The Zen of Education
WRITTEN BY ANDREW ABBOTT
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAN DRY
tradition of speaking out
The place: Rockefeller Chapel.
The event: the annual “Aims of Education” address to
College first-years. The conclusion: education has no aims.
Welcome to the University of Chicago.”
Of the dozens of persons who will say that to you during orientation
week, I am the only one who will keep on talking for another 60
minutes after saying it. I imagine that you have heard few such
orations before and that you will hear few hereafter. A full-length,
formal talk on a set topic is a rather 19th-century kind of thing
to do. Even at Chicago, this is the sole such oration you will get.
You will be glad to know that when you graduate four years hence,
the speaker is asked to speak for exactly thirteen and one-half
It’s no easier for me. This
is only the third or fourth such oration that I’ve given in
my life. And you’re not an easy audience. You’re preoccupied
with new roommates, placement tests, and “Chicago Life meetings”
numbers one through five. Your minds are weary with the endless
junk we’ve given you to read. Your bodies are aglow with adrenaline,
serotonin, and endorphins, not to mention the more urgent excitements
of estrogen and testosterone. Some of you are eager to hear what
I have to say. Some of you can’t wait till it’s over.
Some of you are watching the noisy dude whisper loudly two rows
in front of you. Some of you are sensing the aspiration and grandeur
expressed by this Gothic building. Some of you are thinking that
I, the speaker, have a very big nose. In short, you’re a diverse
lot and I’m a beginning orator and we have an hour together
to think about the aims of education. Let’s do it.
There is a
strong case to be made that, given who you are and where
you are, there is no particular necessity for you to study anything
for the next four years. First, as far as worldly success is concerned,
you’ve already got it. That your future income will be huge
and your future work prestigious can be predicted from the simple
fact that you got into an elite college. About 2.8 million people
graduate from high school every year; 1.8 million start college;
40,000 to 60,000 go to elite schools like Chicago. So you and your
peers represent the top 2 percent of an 18-year-old cohort. Obviously
you’re going to do very well indeed.
real work of predicting your future success is done not by prestige
of college but by other factors—mainly the things for which
you were admitted in the first place—personal talents, past
work, and parental resources both social and intellectual. Moreover,
admission sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy; since you got in here,
people in the future will assume you’re good, no matter what
or how you do while you are here. And, pretty certainly, having
gotten in you will graduate. Colleges compete in part by having
high retention rates, and so it is in the College’s very strong
interest to make sure you graduate, whether you learn anything or
All of this tells me that nearly
everyone in this room will end up, 20 years from now, in the top
quarter of the American income distribution. I have surveyed those
who graduated from Chicago in 1975—a group considerably less
privileged by ancestry than yourselves—and can tell you that
their median personal income is about five times the national median,
and their median household income is at about the 93rd percentile
of the nation’s income distribution. That’s where you
are headed. As far as the nationwide success game is concerned,
there’s no reason for you to study here. The game is over.
You’ve already won.
“Surely,” you tell me,
“my studies at Chicago will determine whether I’m in
the 94th or the 99th percentile of income. Getting a fine higher
education may not affect my gross chances of worldly success but
surely they affect my detailed ones.”
On the contrary. There’s no
real evidence in favor of this second reason to get an education
and a good deal of evidence against it. All serious studies
show that while college-level factors like prestige and selectivity
have some independent effect on later income, most variation in
income happens within colleges—that is, between the
graduates of a given college. That internal variation is produced
by individual factors like talent, resources, performance, and major.
But even those factors do not determine much about your future income.
For example, the best nationwide figures I have seen suggest that
a one-full-point increment in college GPA—from 2.8 to 3.8,
for example—is worth about an additional 9 percent in income
four years after college. That’s not much result for a huge
amount of work.
The one college experience variable
that does have some connection with later worldly success is major.
But most of that effect comes through the connection between major
and occupation. The real variable driving worldly success, the one
that shapes income more than anything else, is occupation.
Within the narrow range of occupation
and achievement that we have at the University, there is no strong
relation between what you study and your occupation. Here is some
data on a 10 percent random sample of Chicago alumni from the last
20 years. Take the mathematics concentrators: 20 percent software
development and support, 14 percent college professors, 10 percent
in banking and finance, 7 percent secondary or elementary teachers,
and 7 percent in nonacademic research; the rest are scattered. All
the science concentrations lead to professorships and nonacademic
research. And biology and chemistry often lead to medicine. But
there are many diversions from those pathways. A biology concentrator
is now a writer, another is now a musician. Two mathematicians are
lawyers, and a physics concentrator is a psychotherapist.
the social sciences. Economics concentrators—this is today
identified as the most careerist major—are 24 percent in banking
and finance, 15 percent in business consulting, 14 percent lawyers,
10 percent in business administration or sales, 7 percent in computers,
and the other 30 percent scattered. Historians are often lawyers
(24 percent) and secondary teachers (15 percent), but the other
60 percent are all over the map. Psychologists, surprisingly, are
also about 20 percent in the various business occupations, 11 percent
lawyers, and 10 percent professors; the rest are scattered. And
there are the usual unusuals: the sociology major who is an actuary,
the two psychologists in government administration, the political
science concentrator now in computers.
As for the humanities, the English
majors have scattered to the four winds: 11 percent to elementary
and secondary teaching, 10 percent to business occupations, 9 percent
to communications, 9 percent to lawyering, 5 percent to advertising.
Of the philosophers, 30 percent are lawyers and 18 percent software
people. Two English majors are artists and one is an architect.
A philosophy major is a farmer and two are doctors.
With the exception of those planning
to become professors in the natural sciences, there is no
career that is ruled out for any undergraduate major. You
are free to make whatever worldly or otherworldly occupational choice
you want once you leave, and you do not sacrifice any possibilities
because you majored in something that seems irrelevant to that choice.
There is no national evidence that level of performance in college
has more than a minor effect on later things like income. And in
my alumni data, there is no correlation between GPA at Chicago and
The third reason for getting a college
education is that it will give you foundational cognitive skills
for later life. Since this is the argument that I have myself made
most strongly in the past I shall take special care to demolish
argument is that college teaches not so much particular subject
matters as general skills that can be applied throughout your life—in
graduate training, at work, and in recreation. Everyone over 30
knows that, as far as content is concerned, you forget the vast
majority of what you learned in college in five years or so. But,
so the argument goes, the skills endure. They may be difficult to
measure and their effect hard to demonstrate, but they are the core
of what you take from college.
What people have in mind here in
the first instance are simple verbal and quantitative skills, advanced
reading and speaking abilities that will help you deal with a knowledge
economy, and quantitative training that will enable you to make
reasonable financial choices and that will prove useful in area
after area of professional endeavor. Beyond these lie more advanced
skills: critical reading ability to see through the lies of newspapers
and stock prospectuses, analytic ability to formulate complex programs
of action at work, writing ability to make your ideas clear to your
peers, independence of mind to free you from others’ views,
and capacity for lifelong learning to deal with the changing needs
of work and enjoyment.
There is much evidence that Chicago
alumni, alumni of equivalent schools, and national alumni samples
all believe deeply that such general skills constitute the crucial
learning in their college experience. Alumni always note the loss
of detailed knowledge from college, while they always emphasize
their retention of general skills.
But the evidence that college learning
per se produced these skills is flimsy. While we know that people
acquire these skills over the four years they are in college, we
are not at all clear that college instruction produces them. First,
the kinds of young people who go to college, and to elite colleges,
are quite different from those who do not. If in our analyses we
do not have perfect statistical control for those differences, college
may appear to have effects that in fact originate in the differences
between those who go to college and those who don’t.
To this selection bias effect, we
can add the equally difficult problem of unmeasured variables. College
students are likely to have more challenging jobs than students
who don’t go to college. They spend more time hanging out
with smart people. They live in an environment where cognitive skills
are explicitly valued. Moreover, since many cognitive skills cannot
be shown to differ seriously between those who have experienced
college and those who have not, much of the skill increase could
come from simple maturation. You could get more skilled just because
you’ve lived a few more years.
Our belief that college education
has cognitive importance rests pretty completely on our belief that
we can statistically solve the problems of selection bias and unmeasured
variables, because the only nonstatistical way of handling them
is controlled experiment. No one has ever taken 1,000 bright, ambitious
young people and sent them not to college but to another, equally
challenging, intellectual environment that did not involve classroom
instruction, courses, or curricula. Suppose you could spend the
next four years going through a structured rotation of working internships
in businesses, not-for-profits, and government agencies, where you
would be left to pick up skills the same way everybody else there
does: by asking friends and coworkers what to do, by reading a manual,
or by going to some organizationally sponsored classes on particular
necessary techniques. You might still live in dormitories. You might
still have an extracurricular life. But there would be no classroom
instruction. I submit that in all but a few areas—the hard
sciences and perhaps engineering—you would be every bit as
ready for law school or business school or management consultancy
or social-work training as you will be after your four years in
That this is likely to be true seems
clear from the statistical evidence we do have about the
net effects of college study. First, there is no consistent evidence
for a substantial net effect (say a 20 percent or more
positive effect) of college instruction on oral communication skills,
written communication skills, general reflective judgment, or intellectual
flexibility, although there is moderate evidence for minor effect
in all these areas. Second, there seems to be consistent evidence
that college instruction has a medium-sized effect (about 10 to
15 percentage points) on general verbal and quantitative skills.
But this seems to be a matter of “use it or lose it.”
College makes you keep using the skills learned in high school,
whereas many forms of employment don’t. Finally, college does
seem to have a substantial net effect in the area of critical thinking.
However, research on that topic has often not been controlled for
age, making it difficult to separate out the effect of college attendance
from that of sheer maturation. These findings are not all from elite
colleges, but we can still infer that there is not much evidence
for a large net effect of college on cognitive functioning. You
were smart people when you got in here and you’re going to
be smart people when you get out, as long as you use that intelligence
for something—it doesn’t matter what—while you
The second broad class of evidence
on this “cognitive skills” argument has to do with whether
these skills actually are of central importance in later life. You
probably already suspect that you will learn most of what you need
to know to be a lawyer, doctor, or businessperson in the professional
schools for those occupations. And those who become doctors will
find out that biochemistry and other scientific prerequisites are
of little interest or use to practicing physicians. Indeed, it was
not until well into the 20th century that medical schools universally
required heavy-science BAs of their matriculants. Moreover, elsewhere
in the world, medicine, law, and business are commonly undergraduate,
not graduate, degrees. So there is a variety of evidence implying
that college-based skills are not crucial to professional life,
the opinion of alumni notwithstanding.
But let us push further. Take the
standard list of undergraduate skills—critical thinking, analytic
reasoning, lifetime learning, independence of thought, and skill
at writing—and run them by the occupations most of you are
headed for, and let’s see whether the professions really employ
The real activity of elite lawyers is to find business, to make
contacts, to lead legal teams, and to oversee young associates.
The associates need to know how to write and to have analytic
skills. But too much critical thinking will get them in trouble,
and independence is likewise problematic. As for nonelite lawyers,
the vast majority of what they do is conveyancing, divorces, wills,
companies, and the occasional personal-injury case—virtually
all of which they learn on the job, taught in many cases by their
clerical staff. That the tactics of great litigators are not learned
in the classroom anyone of those litigators can tell you; a background
in drama is more useful. And having a deep and critical command
of law itself is not useful to anybody but law professors and perhaps
a few judges. So it is hard to make a case that the big five cognitive
skills matter anywhere near as much for lawyers as do skills for
getting along with people, for working in coordinated groups, and
for clarifying and simplifying problems and selling those clear
simplifications to various audiences.
In business, it is more or less
the same. Those who go into business will never have to write well
in the sense that I or some other professor uses the term. You will
have to reduce things to bullets well; you too will be in the business
of simplification and clarification. And you will have to work well
with others and indeed will need to shelve a large part of your
independence. General analytic skills will be very important, but
the crucial analytic skills for business managers lie mainly in
interpreting people and in decoding the kaleidoscopically biased
types of information that flow through large organizations. These
are not things we teach you a damn thing about in college.
What about medicine? The majority
of medical work, like legal work, is routine—everyday application
of a standard repertoire. Doctors do have to engage in lifelong
learning: senior lawyers can leave new law to the associates, but
doctors have to keep up. Like businessmen, however, they have no
need to write, unless they are academic physicians. Nor is really
complex analytical thinking often necessary. The medical division
of labor handles that need by concentrating those skills in a few
places and referring perplexing patients to them. By contrast, critical
listening skills are essential. Ability to understand what another
person is trying to tell you is a foundational skill for a working
physician. But we don’t give any formal instruction in it
Finally, what about professors?
Even though one could argue that the famous skill list is really
the academics’ list, most college professors work at nonelite
universities with heavy teaching loads of unmotivated students and
find little enough use for those skills. Most of you are not going
to become academics, and most of you will not in future occupational
life need the kinds of cognitive skills emphasized in higher education.
Let me dispose of yet another variant
of the cognitive argument for college education—the notion
that there is a particular body of material that constitutes cultural
literacy and that it is the duty of liberal education to teach you
some large fraction of that material. I call this the lingua
franca argument, for the canon so taught is meant to be a
lingua franca between “educated” people no matter
what they currently do. A canon works only if everybody who is supposed
to have it agrees on what it is. But the situation of our educational
system is that since nobody agrees on what the canon is, the system
definitionally does not have a canon.
Perhaps the one thing we can save
from this wreck is what I shall call the gymnastics argument, the
argument implicit in my discussion of replacing college with a rotation
through large-scale internships. On the gymnastics argument, it
doesn’t really matter what you do intellectually in the next
four years as long as it is intellectually challenging. Since it
happens that the exercise most easily available is college instruction
itself, you might as well get your exercise there. It’s like
going to the intellectual health club on the next block rather than
bothering to drive downtown to the Chicago Intellectual Athletics
The gymnastics argument was at the
heart of the reform of 19th-century Oxford and Cambridge. Nobody
thought that learning Greek was going to directly help you rule
India. But a person who could truly master Greek or vector calculus
could be trusted to learn whatever was necessary to govern India,
so they thought. At its extreme, this argument led to an absolute
ignorance of the real issues at hand; many a British colonial administrator
was far more comfortable with aorist middle subjunctives than with
subaltern populations. But as a pure intellectual discipline it
was a great idea. Unfortunately, if later work is not mainly about
intellectual matters at all, the intellectual gymnastics exercises
may be truly irrelevant.
and the short of it is that there is no instrumental reason
to get an education, to study in your courses, or to pick a concentration
and lose yourself in it. It won’t get you anything you won’t
get anyway or get some other way. So forget everything you ever
thought about all these instrumental reasons for getting an education.
The reason for getting an education is that it is better to be educated
than not to be.
The reason for getting an education
here—or anywhere else—is that it is better in and of
itself. Not because it gets you something. Not because it is a means
to some other end. It is better because it is better. Indeed this
statement implies that the phrase “aims of education”
is nonsensical; education is not a thing of which aims can be predicated.
It has no aim other than itself.
By saying that education does not
have aims I mean that we should not want education now in order
to get something later, whether that something is further education
or something else entirely. But by saying that education does not
have aims I also mean that we should not want education in order
to use it for something besides itself in the present.
The problem with thinking that education
has aims in the future is that the world and our knowledge of it
and our ways of thinking about it will all change fundamentally
by the time that future arrives. No matter what area of endeavor
we consider, the facts concerning that area and the very theories
and concepts by which we understand it change perpetually. Medicine,
law, business, physics, architecture, farming, social work, you
name it—its knowledge basis will have changed in important
ways between your graduation from college and the time of your tenth
reunion. Not only the facts and materials, but even the deep skills
involved change with remarkable speed.
Changes in knowledge happen not
automatically, in some disembodied way, but because people envision
them. People find new facts and materials because they look for
them. They make new theories and methods because they want to replace
older ones they now find unsatisfactory. Whoever we are—doctors
or lawyers or farmers or accountants—we have to be able to
envision these new ways of thinking about the world and of doing
things in it if we are going to bring them about. So our education
cannot consist of mastering disciplinary or professional material
or even general skills. To the extent that you master and then reify
those things—turn them into fixed, concrete rigidities—you
will be unable to imagine the things that will replace them. To
be able to transform and change and renew the ideas you work with
you have to master something that enables you to see them from outside.
That something is education.
argument rejects the common idea that the aim of education is to
give you the skills to survive the rapid changes in the first-level
materials of knowledge. That is because the skills change, too.
Writing was a far more important skill a century or even half a
century ago than it is today. We could move up yet another step
by talking about formal education at a third level—education
in skills of envisioning how to change skills. But every time we
move up a level in this way, we are thinking less and less about
the future and more and more about a kind of constant of intellectuality—a
set of mental habits that are enduring qualities of a mind. To the
extent that we escape the trap that historical change presents for
concepts of education, we escape it by moving to a less and less
temporally directed concept of education. We move from thinking
about the future to thinking about an enduring quality of the present.
Any serious concept of education seems inevitably to root itself
in a state of being that endures—one based in the perpetual
present of the self.
The problem of the steady change
of ideas (or the perpetual need to imagine new ideas) also demolishes
the notion that the essence of education consists in mastering certain
contents or materials. You are not little birdies sitting in the
nest with your mouths open to receive half-digested worms of knowledge
regurgitated by the faculty. Education is not about content. It
is not even about skills. It is a habit or stance of mind. It is
not something you have. It is something you are.
To be educated is to have the habit
of finding many and diverse new meanings to attach to whatever events
or phenomena we examine. We have standard routines for doing this—interpretive
paradigms, heuristic methods, theoretical schemes, investigative
disciplines, and so on. But education is not these paradigms and
methods and disciplines. Rather it is the instinctive habit of looking
for new meanings, of questioning old ones, of perpetually playing
with and fighting about the meanings we assign to events and texts
and phenomena. We can teach you the paradigms and the methods, but
we can’t teach you the habit of playing with them. That’s
something you must find within yourself.
after all this buildup, that may seem like saying education
is not much. “I can already do this,” you say. “Meanings,”
you say, “I can give you ten meanings for your last paragraph.
Not a problem. Moreover,” you say, “why should that
be a good thing? Who gives a damn about all this new meaning? ”
The more important issue is the
question of why attaching endless new meanings to things should
be in itself a good thing. And the answer is this: By attaching
more meanings to things, by bringing more of experience under our
current range of meaning and extending our range to embrace more
things in more complex and abstract or sometimes ambiguous ways,
we enable ourselves to experience more of life in a given present,
a given now. An educated person experiences more than does a noneducated
person. This is not to say that there is something inherently bad
or damaged about lives that lack education. An uneducated human
life commands the same dignity as any other. But given the opportunity,
you are a fool not to avail yourself of every means to extend your
experience in the now. The quality of education is our central means
for doing that.
“Bor-ing,” you say.
“This argument is too abstract. It’s not about
anything. What does he mean education is a way of having more experience
in a given period?” Well, let’s talk about something
that will get your attention. Sex. The argument I am making
is essentially the following. Any animal can take off its clothes,
rub and fondle a bit, arrange its sexual organs properly, and hump
away till it’s done. But the experience of sex will literally
be better, in the sense that it will seem to take much more time
(and you can make it seem interesting much longer) if you
break up the preliminaries into foreplay and relaxation, if you
turn aside from the straight path and graze elsewhere, if you make
the thing a complex conversation of bodies referring to dozens of
different imaginations in your brains, rather than bashing away
as any animal can do. By increasing the density of meanings in an
experience, you expand that experience. You make it more extensive
and more enduring all within the same social and temporal space.
Education is a way of expanding experience.
If you don’t like that example,
consider looking at a painting in a museum. Yes, it’s easy
enough to look at the painting and to come up with things to think
about it. But how much richer when you know the many traditions
of imagining the visual world, when you can understand the detailed
references the painter made to those traditions, when your immediate
knowledge of the painting’s social and cultural context makes
you literally see dozens of things that aren’t there if you
don’t know those contexts. It’s the same argument. The
experience becomes “bigger” because you are educated.
Not merely that you can look at the painting longer without being
bored, but also that within a single look you will see more. Nor
does education lie simply in knowing the whole of the dead list
of facts and contexts of who taught whom and which style was which,
but in taking such facts as you do know and playing with them and
arguing that “educated sex” is better sex or that educated
museum-going is better museum-going, I’m not arguing that
you should miss the main point, either of the sex or of the painting.
Because you have made the event more complex doesn’t mean
you have to lose the overarching sense of the simpler version. But
it is true that you can’t fill your brain endlessly—it
has finite power. And so one of the crucial decisions you make about
your education is how to balance breadth and depth. Because breadth
too constitutes a way of expanding your experience. Complexifying
is not the only way of making meaning.
Thus, education is good in itself
because it expands the range of your experience, temporally and
spatially. Education means figuring out how to arrange the finite
things you can know, their levels of abstraction and detail, their
mix of skill and data, fact and theory, to maximize the potential
array of meaning you can experience in the now. Whatever your temporal
and spatial present, education lets you live more within it, by
bringing more meanings into play, by creating a dialogue of complexity
and simplification, of distinction and analogy, that transforms
your immediate world and reaches beyond it. To be sure, we are all
bound to a reality that is local in a million ways—by language,
location, race, gender, age, occupation, body type, religion, and
more. Being located somewhere is, paradoxically, one of the universal
human attributes, and a provinciality of abstraction is just as
inane as that of detail. But in the mind of a thoughtful person,
education is a habit that expands experience to overcome that provinciality
by increasing ties between your locality and other human meanings.
Sometimes abstraction is the mechanism, sometimes identification,
sometimes grand simplification, sometimes the link goes through
the tiniest of similar factual details, such as a similar eye color
or a shared hometown.
This localism, this provinciality,
is not only in space—geographical and social—but also
in time. All of you live in a local temporality—one
in which the future is your 20s and mid-life is light-years away.
To you I am a fixed object who doesn’t live in a now, a “professor,”
who was and is and always will be. But I too live a contingent life,
in which things might be radically different in a very short time.
To me, you are the fixed ones, who will wander probabilistically
through the chances of life as I did, with equally varied results.
But in the same way that education enables overcoming impoverished
localism in terms of social and cultural space, it also means overcoming
this mutual and provincial illusion of temporal fixedness so that
together we can experience the contingencies of both mid-life and
youth. As teachers we try to entice you into this habit of education
by a variety of exercises, just as a Zen monk tries to get a novice
to achieve enlightenment by giving him a koan to meditate on. And
just as the Zen koan is not enlightenment but rather a means to
enlightenment, so too there is nothing special about the exercises
we teach—analytic reasoning, good writing, critical thinking—all
the stuff of the core. They are exercises we give you hoping that
they will somehow help you find the flash of enlightenment that
And in that sense, the phrase “aims
of education” is exactly backward. Education doesn’t
have aims. It is the aim of other things. This “education,”
this flash of enlightenment, is the emergence of the habit of looking
for new meanings, of seeking new connections, of investing experience
with complexity or extension that makes it richer and longer, even
though it remains anchored in some local bit of social space and
time. Everything else we teach is an exercise to achieve that.
One should not despise these exercises.
Just because the materials and skills we try to teach are not the
thing that is education does not mean one can easily find education
without them. Indeed, to invoke another, more famous, metaphor,
you can think of the curriculum as the shadows cast on a wall by
the light of education as it shines over, under, around, and through
the myriad phases of our experience. It is a mistake to take these
shadows for the reality, but they are something that helps us find
or grasp or intuit that reality. The false notions that there is
a fixed curriculum, that there is a list of things an educated
person ought to know, and that the shadow-exercises on the wall
are the content of education all come from taking too seriously
what was originally a wise recognition—that the shadows provide
a starting point in our attempt to fully envision reality.
reality isn’t education either. Education is the light, the
shining thing that assigns meanings. If you have it, all the rest—the
core skills and the lingua franca and the basic materials,
all those shadows on the wall—suddenly becomes obvious. That
is why so many happy alumni who found the spark of education mistake
in retrospect the exercises for the reality. Once the spark is found
it makes the pathway to it seem unproblematic, self-evident. For
education is an invisible creativity that radiates from within.
It is not something you have. It is something you are.
may seem to have given you an extraordinary charter of freedom.
What you do here has few clearly evident consequences for your future.
This may seem a license to do whatever you damn well please for
the next four years. In a sense, you have that license. Education
is here to look for, but nobody can force you to find it. And nobody
can deny that the world is full of very successful people, at the
highest places in our society, who have college degrees from eminent
places and who yet lack even the most rudimentary forms of education.
To put it simply, the system as it exists trusts you with the whole
store. Education is the most valuable, the most human, and the most
humane basis around which a person can build him- or herself. And
you are here offered an unparalleled set of resources for finding
the flash of enlightenment that kindles education within you. But
it is your decision whether you seek that flash. You can go through
Chicago and do nothing. Or you can go through like a tourist, listening
to lectures here and there, consulting your college Fodor’s
for “important intellectual attractions” that “should
not be missed during your stay.” Or you can go through mechanically,
stuffing yourself with materials and skills till you’re gorged.
And whichever you choose, you’ll do just fine after you leave.
You will be happy and you will be successful.
Or you can seek education. It will
not be easy. We have only helpful exercises. We can’t give
you the thing itself. And there will be extraordinary temptations—to
spend whole months wallowing in a concentration that doesn’t
work for you because you have some myth about your future, to blow
off intellectual effort in all but one area because you are too
lazy to challenge yourself, to wander off to Europe for a year of
enlightenment that rapidly turns into touristic self-indulgence.
There will be the temptations of timidity, too, temptations to forgo
all experimentation, to miss the glorious randomness of college,
to give up the prodigal possibilities that—let me tell you—you
will never find again; temptations to go rigidly through the motions
and then wonder why education has eluded you.
There are no aims of education.
The aim is education. If—and only if—you seek it…education
will find you. Welcome to the University of Chicago.