Liberal education ‘a lifelong enterprise,’ UChicago scholar tells College students

Prof. Christopher Wild celebrates speaking truth freely in Aims of Education address

Prof. Christopher Wild made it clear during his Aims of Education address to new University of Chicago students that he was not there to talk about all education.

“I am going to talk about the ‘liberal’ in liberal education, about academic freedom and intellectual courage,” Wild said in his Sept. 21 address, a renowned College tradition for incoming undergraduate students. 

Wild told students gathered at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel that the University of Chicago prides itself on not telling students what to think, but teaching them how to think. 

“The crux of liberal education at a place like the University of Chicago is not which major you choose, the disciplinary knowledge you acquire, but the intellectual virtues, the habits of mind and the practices of deliberation, listening and debate you develop,” said Wild, a professor in the Department of Germanic Studies and the Committee on Theater and Performance Studies, who also has an appointment in the Divinity School. “Most of the majors we offer are no different from other institutions. But what you can learn here is a distinctive style of thinking.” 

You, he said to them, have the opportunity to cultivate “what we call here ‘a life of the mind.’”

Touching on the allegory of Plato’s cave, democratic debate in ancient Greece, Socrates, Cicero, Frederick Douglass and more, Wild swept them all together in an illustration of the importance of liberty and education, academic freedom and the pursuit of truth. 

Watch the full address here:

“Academic freedom is … not some abstract concept that belongs to faceless institutions, to their leaders, or to the faculty as some corporate entity; it is an intellectual virtue and civic practice that belongs to each and every member of a university’s intellectual community. It comes with responsibility, namely the duty to exercise it in everything you think and do as a student in shaping yourself. And it requires intellectual and moral courage, because thinking and learning independently comes with considerable risk.”

Truth-telling can be dangerous, he noted. 

“The courage to speak the truth freely, to deliberate and dialogue fearlessly with and before others, is an essential dimension of the intellectual courage at the heart of academic freedom.” 

Free inquiry and open discourse have been a keystone of the University’s academic culture from the very beginning, he said, noting that founding President William Rainey Harper installed “the principle of complete freedom of speech on all subjects” as one of the foundations of the University.  

Today we have the Chicago Principles, which guarantee academic freedom across the University, “giving everyone license to speak freely in the pursuit of truth and knowledge.” 

But he cautioned against simply blindly following the principles. “What better way to put the Chicago Principles into practice than by examining and debating them?” 

He closed his remarks by trying to spark a critical examination, which he said he hoped the students would continue. 

“I can imagine many quotidian spaces and situations in which you and I cannot simply utter just anything without constraints and consequences,” Wild said. 

He encouraged the students to ask themselves how the principles apply to them as a member of the intellectual community of the College at the University.

“Do you think they should be absolute, or should they have limitations? Envision some hypothetical situations or draw on the many recent examples that have tested the standards of free inquiry and expression on campus.” 

The University is large, much larger than the classroom, he concluded. 

“Remember that, Class of 2027. Dare to know wherever you are and whenever you are, for liberal education is a lifelong enterprise, one that starts now.” 

After the address, students returned to their respective College Houses for colloquia led by College faculty members, including Melina Hale, dean of the College, in May House. Students took this opportunity to reflect on Wild’s address, share their opinions and discuss the aims of their individual educations. 

This story originally appeared on the College website