The Aims of Education
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The Aims of Education

Welcome to the University of Chicago. It is an honor to address the Class of 2001, the first class of the new millennium. We are very pleased to have you here, and we look forward to educating you and returning to this same chapel some four years from now to watch you graduate and join the long line of distinguished Chicago alumni.

Not only are we fortunate to have you as students, but I believe that you are fortunate to be students at this university. It is widely recognized in the land that Chicago is one of the finest universities in the world. I would argue that it is the finest, but that is surely a debatable issue, and I am surely open to the charge of bias. However, regardless of just how good it is, there is no doubt you will get a superb education here.

I assume that Chicago is the school of first choice for many of you, but that for some, Chicago was not the school you wanted most to attend. However, you ended up here because you were not accepted at the college or university of your dreams. Although it might have seemed like a great misfortune when you were turned down by your dream school, I believe that it will prove to have been a stroke of good fortune, because Chicago will provide you with a first-rate college education that will serve you well over the course of your lifetime.

The Aims of Education address, which I have been asked to give you today, is a unique and venerable institution. The first such address was given thirty-five years ago in the fall of 1962, and it has been given every year since. Over that period, presidents, provosts, deans, and professors [End Page 137] from every corner of the University have given this talk. So I am in distinguished company. To my knowledge, Chicago is the only college or university that provides its entering freshman class with a serious lecture about the goals of an undergraduate education. To my mind, this is evidence that this university is deadly serious about providing you with a terrific education. After I am done speaking, you will return to your residence halls and discuss the matter further. This is an excellent opportunity for you to think about what is going to happen to you here over the next four years, and also what that experience, in turn, means for your life after Chicago.

As you listen to my talk, you should keep two points in mind. First, I could either talk about what are the aims of a Chicago education, or I could talk about what I think those aims should be. In preparing this talk, I have gone to some lengths to concentrate on simply describing what I think the University’s educational goals are with respect to you, while steering clear of my own views on what they should be. Nevertheless, I should add that I do not have significant disagreements with what goes on here. Second, you should understand that you are about to hear one professor’s views on the aims of education, and that it is likely that other professors would disagree with at least some of what I have to say. As you will soon discover, the University of Chicago is a contentious place, where professors and students like to argue about every subject under the sun. If you have any doubts on that score, you might ask Dean Boyer about his experiences trying to get his colleagues on the faculty to reach agreement on important issues. Of course, the willingness of faculty members to argue with each other is what makes Chicago such an interesting and vibrant place, and nobody in their right mind would want to change that basic combativeness. At the risk of getting ahead of myself, one of our basic aims is to make you over in our own image, which is another way of saying we intend to make you as contentious as we are by teaching you to disagree and argue just like we do. But back...