Perspective for Difficult Times

Dear Students in the College,

I write at a time of great distress and uncertainty for all members of our community. Let me begin by thanking all of you for your dedication to your academic work, for your courageous efforts to conclude your studies this quarter under highly unusual and adverse circumstances, for your patience and flexibility in working through the many ad hoc logistical arrangements that all of us have had to cope with in recent weeks, and for your generosity, compassion, and friendship towards your fellow students. This is an encouraging reminder of the strength of our campus community in these difficult times.

The current crisis is bound to unsettle and fill us with forebodings about the near and even distant future. But I can assure you that it will pass, and that as we look to the safety, welfare, and success of every member of our community, we will emerge from this moment stronger, with greater confidence and purpose in our academic work and in every other dimension of life. In this spirit, I thought that it might be helpful to reflect on this state of unsettledness in light of my experiences as a dean and a faculty member over the past 28 years, especially the conjunctions that I have witnessed as a professional historian between the writing of history, the making of history, and the experience of seeing history made.

Many years ago, I remember Leonard Krieger, who was my teacher in graduate school at Chicago, describing his experiences as a young OSS researcher with the rank of second lieutenant during World War II. In the aftermath of the disaster of Pearl Harbor and the early Nazi victories in the Eastern front in Europe in 1941 and 1942, the staff of the Research and Analysis Branch in the Pentagon, of which Krieger was a member, was despairing of what lay ahead, so much so that they asked Professor William Langer, their then boss, what he thought. Was it inevitable that America would lose World War II?

Langer’s response, given in a subdued and cautionary tone, was to recall to them the intellectual habits and tools of an historian. He did so by reminding them that they had all read Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, and that as students of Thucydides they should know that wars rarely, indeed very rarely, end the way they seem to begin. 

I have no idea of the specific personal or emotional circumstances in which Langer made this comment, but Krieger’s point in telling the story was his conviction that history affords essential insights into the fragility and uncertainty faced by leaders in times of radical crisis and change. He also meant that history provides insights into the powerful impact of institutional structures, traditions, and deep cultural patterns, beyond the quirks of individual human choices, in determining historical outcomes. That is, there is a powerful lesson, which I believe offers hope for us today, embedded in the arguments of one of the greatest of ancient historians and his magnificent work about the dire struggle between the Athenians and the Spartans in the Fifth Century before the Common Era. Thucydides reminds us of the resilience of common institutions and sustaining values, and above all of the importance of holding together in support of the human communities that undergird and constitute those institutions. Even dark moments are transitory, and crises can end with bright spots from everyday heroism.

In a word, Krieger’s story was about the intellectual resources of intellect and character that we as scholars and students, and as observers of the fate of institutions, may summon in times of crisis, but it was also about the importance of protecting the people who inhabit those institutions against undue and harmful fears, about the dilemmas of those who are called upon to fight against hopelessness, and about the need to acknowledge the deep emotional and cultural assets that each person brings in sustaining the values and ideals of our institutions and their historical legacy and social impact.

In times of crisis it is important to resist the temptation to live simply in the fears of the moment. There is enormous benefit in reflecting upon the courage and resilience that empowered preceding generations at this university in facing a myriad of crises involving war and peace, social and political turmoil, and the defense of fundamental civil liberties – demonstrating exceptional capacity to shape our personal and collective futures. These lessons serve as inspiration and protect us from immobilizing fear, enabling us to embrace and intelligently shape the still newer possibilities that the present community will most certainly create.

With this in mind, I hope you will recall the unique foundation that your liberal arts education offers in moments of great uncertainty. We are not out to develop well-rounded women and men at the University of Chicago. As my distinguished predecessor Alan Simpson once observed, the problem with well-rounded students is that they will roll wherever they are pushed. We are out to help you prepare yourselves to assume intellectual leadership positions in all walks of life, to show the luminous power of a Chicago education in and to the world, and to enhance your self-confidence and your capacity for innovation and collaboration. We want you to live lives of discernment, judgment, and courage, to approach the inevitable vulnerabilities and perplexities of life with resilience and fearlessness, such as those we now face in these profoundly uncertain times, and we believe that this kind of learning can take place in multiple venues and in many diverse and unique circumstances.

The current world health crisis, like all great but also terrible moments in history, will impact our lives in many unknowable and frightening ways. But it will also pass, and in passing it will reaffirm our confidence in the fundamental logic of our institution, in the productive and creative learning of our community, and in the extraordinary dedication and courage of you, our students. The vision of our founding president, William Rainey Harper—that through the work of our students the University would constitute a force for democratic enlightenment that would enrich the public good—is no less compelling today than it was over a century ago.

Again, let me express my high esteem for your work, your service, and your compassion for your fellow students.

I wish you and your families health and safety in these very difficult times.


John W. Boyer
Dean of the College
The University of Chicago