Student Life

Aims of Education Address 2004—Don Michael Randel

President of the University from 2000-2006; Professor Emeritus of Music
Portrait of Don Michael Randell

This is not the first discussion of the aims of education to which you have been a party. For some of you these discussions go all the way back to the period leading up to the happy day on which you received the fat envelope announcing that you had been admitted to the nursery school of your choice. (In case you doubt that this matter is taken seriously in some quarters, I should tell you that, in my capacity as a university president, I have sometimes been asked to write letters of recommendation for children applying to nursery school—as if that might do some good. Lest it occur to you to ask me to do this for a child of your own some day, I should also tell you that I am quite powerless in this as in many other matters. But I digress.)

In most of the discussions of this kind taking place among young people and their parents or other adults, the aim of the education in question has been understood to be a preparation for something that comes later. The chain of events goes as follows: You get into the right nursery school so as to get into the right grade school so as to get into the right middle school so as to get into the right high school so as to get into the right college or university so as to . . . well, so as to what? In some cases, that has an easy answer, too: so as to get into the right graduate or professional school. Or maybe so as to get the right job. Or maybe so as to get any job at all.

We raise the matter for discussion again this evening, however, because you now enter on a period in your education in which the aims must take on a much broader aspect than mere preparation for some well-defined something that comes next, even if you are quite certain that you already know what that next thing will be. Unfortunately, much conspires to prevent you from addressing this broader aspect.

How many times have you been asked what you plan to study at the University and what you plan to “do” with that? Such questions are all versions of the question underlying many of your previous discussions of the aims of education, namely, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” These questions imply a certain kind of answer, and you will often have been made to feel that if you are really clever and responsible you will have that kind of answer: doctor, lawyer, teacher, etc. If you doubt this kind of social pressure, try this when you are at home after some number of weeks of study here and someone asks yet again what you are studying and what you plan to be when, as it were, you grow up. Say, “I’ve been reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and on that basis I’ve decided to be happy when I, as it were, grow up.” Or try saying, “If I must be some particular thing that can be named in a word, I decline in that sense to grow up.” Well, perhaps you shouldn’t try this at home. At least be sure that you know your audience well if you do.

If we try to break out of the narrow constraints within which the aims of your education at various stages have most often been discussed—education as preparation for some next thing, whatever that might be—we find ourselves forced to think about something more like the aims of life itself. This is clearly a big question over which Aristotle and a great many others have labored long and hard. The first thing to recognize about life itself at this stage in your education is that life itself has already begun. The kind of education on which you now embark, especially at this university, is not a preparation for life. It is a way of life—a kind of life that you should want to live as long as you draw breath. I do not mean that you should want to spend the rest of your life taking examinations and accumulating degrees, though some of you will make an attempt at that to the dismay of the people who keep asking you what you are going to be when you grow up. I mean that education is the exercise of a certain quality of mind. It can be part of accumulating academic degrees or professional certifications, but it ought to be at the heart of life itself.

Recognizing that life has already begun, however, and asserting that education ought to be a way of life rather than a mere preparation for it, I have not really answered the question about the aims of life. The simple and brutal answer to that question is, of course, that the aim of life is to put off death as long as possible and to come to terms in some appropriate way in the meantime with its inevitability. Arguably the three greatest forces in human history have been race, religion, and sex, and each of these could be said to be the result of the attempt of the self to define itself in relation to the other and thus to death. But this realization should not be a gloomy one. From it should spring a liberation that begins to get at the aims of life and its many wonderful possibilities.

Here is a poem by A. R. Ammons that takes on this topic:


Nothing is going to become of anyone
except death:
    therefore: it’s okay
to yearn
too high:
the grave accommodates
swell rambunctiousness &

ruin’s not
compromised by magnificence:
that cut-off point
liberates us to the
common disaster: so
    pick a perch—
apple branch for example in
tune up

drill imagination right through
it’s all right:
it’s been taken care of:

is allowed, considering

“Drill imagination right through necessity.” That is a memorable phrase, and I hope that you will remember it. There will be many times in your lives, some in the next few years here, when you will need more than anything to have the ability, and believe in your ability, to drill imagination right through necessity. It follows that one of the qualities of mind that you will most want to develop both now and evermore is imagination. But let me come back to that.

Granted the problem of death, what is the goal of life? Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics provides a long account worth consulting, among many others. He asserts simply enough that the aim of life is happiness. But that, of course, poses another set of questions. Of particular interest in the context of the aims of education is the distinction that he draws between happiness and pleasure. Much of what is said today about the value of higher education has to do with enhancing one’s ability to acquire pleasures as distinct from the ability to achieve happiness. Often the pleasures in question are quite material and physical. Even if one cannot imagine happiness in the absence of pleasure, if life is to afford happiness and in at least that sense to matter, and if education is to serve that goal, then education cannot be merely about acquiring the ability to acquire the means to pleasure. Above all, one does not want to fall into the trap of thinking that real life somehow comes later—after one has gained what are essentially the practical skills with which to pursue pleasures of the kind that our society seems particularly to prize. That is, do not wait until you have a big income, and a nice house, and a nice car, and a good-looking spouse to ask yourself what happiness might be about.

Aristotle concludes with the view that happiness is not amusement but activity in accordance with virtue and that happiness in the highest sense is the contemplative life. He gets to the contemplative life by way of an argument about the nature of the gods that may not seem so persuasive in any literal sense. But the conclusion has force nevertheless, and it comes down to a certain quality of mind that is essential to happiness suitably defined.

If education, then, is not merely a preparation for life but a way of life even long after you cease to be in school, education must first and foremost be about developing and exploiting a certain quality of mind and not primarily about acquiring what might more properly be called skills. Unfortunately, that quality of mind is not so easily judged with standardized tests. That is why, in deciding whether you were right for the University of Chicago, we asked you to write on what some might regard as unusual essay topics. I have sometimes been asked why we pose such topics instead of using the standard ones. Do we not run the risk that some students might decline to apply rather than go to the trouble of composing a separate essay for us? That, we believe, is a risk worth taking, because long before you arrive on campus we are principally interested in the quality of your mind. A student not interested in or stimulated by the kinds of topics that we pose perhaps should not come here in the first place.

Well, what is that quality of mind that we have looked for in you, that we hope to help you develop further, and that we hope you will carry with you evermore? No single word describes it perfectly. But as I have suggested already, imagination is surely a crucial quality of the mind we cultivate. This is not the same thing as fantasy. Imagination is what enables you to come up with a better idea, whatever the subject. Indeed, imagination is precisely what enables you to come up with ideas that can in fact survive the tests imposed by reality. It is what liberates you from the prison of the belief that things must continue to be a certain way because that is the way they have always been. It is what enables you to surmount the apparently insurmountable.

To what does this mind apply its imagination? That depends on another crucial quality, namely curiosity. The mind we are talking about is not easily bored. I hope you think twice before you let the word boring escape your lips. You will remember, I trust, that last Saturday I tried to get you to remember a Spanish proverb. I will give you a second chance at it now, and this time I really will expect you to remember it. Four years from now I will expect you to repeat it to me before I am willing to hand you a diploma.

Si te da un libro en la cabeza y suena a hueco, no siempre es culpa del libro.

If a book strikes you in the head and it makes a hollow sound, it is not always the fault of the book.

This goes hand in hand with your ability to drill imagination right through necessity.

In principle, you ought to be curious about everything—about how nature works at every level, about the past, about the current state of the world, and perhaps above all about people. It matters a great deal that you are not all alike, for there is much to be learned from people different from oneself. It will be a great loss if you do not make the effort here to know people from different racial, ethnic, cultural, geographical, and social backgrounds. This country and the world are in desperate need of greater understanding among all people. More even than that, we need a greater positive engagement of people across all lines of difference and diversity. It will make for a richer life for everyone and a much safer planet.

Much has been said lately about the value of diversity in higher education, and a number of universities, ourselves included, have battled in court for the right to make diversity an explicit part of the educational environment that we seek to create. Simply put, greater diversity will make us a better university and will make possible a better education for everyone here. The counterargument is one of reverse discrimination that assumes, without exactly saying so, that there is a purely objective and quantifiable method by which one could rank precisely from one to n the qualifications of all applicants and that it is discriminatory to reject one applicant in favor of another farther down the supposed list.

This argument has been given some credence by the methods of some very large universities that do in fact rely to a great degree on test scores and similar quantitative measures. The argument is given more emotive force when the terms quota and set-aside are introduced. These points can certainly be addressed. For present purposes let me simply say that the situation at the University of Chicago is rather different from that of the larger public institutions that have been sued. I have already said that we are interested in much more than test scores. It just happens that test scores are very well correlated with family income, and that is hardly the criterion that ought to drive the admissions process. Even more important is that learning here is not passive. We expect each of you to contribute to the educational experience of the whole community, and if we were not a diverse community, what we would have to contribute to the education of one another would be greatly impoverished. In today’s world, where isolation is no longer possible, this feature of our educational community is more important than it has ever been.

I confess that I come to this with a certain experience. I grew up in the Republic of Panama, where my father and mother, both U.S. citizens, had a small business for thirty years. I do not remember when I did not speak Spanish. My schoolmates were from all over the world, and my Panamanian friends were multiracial. A number of the music teachers who mattered to me most were black West Indians. These were people that I admired and loved. I profoundly believe that my life was made immeasurably richer by my having come to admire and love people who were in important ways very different from me. I hope that every one of you will experience that same richness in some way, and the University would be failing you if it did not facilitate that by creating a diverse community for all of you.

I have now said a lot about qualities of mind—imagination, curiosity—urging you to believe that this is what education ought really to be about first and foremost. Do there not remain, nevertheless, some questions about what education is good for and how the aims of education might address some of the facts of life? What will you do with your education in the process of achieving some degree of happiness worthy of the name? What kinds of things might you do that might in fact contribute to that happiness?

One of the aims of education has long been to produce good citizens. Indeed one of the views of the modern university as created in the nineteenth century is that the university’s principal purpose was to produce proper citizens of the modern nationstate. Starting from this position, one analysis concludes that, as the modern nation- state has been greatly weakened or disappeared, the aims of the modern university have necessarily been undermined. In the absence of a mission to support and maintain the nation-state’s image of itself, this argument goes, universities have fallen back to the claim of existing for the purpose of creating excellence, a notion that is largely vacuous. Universities in this view stand for nothing of real consequence and have in the meantime become merely the handmaidens of corporate interests.

Much of the debate about higher education in recent years has been about what you know and what you don’t know. This has often taken the form of a complaint that you and your contemporaries do not know many things that you ought to know. This is shorthand for: you don’t know precisely the same things that your critics from previous generations were taught and know. This is the debate about the canon: Is there some closed list of books or body of knowledge that everyone ought to have ingested? Those who assert that there is, essentially rely, whether explicitly or not, on the notion that education ought to serve the purpose of creating successive generations of citizens with a common image of the state of which they are citizens. In this view, the aims of education are to teach us the received opinion about who and what we are. This is often the view that the United States is the inheritor of the civilization of classical antiquity, font of the greatest civilization the world has ever known.

This view, in some circles, leads to imperialism in foreign policy. But it can lead to an intellectual imperialism as well, according to which young people should be taught precisely the things that were taught to prior generations, all the way back to our supposed origins. That is the method by which the state maintains its image of itself, justifies its behavior in world affairs, and assures the support of the citizenry for those behaviors.

No doubt the nation-state is a weakened concept, and no doubt universities no longer serve the aims of the state in precisely this way. But this does not mean that there is no such thing as citizenship and that universities have no role to play in the education of citizens—both of nations and of the world. For a start, mastering the canon remains important, not for the sake of staving off change but for the sake of understanding how we came to be what we are and how we might be better. We ought to want to know the canon not because it is the only thing worth knowing but so as to question it and its assumptions and the conclusions that have been drawn from it. It cannot be the case that a civilization (for want of a better term) rooted in the notion of individual freedoms and the questioning of the established order reaches a point at which the freedom to question the established order is suppressed. We ought to treat the canon not as a reliquary but as the possibly subversive force that it was throughout its creation. And then we must recognize that other people have other canons, and we ought to want to know something about them as well.

Among the aims of education ought certainly to be the creation of citizens, but citizens capable of acting on—and responsible to—a much broader landscape than we have often invoked. In today’s world we must assume that citizenship entails not only a responsibility to one’s immediately surrounding community and to whatever hierarchy of political spheres there may be within the sphere of the issuer of our passports or birth certificates, but also a responsibility to everyone else who lives on this planet. This necessarily entails knowing something about other people’s canons. Above all, it cannot be made to seem unpatriotic to want to know about other people as much as to want to know about people like ourselves and our particular history.

Your education ought certainly to make you a proper citizen of the world, with a proper respect for the people and cultures that share the world with you. But there remains a responsibility to the country of your particular citizenship, and one of the aims of education ought to be to serve that narrower responsibility, too. This is, I believe, a particularly acute responsibility in the United States of America at this moment.

This is a country in which your intelligence is daily being insulted by the media, which assume that you cannot read, and by politicians, who assume that you cannot think. What passes for public discourse about issues of enormous importance for every one of us can hardly be expected to enable even an attentive electorate to decide things sensibly. But of course most of the electorate does not trouble to appear at the polls. Perhaps that has something to do with the quality of the national discourse. You, however, have a clear responsibility to exercise your franchise and to exercise it based on the education that you are being afforded. You have no excuse not to ask hard questions and to demand answers of our elected and aspiring officials. Numerous studies show that most voters vote based on very modest amounts of information and often mere impressions of candidates rather than any information about or analysis of the issues. Your education affords you the tools with which to be much more responsible in the voting booth. I hope that every one of you who has reached the appropriate age will exercise that responsibility on November 2. I would not dream of trying to tell you how to vote, though I consider myself entitled to have an opinion of my own and to express it as an individual under appropriate circumstances. What I will try to tell you, however, is that you must apply the quality of the debate that you will be taught to practice here to the issues before this country and the world. And you must use the quality of mind that education at the University of Chicago develops to shape your duties as a citizen.

Your education here should also guide your response to another set of responsibilities, and those are your responsibilities to the people around you, especially those who are less fortunate. This country, the richest and most powerful in history, has a very unequal distribution of wealth and power among its people. You have a responsibility to understand the relevant facts about that and to ask yourself what you ought to do about it. The exercise of this particular responsibility may not seem to you to be a part of your university education. But it is another respect in which you should not suppose that real life begins only after you have collected a degree. This university takes very seriously its responsibilities as an institution to the city and the neighborhoods of which it is a citizen, and you should feel some of that same responsibility and be a part of the University’s efforts to improve the well-being of Chicago and the South Side. This responsibility to the surrounding community goes back to the founding of the University and its great traditions in the social sciences. You too must be good citizens of Chicago and the South Side while you are here.

I have talked about the aims of education in relation to life itself and to the duties of citizenship. But should I not take at least some account of the need that we all face to put groceries on the table by some method? My celebrated predecessor Robert Maynard Hutchins remarked that you don’t come to the University of Chicago to learn how to make a living. I have tried to suggest to you that you come to the University of Chicago to learn how to make a life. Fortunately, the habits of mind that you will develop in making a life here are precisely the habits of mind that will best equip you to make a living.

The University is quite incapable of teaching you everything that you will need to know in order to make a living in some profession or other for the rest of your life. That means that whatever profession you exercise, you will need to be capable of continuing to educate yourself—to reinvent both your profession and yourself in response to change, which is both inevitable and unpredictable. The University begins this process with you even now by insisting that your education at the University is not something that the University does to you. It is something that, even here, you must do to and for yourself. There are many people here to help you—indeed, challenge you—to do that. But your success or failure in gaining education is ultimately up to you, now and evermore. And the education of the truly educated is never completed.

Apart from the qualities of mind about which I have spoken, there are a few other parts of your intellectual armament that you should develop at the University, and these too will be of great value in whatever you do to earn a living as well as in life itself. You should become good with words, good with numbers, and good with people.

To become good with words is not merely to become faster with Latinate polysyllables. Words are not simply the means by which you express ideas, as most people probably suppose. Words are the tools of thought. Wordsworth put it rather forcefully as follows: “Words are too awful an instrument for good and evil to be trifled with: they hold above all other external powers a dominion over thoughts.” The richer your use of language, the richer your thought. You are probably kidding yourself if you think that you have ideas for which you simply do not have the words. That is one of the reasons that you should welcome every writing assignment. The more the better, for working out the words is in fact to work out the ideas themselves.

There is another underlying reason for wanting to make your use of language as rich and subtle as possible. One of the fundamental insights of modern linguistics is that the individual linguistic sign (or one could say word) has no inherent meaning (apart from onomatopoetic words like meow or perhaps jingle) but instead derives its meaning from its relationship to all of the other signs in the system. The meaning of a sign derives ultimately from its difference from other signs. Your ability to read and write and speak, then, derives from your mastery of a system of signs in relation to one another. The richer the system you master, the greater your ability to comprehend and use individual signs and the greater your ability to comprehend and create meaning. Nothing of consequence that you do in life will fail to benefit from the subtle use of language as the tool of subtle thought.

In similar ways, numbers enable thought and ideas rather than merely capturing them. Being good with numbers is of course enormously valuable in solving certain practical problems, and in some professions (and on April 15 every year) your ability to manipulate numbers will be essential. But numbers also give you the ability to have ideas about many aspects of the world around you. Along with words, numbers enable you to frame ideas about the awesome beauties of nature and about what humankind’s relationship with nature is or ought to be.

I have already said something about why you might want to be good with people, by which I mean having the ability to understand, appreciate, and communicate with others, especially others different from yourself. The purely practical aspect of this is that whatever you decide to do in your life, it is likely to entail the need to understand the views of others and persuade them of your own. The better you are at your first job, the sooner you will go to your second and nth jobs, and at every stage in this progression you will have an increasing need to engage others with different perspectives. Instead of talking with only other chemists, you will be asked to talk with the people in finance. Instead of talking only with other economists or the people in finance, you will be asked to talk with the people in marketing or government relations. In short, in most professions, it will be important to be able to win an argument or to have your idea be the one around which consensus is created and on which action is based. That ability will require you to be good with words, good with numbers, and—especially—good with people.

Perhaps you are still not satisfied with what I have said about the more practical aims of your education, even if you subscribe to everything I have said about life itself. How are you going to figure out what courses to take, what major to pursue, what activities to engage in over the four short—yes, extraordinarily short—years that most of you will be here? Begin by remembering that these remain low-level questions in relation to all of the other things I have been talking about. Very nearly every last alumnus of this university, when asked what their education here meant to them, answers by saying, “It taught me how to think.” In that respect the alumni of this university have something very profound in common. The alumni of most other universities have mostly trivial things in common. You should want to be among our alumni in this respect, and this should guide your choosing activities here.

This is a university dedicated first and foremost to thinking. We expect both students and faculty to engage in this activity. We love to joke about the life of the mind and where fun went to die. But our sense of humor about such things is in fact a sign of the seriousness of our commitment to the life of the mind. It is the life of the mind that affords the best kind of fun there is for human beings. This does not for a minute exclude the fun or pleasures of the body. The life of the mind is what prevents the life of the body from being absurd.

I said some number of minutes ago that race, religion, and sex are arguably the most powerful forces in human experience. I come now to the part about sex. I will not speculate about how many of the minutes since I first mentioned the topic you have devoted to thinking about sex rather than listening to me. But I will intrude on those thoughts long enough to say that the life of the mind is what enables sex to be profoundly human and the expression of what is best in life rather than the absurd activity of blind nature looking only to its continuance. Even sex will be more beautiful and more profoundly meaningful to the extent that you integrate it into a life that you have thought about and that you have made meaningful by the very act of thinking.

Having said a bit about race and sex, I should not leave out religion. This too is a dangerous subject in our time. For one thing, slaughter in the name of religion (as in the name of race) continues unabated. And you should not think that any particular religion has the monopoly on this kind of slaughter. In Western civilization, we are inclined to think that sixteenth-century Europe represents a high point of art and culture. Critics will lament that this is among the periods that young people today no longer know enough about. We should all remember that in 1572 more than seventy thousand people died in France in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, part of a conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics, whose differences on the scale of world religions is hardly measurable.

In the United States today, much is decided on the basis of religious belief, and the role of religious belief in world affairs is perhaps greater than it has been in centuries. You should want to know about religions and form the deepest understanding of them that you can, lest you be tempted to support even tacitly the crimes that have long been committed in the name of religion. This is important whether you yourself are an adherent of any particular religion or not. If you are not, you must respect those who are and never suppose in either case that you are somehow superior. One aspect of this is captured beautifully in a poem by Czeslaw Milosz:

If there is no God,
Not everything is permitted to man.
He is still his brother’s keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden
    his brother,
By saying that there is no God.

I still have not told you what courses to take. And I won’t. I will say instead that it does not matter so terribly much within the guidelines that we lay down for you in the common core and other requirements. We do, however, require a kind of trust. You must be prepared to trust the University and its faculty to care about your intellectual development and to ask you to do things that, on the basis of considerable experience, we believe will be good for you, even when it may not seem so to you at first. Remember that if a book strikes you in the head and it makes a hollow sound, etc. A fruitful pedagogical relationship requires a kind of willing suspension of disbelief in which you trust your teachers to be asking you to do what will be of lasting value to you. This is somewhat foreign to the skeptical age in which we live. But trust is fundamental to the kind of community that this university is. We must trust one another to use the freedom of inquiry and expression responsibly. We must trust one another not to intrude on the freedoms of others irresponsibly. And we must trust one another to ask of one another only what might make us better and not what is intended merely to make one or the other of us subordinate.

One of the simple matters on which we will ask you to trust us is in the belief that there really is good stuff in old books. Why should young people in the twenty-first century want to read Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, for example? Well, you might wish that some high officials in our government had read it recently and taken it to heart. Thucydides records part of Pericles’ funeral oration as follows: “The worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated.”

I still have not told you what to do. That is because only you can figure that out ultimately. Whatever the aims of education, only you can ultimately figure them out for yourself. We will help in every way that we can. But you will take what we offer and educate yourselves. We hope and believe that what we offer will make educating yourselves a lifelong activity and that this will be a source of lifelong satisfaction.

You live in a nation with a profoundly anti-intellectual streak. This is dangerous for world peace and justice as well as for domestic prosperity. You must be the nation’s defense against itself in this regard. The aims of your education must include not only your own happiness in the profoundest sense. They must include making this nation and the world a place where that kind of happiness is available to all. You have more years left to work on this than I do. So I am counting on you. And a great many other people who do not even know it are depending on you. Thank you, and good luck.