50th annual Aims of Education address to welcome Class of 2016

The Class of 2016’s incoming first-year students will gather on Thursday, Sept. 27 for the Aims of Education address — a University of Chicago tradition in which a senior faculty member introduces the new class to the meaning and value of a liberal education.

This year’s address at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel will mark the 50th anniversary of the event, which represents the first formal lecture that most undergraduates attend at the College. Just as valuable are the conversations that students continue after the talk, in spirited discussions with fellow house members at their residence halls.

“The challenging opportunity to reflect publicly, before a crowd of bright, ambitious, and skeptical first-year Chicago undergraduates, on the aims of education has led to a number of wonderful and memorable lectures over the years,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “It is an important welcome for the new members of our intellectual community.”

Far-flung College alumni and others can see this year’s lecture via webcast beginning at 6:30 p.m. on the UChicago Live Facebook page. As always, attendance of the event at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel will be limited to College first-years and other invited guests.

Martha Roth, dean of the Humanities Division, found the invitation to deliver the 50th anniversary address a high honor. “I think it’s a beautiful tradition to assemble en masse for this ritual,” she said. “The learning and growing that happens when 1,500 people gather, each with different goals, experiences and potential outcomes, is wonderful.”

Preparing the 2009 Aims of Education address was a meaningful experience for Jonathan Lear, professor of Social Thought and Philosophy. He said it was a healthy challenge to reflect on why universities exist, and to renew his own commitment to those ideals. “This speech is a way to invite the incoming students into our conversations — to treat them as adults and equal members of our community,” he said.

After his speech, which received a sustained standing ovation, Lear went to one of the College houses and joined in a discussion with students. A faculty member leads such a colloquium at each house in the College after the Aims lecture, encouraging the kind of the critical reasoning that students will develop throughout their time in the College.

“The students always want to talk, ask questions and pursue the subject more,” Lear said. “With each colloquium I attend, I feel that this is just the way it ought to be.”

Past Aims lectures have been published, translated into foreign languages, studied, and shared among friends of the University.

“I first read an Aims of Education speech as a high school student, when I was looking at colleges,” said Julie Fry, AB’07. A friend at UChicago had sent her Prof. Andy Abbott’s lecture from 2002. She said she was “electrified” by the speech. “It felt like a glimpse into a different world, where education was valued as a way of life,” Fry said.

Fry heard an Aims address from then-University President Don Randel during her College orientation when she arrived in 2004, and again found herself deeply moved. “I was already feeling grateful to be at the University of Chicago and emotional at the long journey I had taken to get there. During the speech, the speaker shared a magnificent poem that helped me congeal my disparate feelings,” she said.

After the lecture, Fry went back to her College house for a critical and rousing discussion. She recalls being surprised at the skepticism she heard from her classmates, but soon discovered it was only the first of many heated discussions she would participate in during her intellectual adventures at UChicago.

“It is the only lecture during Orientation Week for which there is a separate session for reflection. We knew this was important before we even sat down in Rockefeller Chapel,” recalled George Anesi, SB’06, who went back to Snell-Hitchcock House for a discussion after Abbott’s 2002 speech. “I had been deeply influenced by it, while others had rejected his thesis. The range and intensity of people’s reactions really interested me.” Anesi said he often refers back to the speech whenever he needs a reminder of why he’s pursuing more education.

The Orientation Week tradition of discussing the Aims of Education speech within a College house has another benefit, said John Howell, the Resident Head of Blackstone House: “No matter what anxieties the students face with adjusting to college or the new people around them, they realize during the Aims colloquium that they are all here because of a shared passion for rigorous discussion of ideas,” he said.

Howell has seen the Aims colloquium become the source of conversations for weeks after Orientation Week is over. “It gives the students a common dialogue, and sets a wonderful precedent for shared learning for the rest of the year,” Howell said.

Roth said she’s grateful for the unusual opportunity to give the students their first lecture in the College, which they will dissect and critique soon after they hear it. “We are trying to welcome the students into a community of learning—one we love dearly. I’m delighted to have been invited to do this.”

Roth will lead a discussion at Snell-Hitchcock House as soon as the new students file out of the chapel.