Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The "Aims of Education"

The Harper Library, University of Chicago

In his discussion of Josef Pieper's slim but significant book, "Leisure, the basis of Culture," Roger Kimball writes: (New Criterion)

Josef Pieper did not dispute the importance of training. We cannot do without “the useful arts”—medicine, law, economics, biology, physics: all those disciplines that relate to “purposes that exist apart from themselves.” The question is only whether they exhaust the meaning of education. Is “education” synonymous with training? Or is there a dimension of learning that is undertaken not to negotiate some advantage in the world but purely for its own sake?

Despite the dual onslaughts that recession and unemployment have brought to liberal arts education, some places still refuse to be cowed. The University of Chicago seems to be one of them. Below are the closing words from the 40th "Aims of Education" address, given by Andrew Abbott to the incoming class of 2003. It is worth reading in its entirety. I hope the 47th address will show the UofC continues to stand fast.

Abott gives some wise advice to the students:

"...you are here offered an unparalleled set of resources for finding the flash of enlightenment that kindles education within you. But it is your decision whether you seek that flash. You can go through Chicago and do nothing. Or you can go through like a tourist, listening to lectures here and there, consulting your college Fodor’s for “important intellectual attractions” that “should not be missed during your stay.” Or you can go through mechanically, stuffing yourself with materials and skills till you’re gorged. And whichever you choose, you’ll do just fine after you leave. You will be happy and you will be successful.

Or you can seek education. It will not be easy. We have only helpful exercises. We can’t give you the thing itself. And there will be extraordinary temptations—to spend whole months wallowing in a concentration that doesn’t work for you because you have some myth about your future, to blow off intellectual effort in all but one area because you are too lazy to challenge yourself, to wander off to Europe for a year of enlightenment that rapidly turns into touristic self-indulgence. There will be the temptations of timidity, too, temptations to forgo all experimentation, to miss the glorious randomness of college, to give up the prodigal possibilities that—let me tell you—you will never find again; temptations to go rigidly through the motions and then wonder why education has eluded you.

There are no aims of education. The aim is education. If—and only if—you seek it…education will find you. Welcome to the University of Chicago.

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