University of Chicago Magazine, June 2002
From the President
Change is in course offerings, not in our course
President Don M. Randel
On April 12 the University publicly launched the Chicago Initiative, a camsaign to raise $2 billion. The day's events began with a meeting of the Board of Trustees, at which the goal tor the Initiative was formally adopted, and included samples of some ot the best of the intellectual discourse that characterizes the University as well as a festive dinner featuring a video of students, faculty, trustees, and friends. With lots of hard work and help, the Initiative will surely succeed and it very much needs to succeed if the University is to remain the university that it is and must continue to be.
Recently announced changes in course offerings in the College however, have caused some people to doubt that the University is still the same university. At issue is a reduction in the nunlber of sections to be offered in the three-quarter sequence History of Western Civilization. Some have been quick to accuse "the administration'' of lowering standards, et cetera, et cetera. It is a good sign that the University of Chicago community, including current undergraduates as well as alumni, care enough to have an opinion about such things. There are very few universities today of which this could be said. But it is useful at such a moment to reflect on what the truly essential characteristics of the University have been and are. These characteristics are certainly not reducible to any single course or set of courses.
The section on "Liberal Education at Chicago" in the current Courses and Programs of Study puts it well:Many national figures in higher education have been identified with Chicago's undergraduate curriculum -- including William Rainey Harper, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and Edward Levi -- but learning at Chicago has never been the ptovince of one person or one vision. Rather, the curriculum devoted to "the knowledge most worth having," and the critical cast of mind that it develops, has been the product of generations of collegial debate and constant re-examination, processes which are themselves a part of the intellectual adventure to which the curricularn is devoted.What is certral to the spirit of the University of Chicago is a willingness, indeed eagerness, to engage in reasoned debate about more or less anything -- debate rooted in fact, to the extent that it can be known, and guided by disciplined thought, which must be ever open to the possibilities of a superior argument. What is not central to the spirit of the University of Chicago is an inclination to assert an ideological position with a simultaneous declaration that anyone holding a different view is morally bankrupt.
First, as to the facts, the course titled History of Western Civilization has not been a College requirement for decades. Further, the very materials covered in that three-quarter course will now also be studied in a combination of two quarters on the Ancient Mediterranean World and two quarters on European Civilization, from the Middle Ages to the modern world; each of these courses has an option for a third quarter of detailed study of a single problem. In the first instance, then, the study of a certain body of fundamental texts has in no sense been abandoned. Quite the contrary. (For more on this, see the University's Web site at: http://www.alumni.uchicago.edu/gateway/study-civ.html.)
Second, this change in course offerings does not mean that we have sunk into a pit of utter relativism and lost all sense of what the achievements of European and American civilizations might be said to be. It only means that the University of Chicago remains committed to thinking about this subiect critically, just as it remains committed to thinking critically about absolutely every other subject. This commitment is to the nature of thinking and not to any particular and predetermined outcome.
Some research suggests that one's taste in popular music ceases to change after one's early 20s. The same may be true of one's taste in undergraduate education. Whereas we might tolerate this in relation to popular music, the stakes are much higher in relation to undergraduate education. A century ago, some maintained passionately that nothing written in America could possibly be worthy of inclusion in a university curriculum. Imagine saying the comparable thing today. Nothing, not even Bellow. Imagine saying that one's yellowed textbooks of 50 years ago had it exactly right and that nothing thought about the matter since should be tolerated -- whether the subject is the history of a certain part of the world's geography or any aspect of human experience or the natural world.
The battle of the ancients and the moderns has been going on more or less forever. It was particularly intense in the 18th century, a period on which some participants in the current battle like to look with nostalgia. It would be a mistake to suppose that we could settle it now forever. On this topic, I heartily recommend Professor James Chandler's essay in the February/01 issue of this magazine. Instead we might wish to think about how we could steadily refine our interpretation of the texts and facts that have given rise to a succession of historical narratives. Why should we wish to adhere eternally to narratives about our history written by some number of German or British writers of the 19th century? To think of new and richer narratives based on these same texts and an increasing body of facts ought to be what we are all about in a university worthy the name. Let us not be the prisoners of the slogans of the ancients or the moderns or the right or the left. Let us instead swear that we will forever think critically about whatever there is to think about, including ourselves.
As for me! My first semester in college was a whole course on Plato, a whole course on Greek literature, a whole course on calculus, a whole course on physics, and a whole course on political science. I would give a lot to do it again. I still like the music of Les Brown and Stan Kenton too. Even the Beatles up to a point. After that, it was pretty much downhill all the way -- until I actually tried learning enough to have reasoned conversation and debate about it with colleagues and, yes, students.
President Don M. Randel writes each issue on a topic of his choosing.—Ed.