Agnes Callard encourages UChicago students to reflect on humanity’s distant future

Philosopher’s Aims of Education address reinforces the value of a UChicago education

As she spoke to new University of Chicago students on Thursday night,, Assoc. Prof. Agnes Callard asked the Class of 2026 to consider a world centuries into the future.

Callard explained, from the pulpit in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, that the thought exercise can help add context to the purpose and broader legacy of UChicago students’ educational pursuits.

“A lot of the time when people like me address people like you, we are moved to speak of the future that you will live to see and we won’t,” said the philosophy scholar Sept. 22 during her Aims of Education address. “The future I’m referring to starts about a hundred and eighty years from now, and runs for a few thousand years after that … It’s a future none of us will live to see, and no one we know will live to see it.”

The Aims of Education is an annual address given by a distinguished faculty member to undergraduates at the onset of their UChicago education, and it models the style of learning students can soon expect to see in their classrooms. Callard, AB’97, recalls sitting in Rockefeller Chapel and listening to Aims of Education as a first-year student—when she intended to major in physics(she now specializes in ancient philosophy and ethics).

In her speech, Callard embarked upon a theoretical experiment she called the “infertility scenario,” borrowing from philosopher Samuel Scheffler’s book “Death and the Afterlife.” In this hypothetical situation, humanity discovers that every single person alive has been made sterile by a virus that has spread to every corner of the earth, meaning the current population is the last generation of humans. 

“One of the perks of being in the thought experiments business is that you get to just posit stuff,” she quipped, drawing laughs. “If you think poetic license is good, you should try philosopher’s license.”

But the objective of this thought experiment was to feel the full, somber impact of humanity with no future and to unpack the question: Why do we care about future generations?

“I’ll tell you about my reaction: When I really start to vividly imagine us being the last humans, the last generation…when I envision the vast silence blanketing our once chattering globe because the human story has come to an end… my reaction is that I feel sick.”

According to Callard, this response extends beyond an innate fear of death and speaks to something broader: the dread of an unfinished “human quest.”

“The way I would paraphrase the horror is: It only came to this. It only got this far. We didn’t get a chance to finish. We didn’t get there. What’s sickening to me is the thought that the quest we are on—all of us, everyone in this room, but many others for thousands of years now—thousands of years at least, but probably longer, because history only records a fraction of human thought—this human quest has not been brought to its proper endpoint.”

To Callard, this quest is not self-evident, and it may be confusing as people determine what to do with their lives. She said a sense of inquisitiveness about big ideas–like language, literacy and human rights–keeps that quest going. Ideas of this size require the collaboration of many people, she argued, and through their own specialties and interests, UChicago students will contribute to these ideas and influence future generations.

“I talked to you about your deaths in order to give you a sense of the scale of our project, and what’s at stake in finding what we’re all looking for,” Callard said in the conclusion to her speech. “I want you to know that the big ideas—the really big ones—are out there; that it’s your job to find them; and that we, your teachers, are here to help.”

Following the address, students gathered in small groups to discuss the speech with UChicago faculty members, mimicking the seminar-style of their forthcoming humanities Core classes. In these conversations, students talked about the questions Callard put forth and the types of “big ideas” they would work on during their time in the College while receiving a liberal arts education.