Student Life

Aims of Education Address 2020—Melissa Gilliam

Vice Provost and Ellen H. Block Professor of Health Justice at the University of Chicago

Welcome to the University of Chicago and the Aims of Education. It is interesting to consider that a faculty member has given this address to the incoming class since 1961. While much of the magic of this lecture is in the repetition of the ceremony and venue, magic also comes from the format, in which a new speaker re-imagines the same overall theme year after year.

Unlike in 1961, there is an Internet and I used it to search for images of 1961. The fashion in those times looked like a scene from Mad Men. Queen Elizabeth the II was about 35, and John F Kennedy was ceremoniously inaugurated as president before unceremoniously ordering the Bay of Pigs invasion. Computers were large and slow, televisions were black and white, and the Berlin Wall was being set in place. In 1961, the prison population reached an all-time high of 220,149.  18-year-old Charlayne Hunter attempted – under federal order – to attend the University of Georgia, where she was withdrawn for her own safety as fellow students threatened her with violence. Rockefeller Memorial Chapel would have been full but not crowded for this talk, and the student body would have been more homogeneous. I imagine that much like you, there would have been a sense of anguish, sometimes of despair, but also of hope. 

This year is perhaps unlike any other since 1961. Basketball is being played in a biodome, and Naomi Osaka just became the woman’s singles tennis champion at the US open but there were no fans to cheer her on. In 1961, we were not talking about climate change and yet now fires blaze out of control in the West, while Southern States are bracing for another hurricane. Across the world people are migrating, leaving their homes which have become intolerable due to the climate, poverty, or violence. Even a year ago, we had not heard of COVID 19 and, today, over 930,000 people in the world have died, with over 195, 000 of these deaths in the United States alone. The population of the USA has nearly doubled. The prison population has risen over tenfold to 2.3 million individuals. In what is being called a second civil rights movement, people of all backgrounds are taking to the streets to march for and honor the lives and rights of Black people and trans people of color.  Names such as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and now Daniel Prude for so many of us have become household names due to the senselessness of their deaths.  Yet, just as in 1961, some wish to maintain the status quo. 

What are the emotions you have felt? Urgency, anger, frustration, numbness, anxiety, boredom, sadness, fear, guilt? I know that the pandemic and all these other issues have affected your lives in one way, shape, or form.  But, as with other crises, there will be opportunities and I hope you see that you have the opportunity to contribute to new thinking and new ways of being.

What is the aim of a liberal education at this moment when once again, we are being called to ask about our relationship to ourselves, to one another, and to the world around us? Our contemporary struggles have deep historical roots. We are asking questions: Whose land do we live on? Can this land sustain us? Whose labor sustains us and how is that labor valued?  Whose lives are valued? Who gets to live with dignity? These questions are profound and we have seen that – when they remain inadequately answered -- they have grave consequences.

As a clinician and scholar, I focus on young people around your age. I ask what is needed to help young people emerge into a healthy adulthood with a sense of agency? This work takes me to the South Side of Chicago and to India. After many years of studying what has been called by some “risky” teen behaviors, I realized that a better way to contextualize this issue was to emphasize the potential for positive youth development. I began a ten-year collaboration with my colleague to use game design as a supportive space for exploration, skill building, safe failure, and promoting assets. One of the most important of these assets is education.

But note, I said education in a positive environment. For just a few minutes, I am going to ask you to come into Rockefeller Chapel with me and leave the outside world behind. Actually – I don’t mean really leave issues of the world behind, as our time together – I hope – will ultimately be about how we prepare to engage with worldly issues, even if we are not talking specifically about each of them at the moment, with new insights and energy.

But now, I want to talk about love. Now I imagine you just did a double take or eye roll thinking, she is not going to talk about this-really. Or maybe you turned up the volume thinking hey she studies reproductive health so this might be interesting. No, I am talking about something more radical and more transformative the love that people like Congressman John Lewi and Martin Luther King have expressed.

Education as an act of self love. What you are doing right now, committing to education in the middle of a pandemic, that is the definition of education as self love.  Think about what it means to step out of the day-to-day and enter into a place that will focus on education. When the University of Chicago was founded, it was created as a place of learning with Gothic buildings reminiscent of Oxford University with the intention of combining an English-style Undergraduate experience with a German-style graduate research experience. The founders were able to recruit senior faculty from the very beginning because of the promise of a serious intellectual life. And undergraduates were promised respite to devote themselves to that intellectual life.  But, as you know, universities have not always been accessible. I told you about Charlayne Hunter in 1961 being harassed as she integrated her university. In contrast, the University of Chicago was founded to be open to all people regardless of their background. In 1907, Georgiana Simpson enrolled at the University of Chicago and received her BA in 1911. In 1921, she became the first black woman in the United States to receive a PhD also from the University of Chicago.  But let’s look at this story a bit more closely: she was not allowed to stay in the dormitory because of her skin color and I imagine she was pretty lonely. This story is often told as a story about the openness of the University of Chicago. But to me, it is first and foremost a story about Georgina Simpson and a love of learning that led her to travel half-way across the country, often in overtly hostile circumstances, to study German.

Studying even when people tell you that you do not belong is an act of self love. Despite all that you have achieved, I bet there is nobody who is harder on yourself than you. I wonder if somewhere deep inside you still believe you are not good enough, not smart enough, not strong enough, not funny enough. The issue is that in a world where people use our differences to disempower us—racism, sexism, religious intolerance, ageism, classism, homophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment…. I could of course go on …. these instances of interpersonal violence may cause us to question ourselves and ask ourselves whether we belong in settings that do not feel familiar to us.

We use the cues around us to tell us whether a situation is safe or not.  We often are not that interested in doing things that scare us. Let me tell you about a study conducted by Sapna Cheryan. In this study she hypothesized that people make decisions based on their physical environments. Simply changing the objects in a computer science classroom from those considered stereotypical of computer-science individuals (e.g., Star Trek poster, video games) to those not considered stereotypical of computer science individuals (e.g., nature poster, phone books) was sufficient to boost female undergraduates’ interest in computer science to the level of their male peers.

In a non-experimental study, Stout and Wright showed that LGBT students were more likely to leave computer science majors due to a sense of not belonging.

Now you may think this thinking is irrelevant to you—perhaps you are thinking I am a cis-gender, heterosexual, medium height, athletic, etc…. Or perhaps you feel put on the spot. That is not my intention, these are human behaviors and human stories and I think each of us can identify characteristics we would like to change and times when our surroundings make us feel uncomfortable.

But here is the irony—the point of education is to be different and to stand out. So much of high school is conforming to structures imposed upon you by others: the same set of classes, the same set of achievement tests, and the same advanced placement exams. But in your college essays, we didn’t ask you about how similar you were to everyone else; we did not even make you take college entrance exams. We asked you to tell us what makes you unique.  You had to answer those very unusual questions so you could tell us how you and only you think. So, you should love the ways that you do not – or perceive you do not – fit in and focus on how  you see the world differently. It is our differences -- often unidentifiable to ourselves, let alone others --  that animate knowledge and academic inquiry. You are no longer proving yourself to your parents, family, and neighbors, but instead are exploring a wide range of topics, ultimately accountable only to yourself.  It is through the things that make us stand out – and the brave and uncomfortable efforts we make --  that we are often rewarded and perpetuate change.

I encourage you to love yourself not despite being different but because you are different. So, here is an interesting footnote. In 2017, undergraduate students Asya Akca and Shae Omonijo co-founded the Monumental Women Project and honored Georgiana Simpson by commissioning a bust of her that now stands in the Reynolds Club. As I have described to you, research shows that physical images can create a sense of belonging.

I want to move out to the social level and to talk about how hard it is for us to love one another. Romantic and physical love are an important component but a different discussion for a different time. Here, I want to talk about the importance of loving one another and in particular loving engaging with others’ ideas, topics, and thoughts, even when they are different than those we have been exposed to before. The most supreme level is meeting with kindness—ideas that are scary and people when their actions are unkind. But let’s start at the beginning.

What an amazing thing, you are part of a University class of over 1700 other people around your same age from all over the world. In the past decade the diversity of our undergraduate population has increased dramatically:  our students include veterans, people from countries around the globe, people from right down the street, some who are the first in their family to go to college, others who have a long-standing college tradition. We also have a diverse faculty and staff and one of the most wonderful communities surrounding our campus. The University of Chicago is a true University meaning we value the humanities, social sciences, the arts, and the basic sciences. We have no particular point of view on which area of scholarship matters. Finally, we want you to be students of the whole institution. 

But guess what, despite all of this opportunity, people actually tend towards homophily – meaning they are inclined to like people who are similar to them, and also ideas they agree with.  Thus, we may not take the risk of engaging with those who are different than us, or studying things that do not come easily to us.

Some of this behavior is our own baggage. Even though each of us is complex and miraculous and holds multiple identities, we often define ourselves by that identity that is most stigmatized in the current context. In 2004, an investigator named Mary Murphy hypothesized that one reason for the lack of women in STEM fields is that they were more likely to lose confidence, have low self-esteem, and engage in negative thinking with respect to STEM topics. To test this hypothesis, she recruited female and male identified Stanford undergraduates to look at an advertising video for a math, science, and engineering summer leadership conference. The researchers created two videos: one where the audience at the conference was gender unbalanced in a 3:1 male: female ratio and one where there was gender balance. Watching gender imbalanced video,  female math, science, and engineering students had a very negative reaction—they reported less belonging, had faster heart rates, and had greater skin conductance, meaning they were nervous and distracted compared to when they watched the  gender-balanced video. Not surprisingly, after watching the gender unbalanced video they were less likely to want to attend the conference. Think about times when the people who are present make you less likely to join in.

You may believe that would still have been a welcoming environment, and the individuals who were disinclined to attend felt alienation without reason. But let me then describe a  field experiment by Katie Milkman. In her study, over 6500 professors at top US Universities from 89 disciplines and 259 institutions received an email from a fictional student, wanting to discuss research opportunities before applying to doctoral programs.  Each received the same simple email content but each also was randomly assigned to receive names on their letter that sent a signal about gender and different racial ethnic groups. When the requests were to meet in 1 week, names that signaled white male were granted access to faculty members 26% more often than names that signaled other groups (Black, Latinx, east Asian, Indian) and all female names; also, compared with women and people of color, White males received more and faster responses regardless of the identity of the faculty member. Our brain forms patterns and these patterns discriminate.

I have given examples about gender and race but we hold many identities and each of us has contexts where we feel at ease and others where we are uncomfortable. Taken together, these two studies suggest that despite the smorgasbord of academic offerings and the amazing diversity of people, due to a variety of social cues you may not take full advantage of classes that and individuals who are essential to University life. Reject the notions of “get tough this is all in your head” or “I don’t see color; I treat everyone the same”. We all identify differences. The key is not to fear others because they are different but seek them out because they are different.  Think twice about who you are ignoring, shaming, or leaving out because the pain you inflict is far greater and longer lasting than you might imagine. Identify opportunities to lift others up and if you can, try to forgive others even when their actions feel rude or unkind. This love may not always be available to you but perhaps each of us can aspire.

Now, full of self love and love for your new friends, ready to take amazing classes, you still must ask the question: How does love come in as we engage in the world? How do we – as we leave Rockefeller Chapel -- return to the world and use what we have learned and experienced to make this world the place we want and deserve?

While a student, you will have a time to engage in the world. The University of Chicago is an increasingly engaged University. There are many ways to illustrate this point, but for the sake of this conversation, I will point to the Office of Civic Engagement, the Global Centers, the Institute of Politics, the Smart Museum, the Polsky Center, the Logan Center, and Court Theater. These entities will let you explore how a University of Chicago education can intersect with the world. In your enthusiasm, however, I have one word of caution – engagement is not only about your own energy and desire for change, it is about your ability to actively listen and work with others.

My own research can help illustrate the point and the possible. I started my career as a teenage pregnancy researcher and was trained in a variety of biomedical solutions. But when I spent time asking teenagers about what they wanted for themselves they expressed great skepticism about contraceptive injections that lasted for three months or arm-implants that lasted for years. Why was there such a disconnect between the solutions being offered and the value accorded to those solutions by the end user? Well, the solutions were being developed in the halls of academia by people who were well past their teen years. And, nobody was really asking teenagers what they wanted and needed. So, I became interested in something called reproductive justice which states that in order for individuals to have the resources they need for the well being of themselves and their children the people who are most affected must be engaged in the solutions.

Not only is inclusion the just thing to do, the world is actually better when we include rather than disenfranchise people. Various data supports this view, including a study by my friend, an economist named Lisa Cook. One theory in economics is that economic growth occurs with investment in capital or labor but eventually limits will be reached. Others realized innovation and applying patents could lead to even more economic growth. Cook asked, what if inequality and violence limited innovation and economic growth? Meaning, if systems are inequitable and unfair or people are subject to violence, then people are repressed and do not contribute to innovation and economic growth. She decided to look at the number of patents to black inventors from 1871 to 1940.  It took her almost a decade to create this dataset. She found that at times of freedom and increased rights, patents by black inventors flourished. At times of anti-black violence, like the 1921 Tulsa Massacre recently dramatized in the series Watchmen, there were many fewer patents. The story is absolutely fascinating but the bottom line is that the United States lost out on more than 1100 inventions from black inventors, systematic exclusion of minority voices hurts everyone.

My point is, just as I have asked you to show more love and care to yourself and respect the ways that you are different, to show love and care to your peers and respect them for their differences, I ask you to do the same for all people and not think because you have the privilege of education that somehow you matter more or your viewpoint is correct.

This evening I have taken you through what is called an ecological model. The individual level, the social level, and the systems level, meaning policies, laws, and structures. The challenge is that systems are created by people and systems institutionalize the best and worst of us. I can name many situations here and around the world in which we have institutionalized fear and hatred, resulting in inequality. The pattern of death due to the COVID19 pandemic illustrates my point.

When this talk began, I described what the world looked like in 1961. And while I touched on some of the notable differences between our times, I also had to reflect on some of the dismaying similarities. It is the potential to see a path forward that is the aim of education.

Start with loving yourself because the pain, fear, and uncertainty of the task ahead of us is quite daunting. Don’t beat yourself up or speak to yourself with negative words, because you are here to learn. Regardless of what the world may sometimes tell you -- being you is your gift and that is why we are so pleased you chose to join the University of Chicago. Find the things you love and in which you are interested and try not to let feelings of belonging hold you back. If you ever doubt your value or magnificence take a biology class so you can see the wonder of the human body or perhaps a humanities class so you can see the wonder of the human imagination.

Also, think about how you can continually and actively show kindness and regard towards others. These next four years are one of the most important times to meet people who are different than you -- faculty, staff, the local community, and other students. When you are someplace where you feel right at home, make room for others to feel the same. 

And constantly be thinking how you can use this experience to engage with the world in a way that is humble and effective, receptive and energetic, so that we can collectively find a way forward to a world that is more just, where we live in better balance with the planet and its abundance, and where we are focused more on helping than on harming one another, That, seems to me, an aim of education of which we would all be proud.