Agnes Callard to deliver Aims of Education address on Sept. 22

UChicago tradition encourages first-year students to reflect on purpose, definition of education

One of Assoc. Prof. Agnes Callard’s earliest memories as a first-year UChicago student was attending the Aims of Education address—in which a faculty member reflects on the purpose and definition of education with first-year College students—and the lively discussions that followed in her residence hall.

So the renowned philosophy scholar was “maximally excited” when she was invited to deliver this year’s address, a revered tradition for College students since 1961.

“There’s something important about the fact that it happens before your classes, because it suggests that your intellectual interests need not be confined to your classes,” said Callard, AB’97. “It’s quite momentous.” 

This year’s address, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 22 in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, will be webcast on Facebook Live and the UChicago News website.

Callard said she is also looking forward to the post-Aims colloquia with students in her old residence hall, which she led many times as a UChicago faculty member.

“As excited as I am to give the address, the real action is in discussion,” Callard said. “When you’re a first-year student, you get to college, but you're not really doing anything intellectual for the first week you’re there. So there's this sort of pent-up energy of like, ‘when is the learning going to start?’ And I feel like that discussion is the first moment of it.”

Callard vividly recalled the “wonderful” discussion that followed the 1993 Aims address, when she was a new UChicago student.

“It was in Dodd-Mead, in this very cozy and intimate room,” Callard said. “The atmosphere was very serious. It felt to me like we were deciding important questions just by talking about them.”

In the edited Q&A below, Callard discussed her personal reverence for the Aims address, the purpose it serves in kick starting the incoming class’s academic career at UChicago, and what she’s looking forward to about addressing this year’s incoming class.

To you, what is the significance of this tradition within the College experience?

I totally freaked out when Dean Boyer asked me to give the address. Everyone who knows me knows that I have been waiting to give this talk for a long time. I’m maximally excited to get to introduce myself to the entire class of incoming first-year students.

For me personally, I like thinking about things at the level of abstraction that the Aims of Education address requires you to adopt. Some people don't like that precise level of abstraction, which is in some way resolutely intellectual, but it has to kind of appeal to people where they stand and it can't presuppose a lot about their motivations. It’s a unique opportunity. 

How does it feel knowing your address will be part of a rich Aims of Education tradition?

I see the address much more in terms of its immediate function in guiding a group of students than as a lasting document. I think that's partly because a lot of the ideas in it are sort of just touched on or gestured towards. 

I'm very happy that it will be preserved for a long time online, which is kind of like an enduring cultural function. 

What do you want students to be thinking about as they walk after your address?

I'm very curious to talk to a group of students and find out what they took away. There's always that kind of paradox about ‘What do you want students to take away from your course?’ if you teach one. For me, I more hope that I'm able to say: ‘They have something original to take away, that they can tell me later.’ And then when they do, I can respond with, ‘I can see how that's what you took away from it.’

It’s not about implanting some message in them, and I don't think that the speech gives me time to conclusively argue for any claim anyway. I've given them some reasons to think, and I hope they find them compelling. lf that leaves them thinking: ‘How or why do I feel the way I feel?’ then I would be happy.