An excerpt from the 2022 Aims of Education address. Watch a video of the full address.
If you’ve met any babies, you’ve noticed this fundamental fact about them: they haven’t got a clue what they’re supposed to be doing. Babies are completely lost. Their only guides are bodily sensation—hunger, cold, pleasure, pain—and, eventually, their ability to copy what the adults around them are doing.
Adults are not that different. We pay a little less attention to our bodily sensations, and a little more to what other people are doing. We talk like the people around us, dress like the people around us. We pursue what they pursue. People tend to criticize being a “conformist” as though there were some clear alternative. When they say “Don’t conform,” they often mean “Conform to what I want you to conform to, instead of what those people I don’t like want you to conform to.”
The teenage years are often when a person starts to wake up to all this: Wait a minute, does anyone out there actually know what they’re doing …? But we comfort ourselves with the thought that we’ll figure it out when we’re a bit older, a bit more independent.
This is all very abstract, so let me make it concrete using two examples: one small and personal, the other big and political.
My small, personal example is the extra hour. Suppose you have an extra hour—because you arrived early, because it’s daylight saving time, because you got the time of a Zoom wrong, because you missed an appointment, because it’s an hour till the cafeteria opens. What do you do with your hour?
You could read a book, mess around on your phone, call your mom, wander around your dorm and strike up a random conversation, play a video game, lean back in your chair and rest your eyes. Whichever one you choose, do you have a sense that you made the right choice? At the end of that hour, will you think, “I spent it well”?
If your answer is no, consider that your entire life is just one hour after another. You get to choose how you spend each one.
Sometimes people will put pressure on you to do a certain thing during your hour. For example, there was a lot of pressure to spend this hour here, listening to me.
But other times there’s not. Those are our “free hours,” but really, it’s all up to you. Even how much pressure people put on you to spend the hour one way rather than another—that is somewhat up to you.
I’m going to confess that a lot of the time, I sit in my office in Stuart Hall and I say to myself, I could read some Aristotle, I could answer emails, I could listen to music, I could go on Twitter, I could think about whatever problem I’m working on, I could buy those plane tickets for my next talk or set up my kid’s dentist appointment or start randomly doodling in my notebook—and I don’t know which one I should do.
Sometimes I look around at my colleagues, who all seem to know that they should be doing a specific thing at a specific time. I’m amazed until I remember they probably don’t know either. We’re all just pretending we know how to spend our time, guessing at it, hoping for the best.
My second example is Twitter. I’m picking Twitter because that’s the part of social media I know, but substitute your favorite online experience. The online world is new, and that gives it a Wild West character. Social norms have not yet been established. We don’t know how much time to spend online, and when we’re there, we don’t know how to behave.
When I joined Twitter a few years ago, I was shocked. I thought, Whoa, why do they think it’s okay to talk to each other like that? Two sentiments that are very common on Twitter are mockery and outrage: Can you believe so-and-so did such-and-such? People are amazed that other people don’t know how to act. So it’s both that we don’t know how to behave on Twitter and that we use Twitter to observe, more generally, that we don’t know how to behave.
Most of us are lost much of the time. We’re lost about what to do and how to treat each other. Just about everyone I know, including me, spends a lot of time in denial about this, because how else are you going to live?
But there was one person who didn’t. I’m going to end this talk by telling you about him, because he’s my hero.
Twenty-nine years ago I sat where you sit, an intended physics major. Not too long after, I went to my first class. It was the humanities Core, and the teacher handed out a photocopied page with an excerpt from a speech.
Somewhere in the middle of the page was the following question: “Who has knowledge of that kind of excellence, that of a human being and a citizen?”
That question contains a bunch of questions. First, what properties make a person a good person? Second, what properties make a person a good member of their community? Third, are those different properties? And finally, fourth: Who knows the answer to those questions? “Who has knowledge of that kind of excellence, that of a human being and a citizen?” As much as I wanted to raise my hand and say “Me me me!”—yes, I was that kid—I was weighed down by the awareness of my own ignorance.
Those questions were Socrates’s questions. The text was Plato’s Apology, which presents Socrates’s speech at the trial which ended in his being put to death by the city of Athens. Socrates did not persuade the jury to vote in his favor. But before he died, he did a lot of persuading.
Something people often fail to appreciate about Socrates is, yes, he was killed for doing philosophy, but before that happened, he spent a long time doing philosophy and not getting killed. He would walk up to people—often the most powerful and influential people in his society—and find a way to ask them: Do you actually know what you are doing?
Hey Euthyphro, I know you’re a priest, but do you actually know anything about what the gods want? Hey Laches and Nicias, I know you guys are generals, but can you explain courage? Hey Alcibiades, I know you want to rule the world, but are you sure you wouldn’t be better off enslaved to someone wiser than yourself? Hey Gorgias, I know you’re supposed to be a professional orator, but are you even able to tell me what oratory is? Or what, cat got your tongue, Gorgias? Are you unable to talk about talking?
It goes on and on like this, dialogue after dialogue. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid the impression that Socrates was trolling Athens. He calls himself a gadfly; he gets called a stinging fish. It’s tempting to compare him to an animal because there never was and never has been another human quite like him.
He was an incredibly persuasive person—so persuasive that many Athenians let him take a battle-ax to their lives. The result was more questions than answers. The result was the entire discipline of philosophy.
I said I was an intended physics major, but that intention didn’t outlast my freshman year. Before too long, my heart belonged to Socrates. Somehow I ended up inheriting Socrates’s questions, especially the one about “that kind of excellence, that of a human being and a citizen.” I’ll try to hand them down to you, in my humanities Core class, along with Aristotle’s and Sophocles’s and Hume’s and Descartes’s and Shakespeare’s questions.
I’ll be competing with your physics teachers and your history teachers and your language teachers. Oh, did you think we weren’t competing over you? Every teacher, in her heart of hearts, loves her subject the most, and wants you to love it as much as she does. It’s a healthy competition. It brings out the best in us.
I want you to know that the big ideas—the really big ones—are out there. It’s your job to find them. And we, your teachers, are here to help.
Welcome to the University of Chicago.