated citizenry. Certainly the founders of the University of Chicago in 1892 would have rejected such an assumption. William Rainey Harper, who played so critical a role in conceiving and establishing the University, melded and transmuted a strong commitment to Christian evangelism into an equally belligerent conviction as to the intrinsic importance of the university as the defender of democracy and the educator for liberal values. He once insisted that the university is an “institution of the people,” and he continued that “the university touches life, every phase of life, at every point. It enters into every field of thought to which the human mind addresses itself. It has no fixed abode away from man; for it goes to those who cannot go to it. It is shut behind no lofty battlement, for it has no enemy which it would ward off. Strangely enough, it vanquishes its enemies by inviting them into close association with itself. The University is of the people, and for the people, whether considered individually or collectively.” For Harper the university was nothing less than “the prophetic interpreter of democracy.” Harper’s university would gain strength from its considerable private resources and its private autonomy but then turn those resources back to the good of the general polity and general society. Hence would Harper argue in his famous essay on The University and Democracy, given as the Charter Day address at Berkeley in 1899, that “the university is . . . an integral part of the public-school system. The state, by granting its charter, makes it a public institution, whether its support comes from the state itself or from private funds. . . . The university, therefore, may not stand aloof; nor may the colleges and schools shut themselves away from its strong and revivifying influence.”

It has often been observed that Harper’s vision of a new private general university owed much to the idea of the European research university, and the principal model seems to have been derived from Germany. But we must remember that the German university admired by late nineteenth-century Americans had evolved in a very different national and cultural context than that of our own institutions of higher education, and the course of the twentieth century has seen even greater divergences. German universities were preeminent public institutions, and their research mission and their charters cast them as corporate agents of public service and especially of the Imperial state itself. At the same time the gulf that stood between them and German civil society was large, and although they were institutions originally generated by liberal cultural values, one would have a difficult time presenting them as institutions dedicated to the advancement of democratic political or social values. We often invoke the image of  the German research university as our treasured ancestor, yet that university tradition, particularly in the later nineteenth century, had a far less certain sense of  its responsibilities toward civil society at large than did our own university or our sister institutions of  higher learning in the United States.

Why is all of this of relevance for us today? Colleges and universities are privileged to enjoy an extraordinary freedom of intellectual expression, the freedom to be right and to be wrong, and above all the freedom to teach and to inspire coming generations of intellectual and cultural leaders in the nation at large. These are good and productive privileges, and we do not need to apologize for any of them. Indeed, we should actively celebrate them.

But we must also not forget that American liberal arts colleges and universities have become great because of the sacrifices, the generosity, and the faith placed in them by past generations and by their many publics of the present. Those patrons and friends expect us to use our privileges for the good of the most talented of young Americans, opening our doors to the most qualified students (ideally, without regard to their financial capacity to pay), doing well by those students once they matriculate, teaching them to the very best of our abilities; in a word, becoming and remaining, as William Rainey Harper once put it, “the guide of the people, and an ally of humanity in its struggle for advancement.” Harper’s vision—that the University would constitute a force for democratic enlightenment which would enrich the public good—is no less compelling now than it was a century ago.

Writing in a recent collaborative discussion about the future of liberal education in America, Eva Brann, the Dean of St. John’s College (Annapolis), shrewdly observed that “[l]iberal education has its concrete seat in institutional communities, and it is they, severally, who have to achieve a brisk, clear, persuasive language about themselves.”* Brann’s point—that the general norm of liberal education must be self-consciously articulated (and defended) within the particular cultural context of the individual college and university—is certainly born out in the experience of the Chicago College.

I am confident that future addresses on the Aims of  Education will provide all of  us with other beneficial examples of  such “brisk, clear, persuasive language” about liberal education, and also remind us that the practice of  liberal education,  and  serious reflection on its nature, remains an animating principle of  the University of  Chicago and its College.

* Eva T. H. Brann, “Four Appreciative Queries,” in Robert Orrill, ed., The Condition of American Liberal Education: Pragmatism and a Changing Tradition (New York, 1995), p. 175.