Student Life

Aims of Education Address 2019—Deborah Gorman-Smith

Emily Klein Gidwitz Professor and Dean of the School of Social Service Administration

Welcome and Intro

Good evening Class of 2023!  I want to join Dean Boyer in welcoming you to the University of Chicago. It is a tremendous honor for me to be here this evening to deliver the Aims address. 

My 18-year-old self could never have imagined that I would be delivering such a lecture – or frankly, that I would be working at such an institution. Like many of you here, I was the first in my family to attend college, and among the first to graduate high school. My mother dropped out of high school because she had to work. My father joined the Air Force immediately following high school graduation, and then worked in a factory and, when those jobs dried up, became a diesel mechanic. My mother drove a school bus for 35 years. They were the hardest working people I’ve known, often working multiple jobs to make ends meet, and despite their incredible efforts, living paycheck to paycheck and sometimes not quite making it to the next paycheck. A college education for them – and for me – was seen as the path to a more stable and less stressful life. And it worked. Life is more stable. I’m not sure about less stressful because I’m super-stressed now, but certainly less economically stressful. But, of course, the impact of my  education was so much more than that. And here I am in front of all of you – more than 1700 strong, representing all 50 states, more than 100 nationalities, languages, and dialects, and more than 200 (12%) students who, like me, are the first in their family to attend college. Congratulations to all of you for deciding to study at this great institution.

When you are invited to present the Aims of Education, little direction is provided. It is one of the many great things about this university – that there are no prescriptions for how this is supposed to go [other than, it better go well!]. Like all of you, we, as faculty, are encouraged to think critically, question, push the boundaries of our chosen field, challenge, argue (respectfully), and not be constrained by others’ perspective about how an issue should be approached. As I read through previous Aims lectures in an attempt to find some winning formula (something that was quite humbling, but also a rare treat and a reminder of the amazing intellectual capital here at the university), I found that there was no one formula, or style, or set of messages – or even necessarily agreement – about what the “aims of education” should be. So, this is my version of the Aims of Education – a version that includes a bit of my own journey and some help from the women who founded SSA (the School of Social Service Administration). 

Everyone in this room recognizes what an enormous privilege it is to receive an education at the University of Chicago. All of you could have chosen to attend any number of other institutions, but you chose to come here, knowing that this is a distinctive place – a place known for its academic rigor, its seriousness of purpose, and its commitment to freedom of expression and critical inquiry. This university has been committed to the foundational principle of liberal learning that offers students the skills of critical thinking, writing, and argumentation. And it believes that these skills will serve to continuously enrich your lives long after you leave here. This is the “life of the mind.”

I also would argue that one of the aims of education is – or should be – to learn how to be wrong. I start with this one because I think it is one of the hardest things for us to do – to work hard, to immerse ourselves in information and data, to think critically, to examine an issue or idea from multiple perspectives – and to simply be wrong. I say this as I reflect on my own path as a researcher conducting studies to understand the factors that put youth at risk for involvement in violence. And to use those data, combined with theory and experience in practice, to design and test programs to prevent youth from becoming involved in violence. We learned a lot over the years and I’d like to think we advanced the field and made important scientific contributions to understanding the impact of violence and the factors that increase or decrease risk for involvement, and helped change policy and practice. And we developed programs that had impact – that prevented involvement. 

But sometimes we were wrong.  Our hypotheses were not borne out or our program didn’t work. And when that happened we questioned the data. Were they coded incorrectly? Analyzed incorrectly? What if we tried . . . ? No, we were just plain wrong. And it is really hard to be wrong, particularly when you’ve spent your life up until now working really hard to be right. But it’s important to learn how you can be wrong, misled, or mistaken and to use the knowledge you attained from being wrong to set you on a different course.

One of the great debates in higher education focuses on the role of a university in relation to the community and world around it. Is the academic institution a purely intellectual place for the purpose of enrichment or is it one that has a responsibility to use knowledge for impact – dare I say to make the world a better place? I believe, and I will emphasize this: the privilege of an education comes with a responsibility not only to enhance your life, but to arm yourself with the skills and inclination to use your knowledge and education to make a positive difference in the world.

Here, on campus, there are ample sources to acquire those kinds of skills. This year marks a remarkable moment in undergraduate education at the university. For the first time, all parts of the university, all schools and divisions, are engaged in undergraduate education.  UChicago is distinct in having undergraduate education focused in the College, including a Core curriculum, but also offering students the opportunity to take courses offered through any unit, division, or School across the university (including the law school, the Harris School for Public Policy, Booth, the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, and now SSA).  

And why is this significant? Why was this so important? We face an increasingly complex world. I realize the same thing was said when I entered college, but it is true. The world keeps getting more complicated. There is no one discipline that has the answers to the kinds of complex issues you will face – and when I say face – I don’t necessarily mean ones that you will face in your chosen profession, but issues that we face simply by existing in the world. 

Despite advances in technology, research, and economic growth, society continues to struggle with seemingly intractable social problems, including violence, poverty, economic instability, homelessness, and educational inequality. At a time when cities are reemerging as hubs of creativity and innovation, large segments of the urban population are being excluded from the benefits of this urban renaissance.

The city of Chicago, your new home [for many of you], clearly represents this challenge. Our thriving downtown is starkly juxtaposed with neighborhoods that have been impacted by years of structural racism, residential segregation, and social and economic disinvestment. 

Urban and rural areas across the country and around the world are experiencing this same challenge of inequality and confronting the myriad social problems that stem from it. These are not just problems for politicians or social workers or housing advocates, or urban planners. These are issues for all of us.   

How many of you have families that were just a little nervous about you attending a university in Chicago because they feared for your safety given all of the reports of violence? And how many know people who didn’t even apply because Chicago is known for its violence? First, let me tell you that Chicago isn’t even among the top 25 most violent cities in the country. Let me be clear, I am not saying that violence is not a problem. In fact, as I said, this is my area of research and I have spent my career and part of every single day for the last 25 years focused on this issue. Violence is a public health crisis in this city and in this country. 

But there are two points here (well, so many points, but that’s a different lecture). One – data, facts, research, and science – are critically important and also, increasingly challenged. You will be challenged here to look beyond the headlines, to dig deeper, to examine the data, to go to the original source, to not simply take in information, but to critically evaluate. Second, none of these facts, factors, or data points, exist in a bubble.  They all are impacted by environment – our families, our friends, our neighborhoods – and their social and political context. Think about where and how you exist in this space. And think of the ways this university can enrich your understanding of your place. 

You have the opportunity to take advantage of every school, department, and division at this university. You can’t cover them all, but I encourage you to use this opportunity. Every discipline has blind spots, but also has a body of knowledge and an approach that can change your perspective, offer a new way to think about an issue, or deepen your insights.   

We at SSA are thrilled for the opportunity for greater engagement with the College. And I am particularly pleased because the new minor offered through SSA gives you a chance to take courses that focus on inequality, social problems and change (in fact, the name of the minor is Inequality, Social Problems and Change). We look at the interconnectedness of individuals, families, and communities, and emphasize the ways societal and structural forces intervene in the lives of marginalized groups – sometimes producing improvements while other times resulting in unintended negative effects. If you choose to take any of the courses offered, you will be pushed to think about the ways social markers, individually and collectively, influence inequity in areas such as mass incarceration, immigration policy, access to health care, political power and participation, and physical and mental health among other issues. You will examine applied analyses and novel social interventions from across disciplinary fields – because, again, enduring social problems cannot be solved by any one discipline or perspective. 

Taking a look at the history of SSA

From its start, SSA has emphasized the need for science and research as foundational elements in social change. SSA was built by visionary leaders who imagined a better world and reimagined a profession. Our founders knew that change would happen only if rigorous research guided practice and policy – and they knew that the school they imagined could only happen at the University of Chicago. 

A little background: We celebrate 1908 as the birth of SSA. At that time, before being part of the University, SSA was known as the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. It would not become part of the University until 1920. But from the start, the School’s vision was unique: it didn’t just provide practical training for caseworkers or provide charity or relief services. Instead, unlike other schools of social work, SSA’s leaders had a unique vision. They were committed to conducting first-rate research on such issues of poverty, working conditions, education and immigration, and believed this research should be the basis of an education in social work and social welfare. The leaders insisted that students have a solid foundation in theory and research in the social sciences. But they also insisted that work should be connected to and reflect the major social issues of the time. They believed that education didn’t just happen within the classroom or the walls of the school, but also in the community. They wanted their training program to be rigorous and they wanted it to matter; they wanted their students to have an impact on society. 

This vision started the Chicago tradition of social work education. It happened during the Progressive Era when the nation experienced widespread activism and reform efforts.  This new vision was bold. It was a grand experiment. And it was led by women.

This happened at a time when women held little power in our society. When a women’s place was in the home, confined to very traditional roles of wife and mother. A time when women, these women, could not even vote.  

So who were the women reimagining a profession and driving this revolution? There were three: Sophonisba Breckinridge and the Abbott sisters – Edith and Grace. All were visionaries, bold thinkers, and brave rebels in their time. They were activists, idealists, and pioneers who imagined a more just and humane world. In the process, they reimagined a profession and created a school – SSA – grounded in critical thinking and scholarship, research, and active community engagement.  

Sophonisba Breckinridge was born into a distinguished and prominent Kentucky family and was described as a “belle of the Blue Grass as a girl.” A University press release (announcing a reception to celebrate her 50 years of service) described her as the “First Lady of the School of Social Service Administration” with a life story that is a “fascinating tale of feminine firsts.” Among her lifetime achievements, Sophonisba was the first woman with a named professorship at UChicago. She helped found the Chicago chapter of the NAACP, was an early member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and helped start the Women’s Peace Party.

Early in her life, Sophonisba was among the first generations of women to attend college, graduating from Wellesley. As you might imagine, opportunities for women in the late 19th century were limited. After graduating, she described her life as confused. She seemed to wander, trying different things. She taught at a girls’ school that was near to her sister in Virginia for awhile, and prepared for a career teaching mathematics. But she didn’t want to stay there indefinitely. Eventually, she went back home, studied law, and became the first woman to pass the bar exam in Kentucky.

Then, in the summer of 1895, she traveled to the Midwest to visit a Wellesley classmate who lived in Oak Park – the suburb just west of Chicago (where I live!). It was a visit that changed her life forever.

She soon found employment at the University of Chicago as an assistant to Marion Talbot, the Dean of Women. She enrolled in the University’s political science graduate program, eventually receiving a PhD – again, the first woman to receive a PhD in political science here. But after earning her PhD, she faced limited – and frustrating – opportunities. She said:

“I had opportunities to go to positions giving higher rank and greater pay….But it seemed to me that the university presidents were at the time more concerned with the outsides of their women students’ heads than with their “gray matter.”

So, she chose to stay at the University of Chicago where, as long as she could stay connected with her mentors, University colleagues, and the people who mattered to her most, she was “only too glad to scrape along.”

With the encouragement of her mentors, Sophonisba enrolled as a member of the first class of UChicago’s Law School and became the first woman to graduate from the Law School in 1904. Armed with advanced degrees and plenty of ambition, she was appointed a professor in the University’s Department of Household Administration. Weighing just 90 pounds, she was enormously busy, productive, and energetic. Here are a couple of quotes that give you a sense of who she was. “The work of the world is not done by going to bed when you get sleepy,” she said. “Vacations are the invention of the devil.”  Just for the record, I don’t agree with that statement. Vacations are a good thing. And by now we all know what the research tells us about the importance of sleep.

Before long, Sophonisba was at the Chicago School, leading the research department. She – with Edith Abbott – set about redefining the social work curriculum, emphasizing that the field needed to focus on public responsibility rather than private donations; and that social work training had to be rigorous and systematic. With this vision, the school began training students to examine acute social issues in our rapidly growing city. Adapting what she learned in law school, Sophonisba introduced the case method to courses – a first. Students examined housing and juvenile delinquency. They analyzed the Cook County jail system back in 1915, gathered data on housing after the 1919 Chicago race riots, and examined the economic status of women.  Issues that, today, still challenge us.

In 1920, the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy became part of the University of Chicago. In addition to her intelligence, energy, and talent, Sophonisba was strategic and political in masterminding this merger. Maybe even wily. That is, she recognized an opportunity when it allowed her to reach her goals. 

Case in point: The president of the Chicago School of Civics, Graham Taylor, was lukewarm when the idea of a merger with the University of Chicago was floated. Sophonisba, on the other hand, was much more enthusiastic about aligning with the University. She and Taylor often disagreed openly and bitterly about this idea. Then Taylor went on vacation, and Sophonisba was appointed acting president. Seizing the moment – and with Edith Abbott’s support and the benefit of Taylor’s absence – Sophonisba relaunched discussions about the merger with the University, and with Julius Rosenwald, a trustee of both the School and the University of Chicago.

You can guess the rest: Taylor returned from his two-month hiatus to find merger discussions in rapid motion and moving toward completion. He was furious. And accused Sophonisba of treachery. But in Sophonisba’s view, the merger was “something in the nature of emancipation; and for the work, it means weakening nowhere and strengthening at many points.” Besides, Sophonisba wasn’t afraid of a little conflict. She was known to say: “I would rather have a good fight any afternoon, even if I get beaten, than to go to a party any time!” [And, as I mentioned, she wasn’t a fan of vacations and likely didn’t look fondly upon those who took vacations.]

But the merger was controversial. Even friends in the social work profession made dire predictions. But Sophonisba was steadfast. Edith Abbott expressed this clear vision, saying: “only in a university – and only in a great university – could a school of social work get the educational facilities that advanced professionals students must have if they were to become the efficient public servants of democracy.”

I’ll shift now and talk more about the two other SSA founders – Edith Abbott and her younger sister Grace. Both sisters were fighters and came from a family of activists. Their father was Nebraska’s first lieutenant governor. Their mother, a Quaker, was involved with the Underground Railroad and the women’s suffrage movement.  

Both sisters lived in Hull House, members of a vibrant settlement house founded by Jane Addams, surrounded by other female activists. Each sister searched for and found distinct ways to express her own activist values. Together, they were a unique team – Edith, more academically and theoretically inclined; and Grace, a more public and pragmatic figure.

Edith was appointed the first dean of SSA, becoming the first female dean of any graduate school in the United States. And it’s fitting that we celebrate her achievements. She was born today – September 26!  

Edith was a UChicago alum, receiving a PhD in economics. She studied at the London School of Economics, taught at Wellesley, and then accepted the chance to work at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. This move stunned colleagues who couldn’t understand why she would give up a prestigious post to work as an assistant director promoting social work education causes. But Edith viewed the move as a chance to build on and advance her economics education and expand her social theories and interests

Edith always believed that the School needed a connection to a university.  She said,  “A good professional school of social welfare not only needs a close connection with a good university but the modern university also needs such a school.” Edith recognized the fine balance needed to integrate theory, evidence, and practice. And the need for hope and confidence in finding solutions, saying: “Social workers should be thinkers, but they should be idealists as well.” 

As soon as Edith was appointed Dean of SSA in 1924, she began making innovative changes – integrating the University’s resources and continuing to remake and reimagine the profession and the training of social workers. As a forward thinker, Edith believed in a more nuanced understanding of social problems. Complex problems required complex solutions. She championed an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum that was unheard of at the time. Students were required to have a solid theoretical foundation of the social sciences, the ability to understand statistics, a solid understanding of the historical and political causes of social problems, as well as the legislative and policymaking process. I will add here that Edith, as an economist, strategically and intentionally built a multidisciplinary faculty – an intellectual tradition that continues at SSA today. This is a school that includes, and always has, faculty in social work, psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, public health, economics and more. Because, again, different ways of thinking, knowing, and being are valuable. Bringing multiple disciplines under one roof – in pursuit of shared goals but sometimes taking different paths to get there – makes us better.

To further advance the School’s dedication to scientific inquiry, Edith, along with Sophonisba, launched a scholarly journal – the Social Service Review – that would spotlight the research and evidence-based practices of current investigations. She was the journal’s longtime editor, and we are pleased to continue its publishing tradition today.

Edith, an economist, was known as a “passionate statistician,” but she was a successful collaborator, applying her work in the real world. She helped establish the Cook County Bureau of Public Welfare, and worked for reforms that would end the exploitation of immigrants. During her career, she remained a demanding and, apparently, a sometimes scary teacher. But her devotion to her students was unshakable. She said: “I sometimes break appointments with others, but never with students; for students are really important.”

Younger sister Grace was on the frontlines fighting for children’s rights, was one of the most powerful women in government in her time, and was named as one of “America’s Twelve Greatest Women” in 1931. She served as chief of the US Children’s Bureau, was the first woman nominated for a presidential cabinet post (secretary of labor for Herbert Hoover), and first person sent to represent the US at a committee of the League of Nations.

Grace was a woman of fascinating contradictions: she was a lifelong Republican Party member and a lifelong liberal activist; she was a native of the Nebraska Plains frontier who spent a good part of her adult life living among poor immigrants in urban Chicago; and she was an unmarried woman described as “the mother of America's 43 million children.”

Early in her life, she taught high school in Nebraska, then attended a summer program at UChicago, and subsequently moved to Chicago to study full-time, graduating with a PhD in political science. While still a student, she founded the Juvenile Protection Association.

She had an amazing career trajectory. Think of this: At the age of 29, she was still living at home with her parents, working an unassuming job as a high school teacher in Nebraska. Then she moved to Chicago. Got her PhD, and lived in Hull House with her mentor Jane Addams. She became a courageous, bold, and defiant advocate – speaking up and seeking out ways to improve the lives of children and immigrants. She became director of the Immigrants’ Protective League, and became the first person appointed by the US to a committee of the League of Nations. Then, she was appointed as the Chair of the US Childrens’ Bureau, leading a national fight against child labor.

So, in just a little more than one decade, Grace went from modest schoolteacher to being the most powerful and highest ranking woman in the entire US government. In so doing, she became an important role model for future generations of women in public service and leadership positions. And, perhaps not surprisingly, male politicians attacked Grace and her trailblazing efforts, calling her a “menopausal maniac” “with a Mussolini complex,” among other things. But she also was defended by Eleanor Roosevelt, who called her “one of the great women of our day.” And at her death, other lawmakers paid homage to Grace and her achievements, saying that “Grace’s influence will extend to future generations – not only in our own country, but in many parts of the world.” One Congressman said, “To me there was something about Grace Abbott which always suggested Joan of Arc.”

This is quite a legacy – and not just for us at SSA or me as Dean, but for the university and for all of us in this room.   This is true for a several reasons, but two of note:  first, the University of Chicago was one of the few places in the country at the time that would embrace women as leaders.  Second, this school reflected an important aspect of the vision of a great university – that education is not just for the purpose of enriching the lives of the students coming through these doors, but for those who come through these doors to also use all that is gained for greater impact. 

What are the lessons/takeaways?

So what lessons can we learn from the experiences and achievements of these three women? What do they have to do with education and the experiences ahead of you now at the University of Chicago?

I would offer a few:

  • First, Take the long view. We face a world with extreme challenges that require nuanced and imaginative thinking, with few shortcuts. Think about SSA’s founders who imagined a better world and reimagined the profession. Some called it a great leap of faith. But they believed that change could only happen through rigorous research to guide practice and policy. And it didn’t happen right away. Some of the founders took very circuitous paths. They got shot down and had to deal with naysayers. They scraped by sometimes. But they found their way. In the end, they created a School, redefined the education, training and research of social work and social welfare, and impacted the lives of children, families, and communities across this country and the world. Be open-minded and be prepared to use your talents and patience to find solutions. Be active. Use your agency. Engage.
  • Second, passion and a good heart are not enough. Of course, passion and commitment are important elements in driving change. But passion and good intentions are not enough.  You need critical thinking, decisions based on research, and evidence, because meaning well – without informed analysis – is not enough.  
  • Third, Learning and knowing. A lot of the most important learning you will do will occur outside of the classroom. You have a wide mix of talent and exceptional resources surrounding you. Learn from faculty, but also learn from fellow students, staff, and people you meet in the community. Seek out new experiences. Engage in the many student organizations on campus. Volunteer. Explore Chicago neighborhoods. Some of your most memorable learning may occur outside of the classroom – in discussions with your friends while you’re riding the el north to a baseball game, or to a museum, or new restaurant, or while walking to a local school to volunteer. Push yourself to try things that are out of your comfort zone. Be present. And be thoughtful.
  • And Finally, optimism, engagement, and debate.  Learning, growing, challenging yourself and others, and creating change are not for the faint-hearted. Sometimes it’s a lonesome endeavor. Edith Abbott understood this very well when she said: “…it is not easy to find charts and lights, and you will go forward alone much of the time. Often, there will be no traditions to carry you on – only an open road.” We have a tradition of academic freedom and free expression at the University of Chicago. We recognize that debate is necessary to challenge the status quo, to advance causes, knowledge, and innovation. Those values allowed SSA founders to flourish and shape a profession. Each of you is here for an education that enhances your capabilities. This place is about rigorous inquiry, and learning how to evaluate and confront uncertainty, different viewpoints, and new ideas. Often, the discussions will be uncomfortable. But as Hanna Gray, a past University president, said “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.” 


As I look out, I see a group of students who came to the University of Chicago with different backgrounds and different sets of experiences. But regardless of the factors that led you here, you came here with common values and ambitions. We all came here wanting to engage and learn in a culture that uses knowledge and critical thinking to examine issues, find answers, and, maybe, do something to shape the world as we wish it to be.  

It can be hard sometimes to read the news of the day or recognize the slow progress on so many issues, but looking out at you, Class of 2023, I am extremely optimistic and uplifted.

Welcome to the University of Chicago! Take the long view, think ambitiously, and, as Edith Abbott said, continue to keep your sense of idealism. Thank you, good luck, and all the best to you!  Good night!