The 511th Convocation Address: 'The Life of the Mind and Social Action'

Society expects a great deal from universities, but through its history, the University of Chicago has had a singular purpose: Edward Levi, president of the University from 1968 to 1975, clarified this purpose when he wrote,

"The University of Chicago ... does not exist to increase the earning power of its students."

(As an aside to the parents gathered here today, I am not sure the University told you this four years ago!)

No, President Levi said,

"[The University] does not exist to train the many technicians needed for our society, nor to develop inventions important for industry. The University of Chicago exists for the life of the mind…. It exists to increase the intellectual understanding and powers of mankind."

But given that commitment, how are we to explain the fact that the University now manages four charter school campuses on the South Side of Chicago?

Given that commitment, how are we to explain the fact that the University runs a large applied research consortium that evaluates policy options for the Chicago Public Schools?

How can we explain the University’s Education Lab, where scholars work with policy makers to study the impact of new programs?

How can we explain the University’s ambitious attempts to improve schooling in Chicago Heights?

In summary, How it has come to pass that while no other university is more committed to the “life of the mind,” no other university has made a deeper commitment to the very practical work of assisting local public schools?

This commitment may seem at odds with the university’s historical aims. President Levi wrote,

"While it is and should be a good neighbor, the University does not exist to be a redevelopment agency for the South Side of Chicago."

Perhaps self-preservation motivates the University’s deep engagement in South Side schooling. The University needs to surround itself by good schools for the same reason it needs its own substantial police force: to insure the viability of the neighborhood in which it nurtures “the life of the mind.”

But while self-preservation may in part explain the University's investment in schooling, it does not account for the intellectual seriousness of the University’s work in schools.

I came to the University of Chicago in 2005 to participate in a grand intellectual project:

— To advance our understanding of how children learn to speak, to read, to write, to reason mathematically;

— To discover why these skills are so unequally distributed among children;

— To clarify how children’s interactions with teachers and parents foster these skills;

— To clarify why some schools but not others support effective instruction.

— To assess how teacher labor markets function and with what consequences for children.

With colleagues from Comparative Human Development, Economics, Mathematics, Public Policy, Psychology, Social Services Administration, and Sociology, we founded a new Committee on Education in 2006 to foster research about these fundamental questions.

So I see the education work here as a grand intellectual project, in a grand Chicago tradition of seeking knowledge to enrich life.

The idea is not only to make advances in each separate discipline, but to ask how these elements fit together to shape the life course of children from the South Side and beyond. A supreme test of our knowledge is whether we can combine insights about learning, teaching, and school organization to create superb schooling even for the most disadvantaged children.

To produce this knowledge requires a broader range of expertise than is in found in scholarly disciplines.  Expert practitioners are among the leaders of the grand project I describe. Teachers generate new ideas for inquiry and teachers help interpret the answers.

The alliance between scholars and practitioners is not an easy one. Practitioners are activists committed to their work. Scholars are trained skeptics who question every assumption upon which action is based.

Commitment without skepticism perpetuates mediocrity; but skepticism without commitment is paralysis.

A great question facing this and other universities is whether we can deliberately exploit the tension between practice and scholarly inquiry – between commitment and skepticism -- to produce new knowledge.

This question is not new to Chicago.

In the first edition of the American Journal of Sociology, founded at Chicago in 1895, Albion Small wrote,

"I would have American scholars, especially in the social sciences, declare their independence of do-nothing traditions. I would have them repeal the law of custom which bars marriage of thought with action."

Also in 1895, John Dewey founded the University of Chicago Laboratory School to test scientific ideas in practice. Dewey held that “Science can inform but never replace the intelligence of the teacher.” He regarded interactions between scientists and practitioners as essential Sources of a Science of Education, the title of his great book on the topic.

The guiding epistemology behind this view says that one cannot understand society without learning from attempts to change it. The knowledge so produced can in turn be of great use to practical problem solving, creating a virtuous cycle for science and practice.

What evidence do we have that the marriage of science and practical affairs can produce new knowledge and hence advance the “life of the mind?”

Nearly 50 years ago, James Coleman, one of the great sociologists of the 20th century and a Chicago icon, analyzed data for the US government in an attempt to advance educational policy — clearly a pragmatic task. His aim was to describe social and racial inequality in access to good schools. He found that access to schools with well-equipped science labs, well-stocked libraries and well-paid teachers was grossly unequal. But he also found that that these things barely predicted student learning. Schools that varied greatly in resources varied little in their effectiveness.

This study, motivated by the pragmatic concerns of Washington policy makers, cast a long shadow over social science for the next half century. Some who studied social inequality abandoned the notion that schools make a difference, looking instead to inequality in family environments.

We are now in the midst of another transformation in our thinking about schools and society. We now know that certain highly innovative schools are astonishingly effective in promoting intellectual development among the nation’s most disadvantaged children. We can now hypothesize that the schools Coleman studied had similar effects on children because these schools were profoundly similar — not in their resources, but in how they conceived the work of teaching and learning.

One of our aims is to clarify how learning occurs in these most effective schools, among which are the four charter school campuses that the University runs here on the South Side. My grand hope is that the answers will influence social science over the next half century.

If you sense a degree of passion behind this work, you are correct. It is my view that providing outstanding schooling for the nation’s most disadvantaged children can sharply reduce educational inequality, and that would be a good thing.

At least 3,000 of you are now about to scream: What do you mean by “educational equality?” Yes, you have been well-trained to ask just such questions. By “educational equality” do we mean equal educational outcomes? Do we simply mean equality of opportunity?

In my view, educational equality means education for equal participation: When all children learn to read with high levels of comprehension, to express their ideas persuasively in their writing and in their speech, to analyze data fluently to evaluate decisions, to scrutinize arguments and assumptions in the face of evidence, they are equipped to participate in the intellectual and practical life of the nation. This idea lies at the heart of John Dewey’s book, Democracy and Education.

According to Dewey, schooling is not primarily a private good, one that makes individuals more competitive in the labor market. It is rather more profoundly, a public good; Broad participation in the life of the mind is the basis for democratic progress.

Some have criticized this view as suggesting that the university should take a stand on political values, in particular, the value that schooling should advance equality so defined.

How, then, do we reconcile a commitment to such values with rigorous inquiry? My answer is that values inevitably shape the questions we ask. However, one’s personal values should never shape the empirical answers. Science thrives by using evidence to evaluate alternative explanations for what we see, producing surprises that are not always pleasant for the advocates of particular values, but are essential for learning.

Nor do I mean to equate my own values with those of the Committee on Education or the Urban Education Institute. Our work will thrive when scholars and practitioners who embrace varied goals for education pose hard questions -- and engage each other in evaluating evidence and arguments.

I want to congratulate each of you and your parents for the accomplishments we gather here to celebrate. You have become expert skeptics, yet each of you will be asked to commit yourselves to effective action. Your values will guide the questions you ask, and your habit of critical scrutiny, cultivated over these years at Chicago, will help you assess the credibility of your answers. This is your grand project, and I wish you well.

Delivered by Stephen W. Raudenbush, the Lewis-Sebring Distinguished Service Professor in Sociology and the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, at the 511th Convocation of the University of Chicago, on June 9, 2012.