Student Life

Aims of Education Address 2018—Gabriel Richardson Lear

Professor of Philosophy
Portrait of Gabriel Richardson Lear.

Welcome to the University of Chicago!  It is so wonderful to see you all here, to hear the hum of your voices filling this vast space and bringing it to life.  More than 1,700 people can fit into this space, but right now as I look at you, I don’t see simply you.  I also remember previous entering classes gathered for Aims of Education addresses in previous years, students who are now sophomores, juniors, seniors, or who have graduated.  I am aware also of the thousands of professors and staff people who have been preparing for your arrival in the buildings surrounding this ceremonial space.  On the outside, Rockefeller Chapel is festooned with carvings of people—actual students from the 1920s; religious figures; famous poets and musicians and philosophers.  Universities are not places; they are the massive, collective undertaking and activity of people now and in the past.  In this enormous building, dedicated to ceremonies marking major milestones in the life of our community, I feel their presence too.  A choir of faculty, students, alumni, and staff, past and present.  I am profoundly honored to be able to say on their behalf as well: welcome to the life of this great university! 

Earlier this summer I stopped by Rockefeller Chapel and had a more solitary experience.  It was one of those hot, quiet days typical of the campus in summer.  It was cool in here and apart from the attendant, it was empty.  Something about the coolness after being outside, and the smallness of my echoing steps, and the distance of the windows where the light was filtering in, something about being in this place made me feel, not so much that I had entered a new world, as aware in a new way of how extraordinary our world is.  The architecture of this place makes you look up; and being in this quiet, cool space I could sense the bodiliness of the air that surrounds us and I was aware how high up our atmosphere extends, how wide is the expanse of the air.  The gothic style of architecture—the style of this chapel—is intended to inspire awe.  And insofar as the style of Rockefeller Chapel is intended to give us a transformative vision of our everyday world, it is an ideal place for you to begin your career as students at the University of Chicago.  People often refer disparagingly to universities as “the ivory tower,” as if it were a place that is beautiful, but cut off from and irrelevant to some other world that is, as they say, “the real world.”  But this is an image that seriously misunderstands what is supposed to be happening here.  The academic life—the life of both students and faculty—is different in many ways from life in the business world or in the political world.  It moves at a different pace.  But the point of this difference is to put us in a position to experience the world—the real world—truthfully and, ultimately, to live in the world in a more truthful way.

I have been asked to speak tonight about the aims of education, about where you are heading and what we hope you will achieve over the next four years.  But I want to begin with wonder.  The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato is famous for saying that philosophia—the love of wisdom—begins in wondering (Theaetetus 155d).  I think he’s right about that.  Wondering in the sense that Plato is talking about is not simply a mood or a subjective experience or a feeling in your head.  It is a way—a truthful way—of being oriented to the world.  The love of wisdom begins in wonder because the person who wonders is, so to speak, turned in the right direction to find the kind of knowledge that actually matters for life.  We may say, then, that wonder is the virtue, the excellence of the student.  I’ve been saying that Rockefeller Chapel seems to me like a good place to hold an orientation event because it is built in a style that encourages wonder, a transformative experience of the vast reality of the natural world, wonder at the extraordinary collective human accomplishment of universities and of this university in particular.  Rockefeller Chapel encourages wondering and wondering is exactly what you, as students, should be doing.  Before I go on, though, I should acknowledge that although Rockefeller Chapel does strike me as wonderful right now, you may not feel that way.  And let’s face it, this place is a little strange. 

This is a building that was built in the 1920s.  At the very moment when architects downtown were making world historical innovations in the design of skyscrapers, the leaders of the University of Chicago decided to build Rockefeller Chapel in…the style of a church from the Middle Ages.  Did they register the discrepancy?  Stranger still, although Rockefeller Chapel is built to resemble a medieval church, it has virtually no Christian iconography.  The austerity of the interior is due in part, I suppose, to the fact that the founders of the University of Chicago were Baptists, who traditionally, like all Protestants, viewed the ornate interiors of Catholic churches with suspicion…a fact which, if anything, makes their choice to build a church in the style of a medieval Catholic church more obscure.  But the strangeness of the interior decoration of this building goes beyond the fraught relation of Protestantism to Catholicism.  No matter how they are designed, Protestant and Catholic churches are clearly churches.  But according to the website, Rockefeller Chapel is “not a church in any traditional sense.”  Instead, it “is a major center for the performing arts as well as serving as the ceremonial and spiritual center of the University of Chicago.”  So, despite initial appearances, Rockefeller Chapel is not in fact a church, at least not in a normal sense.  I think you can actually see this when you look closely at the details of its decoration.  But then, what is this place and what are we to make of the fact that it looks like a church? 

I could go on.  My point is, it’s not hard to get yourself into a position where, instead of experiencing wonder, in the sense of awe, you wonder in a more skeptical vein: Who were these people who thought that building a building like this was a good idea?  Who are the people now who say that this is not a church while at the same time insisting that this church-looking building is the University’s spiritual center?  The suspicion arises that there’s something fake about the design of the place.  The suspicion arises that it is a cliché, a theatrical and ultimately thoughtless evocation of a great tradition of British universities—Oxford and Cambridge have chapels in the gothic style, so let’s build one too.  I find that to be a pretty unsettling thought.  The University of Chicago is renowned for its innovations in higher education and for the seriousness of its thinking about the liberal arts.  However, pondering the strangeness of this building, you might begin to wonder: Is this imitation medieval church an anomaly? Or is it a symptom of something equally theatrical and clichéd about the University’s practice of liberal education?

Here, then, are two different kinds of wondering that are opposed to each other: my initial ecstatic amazement at the awesomeness of this space and my later, skeptical and suspicious questioning.  It’s the difference between “wow!” and “wait a second, this doesn’t add up, it isn’t so great after all.”  And notice, these are opposed reactions to the very same phenomenon: the architecture of Rockefeller Chapel.  So I ask you: if the love of wisdom begins in wondering—if wondering is what you, as a student, are supposed to be doing—which sort of wondering is it?  Awe or skepticism?  Notice that both kinds of wondering feel like ways of genuinely understanding something and so both feel like ways of being oriented truthfully.  But these are opposed attitudes, so you’ll have to make a choice.  When you sit down next week with you first assignments in the Humanities Core, when you attend your first seminars, which attitude should you try to take?

It seems to me that neither awe nor skeptical suspicion is a promising starting point for a journey to greater wisdom.

It is pretty easy to see what the danger of ecstatic wondering is:  the experience is so exhilarating that it tends to blow away the possibility of further analytic thought.  We don’t want to disturb the moment.  I do not mean to suggest that there is necessarily something wrong or suspect about awestruck wondering.  The world does contain extraordinarily good and beautiful things; a person who never feels awe would fail to register this truth.  However, when this sort of wondering gets mixed up with our habits of inquiry, it can make one complacent and defensive.  You would rather enjoy the experience of understanding instead of risking being plunged back into uncertainty.  So even if awe is sometimes appropriate—and believe me, sometimes I am overwhelmed with admiration for the extraordinary accomplishment of Plato and Aristotle, the philosophers I study, so I do think that awe towards them is appropriate—but indulging in this emotion is more of a hinderance than a help to understanding what they thought and whether they were right.

You might think that skeptical wondering is the more promising option.  Being alert for inconsistency and incoherence, not taking for granted that it all adds up: this kind of skeptical attitude may seem like an antidote to the complacency of awe and, furthermore, it may seem like the very thing you’re supposed to be doing as students at the University of Chicago.  We are a university famous for its love of debate, its refusal to treat any authority as beyond question or criticism. 

I love this argumentative University of Chicago ethos.  And just as awestruck wondering is sometimes appropriate, so too sometimes skeptical questioning is an important and good thing to do: some apparently self-evident ideas are in fact self-serving illusions that ought to be dismantled.   But the problem is this: habits of questioning and refutation can become their own form of complacency and mindlessness.  It is too easy to poke holes in the rational pretensions of serious people, especially when they are trying to articulate ideas about how to live a worthwhile human life.  With enough practice, you can fashion a plausible-sounding critique of pretty much anything.  I started to do this with the design of Rockefeller Chapel and I am sure I could have gone on, finding places where the thoughts of Harper and Hutchins and other early leaders of this university are not quite consistent or places where their practice of education conflicted with their ideals, thereby casting doubt on the coherence of their intellectual enterprise.  But if your basic stance towards the ideas of others is a stance of skeptical wondering, you are liable to develop an unexamined sense of superiority.  It is possible to wonder in the sense of doubting others without ever really challenging yourself to consider whether the views you challenge are getting something right.  Worse, eristic—the habitual activity of trying to tear down another person’s argument—is merely destructive.  This sort of wondering is good at shaking our confidence in the worthiness of any ideal or in the truthfulness of any set of ideas, but it is not good at showing us where to place our trust.  And this in turn may lead us to believe that there is no such thing as rationally-grounded trust.  It is a short step from here to the belief that rational argument is really just a cudgel, an exercise of force.

So here is the problem I would like you to think about.  You are here to learn and the goal of all learning is knowledge or wisdom of some sort.  But wisdom is a distant goal.  How will you take the first step on your journey?  Plato said that wondering is the beginning of the path to wisdom.  But I have just been arguing that there are at least two kinds of wondering—awe and skeptical questioning—and that neither of them is a fruitful beginning of an education.  But what other sort of wondering is there?

Let’s return to Plato, to see what he might have been thinking.  The famous saying that philosophia begins in wondering occurs in a dialogue he wrote called the Theaetetus.  It depicts a conversation between Plato’s teacher, Socrates, and a young man named Theaetetus.  Theaetetus was a real person, who grew up to be a well-regarded mathematician and also a brave, honorable soldier.  But at the time of the dialogue he is a young man, full of promise for the future.  He and Socrates are trying to figure out what knowledge is—Theaetetus makes a suggestion; Socrates refutes it; Theaetetus tries again and Socrates refutes that suggestion too, and so on.  At a certain point, Socrates reflects on what’s happening, how sometimes we can say something that we sincerely believe to be true and then, a little while later, after reflecting further, we find ourselves saying something that contradicts what seemed true to us before.  This is not a matter of changing your mind.  Rather, this is a case of looking at an issue from one point of view and the truth appearing to be one way and then, looking at it from another angle, and the truth appearing to be a way that contradicts the first.  The situation feels ridiculous, Socrates says.  We know we’re getting something wrong.  And yet, we were sincere in each of the claims we made; and the mere fact of contradiction doesn’t show you which claim is wrong. 

Being caught in contradiction is what Socrates and Plato called aporia—knowing that something you think must be wrong, but not knowing which thing it is since each claim you make seems true on its own.  Literally, aporia means being without (a-) a way (poros) out.  In other words, it’s a condition of being stuck.  This might make a person despair; and despair or anger or sheer fatigue is usually the way people react to Socrates’ refutations.  But Theaetetus reacts with excited, joyful wonder.  “Socrates,” he says, “I know exactly the sort of ridiculous situation you’re talking about.  These arguments that lead to contradiction make me wonder like crazy!” (paraphrase of 155c).  And here is where the famous saying comes:

“Ah, I can see what sort of person you are.  For this is an experience that is characteristic of a lover of wisdom.  This wondering is where the love of wisdom begins and nowhere else.  And the mythmaker who made Iris the child of Thaumas was a good genealogist.” (paraphrase of 155d).

Notice a few things.  First, Theatetus’s wondering is the result of being challenged and refuted by Socrates.  So, the activity of looking for flaws in another person’s argument—the sort of wondering that I called skeptical or destructive wondering earlier—does have a place in the pursuit of wisdom.  However, according to Plato, the person who wonders is not the person who raises doubts; it is the person being questioned.  The person who wonders is the person who is brought to contradict himself, who realizes that the things he thinks don’t add up!  So if you’re trying to take the first step towards wisdom, don’t begin by looking for flaws in another person’s argument; try instead to get someone to challenge you.  Of course, someone will have to do the questioning and the raising of doubts and sometimes you may be called on to play that role.  So it is worth remembering that a person who poses challenging questions can also share in the experience of refutation, to the extent that she shares the point of view that she’s challenging.  In that case, your refutation of another person will also be a refutation of yourself.  So, if you want the activity of challenging another person’s ideas to be fruitful for yourself, you should try a sympathetic outlook, understanding—really understanding—how the world could look as it does to your conversational partner.  Only then should your explain why this outlook is incompatible with some other claim that you and she are confident must be true.  That way you will be able to share in the refutation and experience wonder, too.  So the first lesson we can learn from Plato is this: wonder is the result of being challenged; it is not the activity of challenging itself. 

The second thing I’d like you to notice is Socrates’ approving attitude towards the myth that makes Iris the child of Thaumas.  Now here you need to know that the word for ‘wonder’ in Ancient Greek is thauma, and in Greek mythology Iris is the rainbow, a messenger between gods and mortals.  So what the myth says, according to Socrates, is that wonder is the parent of Iris, the messenger of the gods to human beings.  But if wonder is pregnant with a messenger, then it contains some message, some intimation of the truth.  And that would be marvelous, wonderful like the rainbow.  So even though wondering arises in the context of aporia, being stuck, it is nevertheless a joyful, hopeful reaction.

When we put these observations together, I think this is what Plato is saying: The sort of wondering that leads to wisdom involves a vivid awareness that your ideas about the world don’t hang together into a coherent whole, but also, crucially, a glimmer of where wisdom lies.  What Plato realized is that there’s a way of asking questions—a way of challenging our previous assumptions—that brings the intelligibility of a phenomenon newly into view. Like wondering in the sense of awe, this sort of wondering is transformative, seeing the world in a new way.  Maybe you’ve experienced what I’m talking about:  when you’ve been trying to figure something out and making no headway and then suddenly you realize, “Wait a second, I’ve been approaching this problem in the completely wrong way.  What I should be asking is this!”  Wonder is an experience of the structure of reality that arises from the realization that your previous theories do not add up or do not fit the phenomena.  You have a new sense of the space of possibilities and so you are able to ask a new question.  This sort of wondering, the ability to ask a fruitful question because you now see something about the structure of the right answer which you hadn’t grasped before, this sort of wondering is an accomplishment. It is the ability to step back from specific beliefs about narrow parts of the world and see something about how the whole fits together.  It is this reorientation to the whole that allows for intellectual creativity.

Plato said that philosophia—the loving pursuit of wisdom—begins in wondering.  But I hope it is now clear that this is not actually the first thing you will do in the course of your education.  A big part of your education will be learning enough to put you in a position to wonder.  In some cases, you will need to learn enough about a subject to realize that it really is important, that the truth of it matters to you.  Speaking of my own case, I am incredibly grateful to my college for forcing me to take an introductory geology class, called “Rocks for Jocks.” I wasn’t a jock, but it sounded like it would probably be my speed.  It turns out, I had no idea how interesting rocks could be!  But I didn’t have this epiphany until almost the end of the course.  (I went on to take more geology classes, just for fun.)  So sometimes you will need to study a lot just in order to realize that something is worth understanding.  In other cases, you will already think that something is important, but you will need to learn enough to realize that you yourself do not yet understand it, may not even have begun really to think about it. 

You should expect that you suffer this sort of ignorance—thinking you know what you do not know.  It is an aspect the human condition, I’m sorry to say.  We are cultural creatures, animals who not only live together, but together imbue our lives and actions with meaning.  Every intentional action you perform is something you do because you think you know what you are doing.  Right now, you are sitting here listening to this lecture crucially in part because attending a lecture is what you intend to do.  The meaningfulness of our actions is not an atom on its own, though, but takes its significance from the collective, cultural ways we have developed of living.  Your parents, mentors, and peers taught you how to interpret your actions as you were growing up and there is enormous pressure—internal pressure—to keep interpreting your life in the ways of your culture.  I’m not saying that the ideas you’ve been taught are necessarily wrong.  It’s probably a mix, but that is not my point.  My point is that even to the extent that your ideas about important things are true, it can be very hard to really think about them, to feel the friction that comes from your mind being shaped by reality, rather than by how you would like reality to be.  One of the main reasons it is so important to study influential works of the past and of other cultures is precisely because it will help you in this project.  However misguided Homer or Plato or Euripides or Aristotle may have been, these were serious people, trying to make sense of the world and to articulate it truthfully.  I find that really entering sympathetically into their way of thinking can have the salutary effect of making me aware of the ungroundedness of my own positions, a sort of historically-induced aporia.  And sometimes there is the wonderful realization that they are in fact on to something, that they are seeing the very world I am looking at, but from the other side, so to speak.  In any case, wisdom-loving wonder does not come easily; it can take a lot of work, a lot of study of the natural world, a lot of study of the past and of other cultures, to put yourself in a position to experience fruitful, truth-oriented wonder. 

In fact, I think it is fair to say that wondering—and developing habits of wondering—is not just the beginning of wisdom, it is the aim of a liberal arts education.  I don’t mean that you should aim always to be at the very beginning of your journey.  While you are here at the University of Chicago, you are going to study theories and stories and images that will, for the rest of your lives, orient you to the world and to yourselves.  But these theories and ideas have the power to orient you truthfully only if, in thinking through them, you are alive to the newness of the new phenomena you will encounter later in life. You must be alive to the interconnectedness of your orienting ideas; you must be ready to step back and ask whether the new phenomena you encounter fit with the world as you had previously understood it or whether instead it is the proof that your way of thinking about the world doesn’t quite add up.  And on those occasions when you find that your most cherished theories do not get things right, you must have sufficient experience of wondering to embrace this realization with hope, not feeling stuck in aporia and so tempted to retreat into illusions, but confident that you are able to ask fruitful questions and reorient yourself in a more truthful direction.

I said that wondering is the aim of a liberal arts education, the sort of education suitable for free people like you.  The freedom at issue here is, to borrow Aristotle’s memorable phrase, the freedom of people with “the power of choice.”  You have the power of choice, the authority and ability to shape your own lives and the lives of your communities.   Free people need orienting ideas that help them put different aspects of their lives together into a world; but they also need the ability to face up to it when circumstances show that their ideas don’t all fit together, and they need to react to this disorienting and sometimes painful experience with productive wondering, rather than with defensiveness.  The dangers of confusing real wondering with either awe-filled amazement or skeptical debunking are not merely hypothetical and they are not limited to academic life.  No doubt as students you have already encountered people who love to criticize the ideas of others because they thrill to the sense of victory and whose defense of “the truth” is really just an excuse to revel in a feeling of power.  And you may also have encountered students who are so enamored of an idea or way of looking at the world that they will not really think about whether it is true.  Perhaps you yourselves have been drawn in these directions.  But what is far more troubling is that these un-wisdom-loving ways of wondering are pervasive in the intellectual culture of our country, an intellectual culture in which there often seem to be only two possibilities: refuting the ideas of others or preaching to the choir.  Both of these intellectual postures is sclerotic, incapable of having that “aha!” moment that is so necessary for intellectual creativity and for truthfulness.

I’ve got to tell you, the past eighteen years, the years of your life, have been punctuated by events that have seriously shaken people’s confidence that they understand the world they’re living in: 9/11; the 2008 financial and housing crisis; Brexit; American government agents separating immigrant children from their parents…I won’t go on.  You all have lived through a lot and you are probably tired of hearing about what dark and unsettled times we live in.  But you are fortunate in at least one respect: whereas the world of my college years was shockingly complacent, you live in times in which the inadequacy of major world views is obvious, even if we disagree about where the fault lies.  So although these are scary times, they are also times in which the conditions are ripe for wondering and so for imagining new, better possibilities for living together.  I hope you will take advantage of that.  But it takes a lot of work to put yourself in a position to wonder, and also a lot of courage.

I’ve been thinking about what our life together at this university must be like in order to facilitate wisdom-loving wonder.  Since wonder is the result of being challenged, it is important that we have a culture of speaking our minds and of tolerating, even welcoming, criticism.  It is also important that we have a culture in which people are able to listen to whatever arguments and ideas they believe, in all seriousness, will help them see things in a new way.  So a community that facilitates wisdom-loving wonder must also be a community of free speakers or, to put it a better way, free conversationalists.

There has been a lot of talk on this campus about free speech.  Our university guarantees freedom of speech and of inquiry as a matter of right.  There is no central authority that determines what teachers must, may, or may not teach; there is no central authority that vets invitations to outside speakers; and there is no central authority that determines which ideas students may or may not express.  The only place the university as such will take action is with respect to people who obstruct teachers from teaching what they think should be taught and or who prevent university members from hearing and discussing ideas they have invited speakers to share.

I am in favor of the university’s position on our rights to free speech and free inquiry.  But we need to be very clear about something: simply having these institutional freedoms does not guarantee a good outcome.  We should not make the mistake of thinking that a community in which everyone can say what they want is inevitably a community in which wonder and truth and the productive search for wisdom will flourish. 

Freedom of speech is an institutional liberty, but the point of that liberty is to allow for the development and exercise of a virtue, a human excellence of speaking freely.  We as a university have been thinking a lot about freedom of speech as a liberty guaranteed by governments and universities, but it seems to me we need to do a lot more thinking more about the relevant virtue.  We need to think more about what free speaking is like when it is excellent.  What I have been trying to suggest is this: The virtue or excellence of free speech is the ability to speak your mind in a serious conversation, and a serious conversation is the sort of conversation that leads to or springs from the experience of wondering.  This ability does not develop simply on its own.  Simply being protected in the right to speak our minds does not ensure that we will have the ability to do so well.  We need to be thinking about what other institutional structures foster this excellence and we need to be thinking about how we, as individuals can get better at speaking freely in a way that leads to and from wonder.

If I were a social scientist, I might say something about institutional structures, but since I am trained in the humanities, I want to close by saying something about the images and metaphors we use to talk about free speech and its value.  Lately, I’ve been thinking that some of the standard metaphors for a community of free speakers present a distorted image of the way an excellent free speaker engages in conversation.  This matters, because images of our ideals shape our deliberations and behaviors in subtle ways.

Sometimes, when people defend freedom of speech, they talk about the “battlefield of ideas.”  This image suggests that people who speak freely are intellectual “combatants,” challenging and attacking opposed ideas.  But this metaphor is obviously inadequate as a way of imagining free speech as a truth-seeking activity.  No one goes to war in order to find out who should win or where the truth about anything lies.  Can you imagine a soldier who pauses on the battlefield to wonder whose side he should be fighting on?  An “intellectual combatant” is someone who has already decided what to think.  He aims only to change the minds of others; he is not open to the discovery that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, nor will he embrace the wonderful realization that the structure of reality is something somewhat different from what either he or his “opponent” had assumed.  The metaphor of intellectual combat has no place in an academic ideal of free inquiry because its “hero” is incapable of wondering.

Another common metaphor is the “free marketplace of ideas.”  Just as competition in the free market improves our access to good products, so too, the story goes, free debate improves our access to true ideas.  Now, let us leave aside the distortion involved is viewing someone who argues for an idea as trying to sell it.  There are distortions here, but since you are students you are more likely to see yourself in the role of the consumer.  But there are problems here, too.  A consumer typically tries to evaluate the quality of a product before buying it.  She holds the product at arm’s length, trying to make an evaluation before making a commitment.  But ideas aren’t like that.  There’s no way to understand—really understand—a complicated theory without coming to see for yourself what can be said in its favor.  Taking another person’s ideas seriously is not simply a matter of repeating what they say.  You must understand why their way of thinking seems reasonable.  Now it is possible to question and criticize ideas you learn about while standing from them at a distance.  But unless you try to sympathetically enter into the other person’s way of seeing, opening yourself to seeing why a reasonable person might think these ideas are true, you will not yourself be able to feel the force of whatever refutation offer.  Even if you decide the idea is a good one, if you try to evaluate before entering sympathetically into the thought, you will not wonder.  Your mind may contain a collection of true ideas, but you will never have felt the friction of having your mind shaped by the world in the activity of thinking about it.  Free, wisdom-seeking inquiry demands sympathetic engagement.  It requires taking a bite of the apple before you’ve paid for it.

Once you realize that, you see that we face a dilemma.  Certain ideas strike us intuitively as odious; we do not want to engage sympathetically with them, because we do not want to risk being changed by them.  On the other hand, it can be hard to know in advance whether our aversion is complacent and defensive, born of an unwillingness to really think about our commitments.  This is a real problem and it cannot be solved simply by saying that in a free marketplace of ideas, everything should be allowed.  That metaphor tempts you to think you can be safe from thinking, because you can evaluate intellectual products before you consume them.  But engaging in conversation as a consumer will close you off from the possibility of wondering.  Just as we should abandon the metaphor of intellectual combat, so too I think we should set aside the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas.

Free inquiry—the sort that inspires wonder and is oriented by wonder—is a joint activity.  One person may put forward her ideas and another person may criticize, but it is an attempt to think creatively together.  This ideal of excellent free speaking requires courage, sympathy, goodwill, and trust.  It is a form of intellectual friendship.  You all will develop intellectual friendships here over the next four years.  My hope is that you will take these friendships and the habits of serious, wondering discussion with you when you graduate to improve our civic discourse. 

So I say to you again: welcome to the University of Chicago!*


*The ideas of this address are heavily influenced by my reading of Plato.  There is of course the passage from the Theaetetus that I quote.  In addition, the fact that it is easy to construct an objection to any claim is displayed to hilarious effect in the Euthydemus. The point about the danger that habits of refuting arguments will lead to a hatred of reason come from Phaedo 89d-90e.  The idea that it’s better to be refuted than to refute someone else is articulated by Socrates at Gorgias 458a.  The idea that the refuter can also experience the wonderful effect of refutation is put on display at Symposium199c-201c, when Socrates reenacts a refutation he himself suffered—and reexperiences the wonder—when he refutes Agathon along the same lines.  Criticism of the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor was inspired by Socrates’ criticism in the Protagoras of Hippocrates’ willingness to “bankrupt [himself] and [his] friends too” in order to buy a liberal arts education (310b-314b).