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From the President

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What we fight when we fight against ignorance

We have two enemies: suffering and ignorance. With these words, the University's Dr. Kurt Hecox described the motive force of his work in pediatric neurology, particularly his work on epilepsy in children. Guess what fields are central to his work. Among others, physics and computer science. His work is but one example of the special ways in which Chicago is engaged in the war against suffering and ignorance. At the heart of that war is a commitment to the notion that the war against suffering will ultimately be won only if the war against ignorance is won as well.

PHOTO:  President Don Michael RandelOur structure embodies this principle in a unique way. Here the Pritzker School of Medicine is embedded in the Biological Sciences Division. And the division's faculty simultaneously fights in the University Hospitals the war against suffering and in their laboratories the war against ignorance. This structure greatly speeds the rate at which the victories in the war against ignorance can contribute to victories in the war against the suffering of individual patients. Here a great hospital is joined to a great medical school that is itself part of a great scientific enterprise, recognizing no boundaries among disciplines as it presses back the frontier of our ignorance about what causes human suffering. That a physician like Kurt Hecox brings to bear the disciplines of physics and computer science in the effort to relieve uncontrollable seizures in children is only one example of the spirit of the University of Chicago, where research is pursued wherever it leads-where the disciplinary structures of 19th-century German universities, or even 20th-century American ones, are not allowed to stand in the way of defeating ignorance.

That suffering and ignorance should be the two great enemies of our medical center is perhaps clear enough. We have only to rise continuously to the challenge of ensuring that all of our resources-hospital, medical school, and basic scientists from both the Biological Sciences Division and the Physical Sciences Division-remain welded together in a common pursuit. But aren't these the two great enemies of everything the University does? And isn't the battle against these two enemies one great battle that we daily prosecute across all of our disciplines and interdisciplines?

Many of the subjects that the social sciences engage are clearly at the roots of human suffering. Extending our understanding of-battling our ignorance about-how societies are organized, how economies function, how humans develop over the course of their lives, even how individuals and societies have behaved in the past could be thought to provide some of the tools for preventing in the future some of the suffering that we know of in the past and some of the suffering that we see about us in the present. While the scholar's daily battle against ignorance is not always directed at the immediate relief of human suffering in the way that the physician-scientist's is, without the social scientist's battle against ignorance, much of human suffering that is beyond the reach of medicine will never be conquered.

We can take pride in the fact that the tradition of the social sciences at the University of Chicago is rooted in the notion that the City of Chicago would be its great laboratory and that the fruits of its research would be returned to the city's citizens. While our range is wider than the city limits, the city must always remain bound to us as we are to it. Most important is that, just as we do not recognize in our battle against ignorance the familiar boundaries among disciplines as ways of knowing, neither do we recognize an absolute cleavage between scholarship that is pure and scholarship that is applied. This accounts for the numerous criss-crossings among departments in the Social Sciences Division and the Harris School of Public Policy, the School of Social Service Administration, the Law School, the Graduate School of Business, and the medical school. The same is true of the ways in which the Biological Sciences Division and the Physical Sciences Division have absorbed research and colleagues from what were once thought of as engineering disciplines.

But what could be said about suffering and ignorance as the enemies of the humanities and the arts? This of course depends on what is meant by suffering and ignorance. Are not the humanities, however, engaged in extending our understanding of-combating our ignorance about-what it means to be human? Are not the humanities and the arts about the finding or creating of meaning where there might otherwise be none? And, given a degree of physical and material comfort, might not the greatest human suffering be the failure to come to terms with what it means to be a human? The humanities and the arts are often seen to provide mere entertainment or perhaps so much as solace. But their subject is at the heart of what makes life worth living. In that sense, they too are engaged in overcoming ignorance and in so doing overcoming suffering.

As a university we are committed to research and to the teaching, in the broadest sense, of the fruits of that research. We pursue learning for its own sake in whatever discipline. But ultimately we do so because of the power of learning to liberate us from suffering of whatever kind and to open for us the possibility of a life truly worth living.

President Don Michael Randel writes each issue on a topic of his choosing.-Ed.

  JUNE 2001

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