Our History & Culture

More than 125 years ago, the University’s founders articulated a commitment to academic excellence that would apply to all students and faculty and be accessible for people of all backgrounds

Founding president William Rainey Harper recruited faculty of the highest caliber from around the globe, including several college presidents, who were drawn to the University of Chicago as a community of scholarly excellence. 

In an address marking the University’s decennial in 1902, Harper reminded his audience of a crucial tradition: “Complete freedom of speech on all subjects,” he declared, “has from the beginning been regarded as fundamental in the University of Chicago.” Harper also viewed the UChicago community as an engine for doing good in the world, both through its pursuit of scientific innovation and its commitment to liberal education. 

John D. Rockefeller and William Rainey Harper.
John D. Rockefeller and William Rainey Harper

A generation later, University president Robert Maynard Hutchins gave voice to an equally fundamental principle in his 1936 works on The Higher Learning in America and No Friendly Voice. Hutchins insisted that universities existed to pursue truth for its own sake, and they should sponsor a curriculum that would encourage the skills of the intellectual seeker, motivated by active forms of educational connoisseurship in the study of foundational texts and documents. Hutchins also argued that “the purpose of education is not to fill the minds of students with facts; it is not to reform them, or amuse them, or make them expert technicians in any field. It is to teach them to think, if that is possible, and to think always for themselves. Democratic government rests on the notion that the citizens will think for themselves. It is of the highest importance that there should be some places where they can learn how to do it.”

Today, the principles espoused by Harper and Hutchins are embedded in the work of the University at all levels. The Core curriculum of general education introduces students to the habits of scholarly inquiry and to methods and questions in the study of original texts encompassing a number of broad traditions of learning. In subsequent years, they apply these analytic foundations to the discipline or disciplines of their choice, ensuring that they can bring a variety of perspectives—from the humanities and social sciences to the natural sciences—to bear on any kind of question or area of research.  

Students study with faculty from across the University, including colleagues in our distinguished departments in the arts and sciences and in our professional schools. One of the distinctive features of undergraduate education at the UChicago is that it draws from the extraordinary resources of the whole University, crossing disciplinary and institutional boundaries. The College is thus a symbol and agent of Harper’s original conception of the University of Chicago as being a whole, unsegmented place, one in spirit and one in sense of purpose.

General education at UChicago has engendered two special attributes among our students that are of immense value. The first is serious intellectual engagement, based on the devotion of our students to intense and thought-provoking forms of learning in their first two years of residence at the University. A second crucial characteristic of our culture is academic freedom. The capacity of the University to sustain true academic freedom has hinged on our ability to teach our youngest students from the very beginning of their academic careers the importance of the reasoned understanding of conflicting positions, the need for rigorous interrogation of rival claims, and the value of action that is informed by the thoughtfulness of reflection. Our general-education courses in the Core have come to serve as sturdy launching points for such exemplary teaching.   

The University asks students to develop their own intellectual personalities and moral imagination, which can best be cultivated in the crucible of vigorous scholarly discourse. We also encourage students to engage in reasoned and self-critical public discourse. All of this flows from our culture of scholarly rigor, our devotion to the aims of liberal education, and our commitment to academic freedom. The benefits of these norms extend well beyond the campus and the years of undergraduate study. Across all disciplines and majors, the College inspires the kind of fact-based, rigorous, and creative thinking that allows students to make a profoundly positive difference in the world in which they will live, work, and engage in public life. Our curriculum enables students to apply reflective wisdom to the world of civic and professional activity and prepares them for the challenges of global citizenship. This application begins with the first year at the University and extends throughout the undergraduate experience, from civic engagement to career preparation, as well as the unique opportunities furnished by the system of research institutes, centers and workshops on campus and in the City of Chicago.