In Rockefeller Chapel this June, three members of theCollege Class of 1997 spoke to--and for--their peers, giving the traditional"Hail and farewell" addresses. Informed by their own experiences,they all hewed to a Chicago theme: the joy of life enriched by learning.
The way we were--and are
I know what all of those things are. Now. But I didn'twhen I got here. As far as I was concerned, H2SO4was a very wrong form of water.
There were a lot of surprising things about this University.During Orientation Week we all crowded into our pews and listened as ProfessorRichard Shweder outlined the "Aims of Education" at the Universityof Chicago. As I cowered in my pew, I began wondering if the Universityreally had an understanding of what my academic capabilities were.
But apparently Professor Shweder and the University knewsomething I didn't. I came home for Christmas break during my first year.By then we were reading Plato in class, so I decided to try out some Socraticlogic with my mom.
The first day home, I told my mom I wanted to go to aparty with my friends.
"No," she said.
"Well, Mom," I began, "is not the purposeof the party to have people present?"
"And, that being true," I continued, "canwe not assume that there is a certain level of camaraderie among the participantsof the party?"
"Good. So we've established that in order for theparty to truthfully be a party, it requires the presence of a group ofpeople who have a mutual friendship."
"Uh-huh." "Therefore, since Jane, my friend,is having a party, it is necessary that I, a friend, be present in orderto meet the global perception of said 'party.' "
"So, for you to say that I cannot go creates an abnormalityin the universal conception of what a party is."
"Leave my house."
I went off to the party thinking, "Wow, Socratesis pretty cool," and my mother was left wondering what had happenedto her daughter.
So, what has happened?
During our time here we have climbed every mountain, toldNietzsche what we thought of him, played with various chemicals, and emergedas scholars.
And now we stand here, facing all of you, when four yearsago we were the ones cowering in the pews wondering if we could hack ithere.
Well, we survived. And not only that, we learned who weare.
Learning to learn
The motto of our school has always seemed to me to bemore of a hypothesis or an underlying assumption: "Let knowledge growfrom more to more, and so be human life enriched." If we didn't believethis, that knowing makes our lives better, we wouldn't have come here inthe first place. Approaching the Regenstein early this year, fresh froma summer of Latin, the letters mounted to the left of the door caught myeye: Crescat scientia; vita excolatur. Most literally translated, it says:"Let knowledge grow; let life be enriched."
There is no "and so" in the Latin. It is onlynatural to posit a causal connection between the two clauses, but in doingso, our translator has glossed over an ambiguity which, although small,could open up a big door. What seemed like an assumption can be seen asthe central question, or even challenge, that these four years have posedto us. What is the relation between the activities that go on inside theRegenstein and the world outside it, between knowledge and life?
We all, I hope, early in our time here, encountered someonewho held that there is an extraordinary connectedness between ethical andintellectual virtues: Socrates. Life for him consisted of the search forknowledge, and knowledge, even the most abstract, was about nothing otherthan how to live. Hence his student was compelled, in presenting him tothe world, to create a portrait of his life rather than a treatise of histeachings. How far we travel with Socrates toward the identity of knowingand doing differs from person to person, I'm sure, but his unrelentingquestioning must cause even the most skeptical to think twice.
Still, one might say, it's well and good to recognizeit in someone else, but how have we made this connection in our own lives?Here I can only speak for myself. As a child, that wishful time beforesleep was filled with fantasies of flight, and every birthday candle, pennyin a fountain, eyelash on the cheek was devoted to this one end, flying.Nowadays I fall to sleep imagining a world in which time stops. I don'tfly, I move, traversing continents, rowing across oceans, reading and lookingand doing all the things that have had to be compromised out of my life.The force to contend with-once gravity-is now time.
And I was a poor contender at first, trying to embracethe whole of knowledge in a single quarter, gulping down my life, throwingmyself into each moment without weighing it in a larger perspective. Asmy all-night sessions, either for paper writing or conversations, dwindled,I started to see what some people had been trying to tell me for a while:that a devotion to learning is, strangely, not exhibited best by an immersionin it, but rather in seeing learning as functioning within the contextof a life that makes other demands on us. A certain practical understandingof time has been a way for me, at least, to see learning as a way of life-andlife as articulated by learning.
The stuff of freedom
Seven years ago, when my family was leaving the city whereI was born, saying good-bye to my friends and teachers was both imprudentand impossible. We were leaving the Soviet Union, and no one was supposedto know that we were going to the United States-possibly for good. ThenI came up with a solution: I spent the last few moments with my friendstrying to memorize their faces in as much detail as possible, so that theactual good-bye would become unnecessary; my friends would live on in thehidden compartments of my memory.
This spring I remembered the old trick, but each timeI try to focus on the face of a friend or a teacher whom I may not seeagain for some time, the mere image fails to capture that which I wantto remember about them. From the classroom discussion table to the dinnertable at the Medici, from a long and exhausting rehearsal in a dimly littheater to the bright lights of opening night, the people I have come toadmire, respect, and love are inseparable from the entertaining and illuminating,ridiculous and intimidating, passionate and moving conversations that haveformed the core of my learning and growing up at Chicago.
Niccolo Machiavelli once described, in a letter to a friend,the powerful feeling he experienced every evening: After spending mostof the day on household chores, he would devote a few hours to his ownconversation with the great thinkers of antiquity. Then, Machiavelli wrote,he felt no boredom and forgot every worry; he did not fear poverty; anddeath did not terrify him. The Chicago conversations do not always evokethe names of the ancients; yet they are animated by a spirit akin to Machiavelli's.
The stuff of these conversations is the endless interplayof eager minds and great thoughts, the sincere and passionate encounterof students and teachers, and the sharing of friends' ideas and talents.It is no accident that such conversations (and, in fact, Machiavelli'sletter itself) were considered suspect in the Soviet Union. They permitus to experience rare instances of freedom-freedom of thought becomes freedomof life.
We may only hope that no matter how far away from thisUniversity we may find ourselves, we never lose the ability to remember,and experience again, the great Chicago conversation-and so be free.
These essays have been adapted from the addresses givenduring the University's 448th Convocation, held June 14 in RockefellerChapel.
Return to August 1997 Tableof Contents