Life of the Mind: Becoming philosopher-citizens

By Adam Weissmann

Just the other day, it dawned on me that my time here in Hyde Park is drawing to a close. On Friday, I turned in my final paper for my final class, and as I ambled down the corridor in Pick Hall away from my professor’s office I suddenly felt as if I had no purpose, no definition. Sure, I thought, the next two weeks would be consumed with parties, relaxation, last gasps of Chicago’s city life, but who am I now that I am no longer a University of Chicago student? I had come to define myself by my academic pursuits, and in the moment of my work’s completion, I wondered what would define me in the next stage of my life. I was about to leave the University behind, but could I really leave the life of the mind behind me as well?

The search for answers to these questions about the end of my college experience brought me back to its beginnings. The Class of 2005 represents a special group of students who gathered in Hyde Park from all over the world in the days following the September 11 attacks. I remember speaking with my new housemates about politics, flight delays, and how the new situation would affect our lives. We were all in disbelief and unsure of how to act and what to think. Professor Danielle Allen, in the Aims of Education address for our class, proposed that we were all in a condition of stasis, the classical Greek word for “stagnation, inaction, and paralysis” and “the confusion and battling that undo the human ability to analyze, judge, and act.” In order to recover our senses and begin adapting to living in this new world, we students would need to engage each other in learned dialogue. Only through intellectual discourse with friends and fellow students could one prevent the mind from remaining as “a bright pool without motion.”

I must admit that I was too excited about my new life and too busy scanning the faces in Rockefeller Chapel for those who would, in the next four years, become friends, mentors, adversaries, and classmates to absorb all of her words. But reading the speech today reminds me of what drew me here to Chicago and what I had looked forward to as a wide-eyed first-year. The most essential component of the Chicago education is not the core curriculum or the abundance of brilliant faculty members who guide us. It is the conversations we participate in everyday with fellow students, whether they center on science, politics, literature, or even the mundane. Conversation is the crux of academic enrichment; the seeds of ideas our classes and texts plant in our minds cannot blossom in the absence of rigorous discussion and debate among our peers. The education that takes place at the table in Bartlett is as important—if not more—than that which occurs in the lecture halls of Harper and Kent.

I have spent the greater part of this past year writing a B.A. paper on ancient visions of the ideal constitution, and much to my friends’ and teachers’ chagrin I have been inclined to compare the composition of almost everything to the constitution of a state. I have always imagined the University as a city-state close to that envisioned by Plato in the Republic. In her Aims of Education address, Allen noted how Plato is a critic of democracy and how the Republic outlines an ideal state in which “philosopher-kings ruled everything and there were no democratic institutions.” Ours may be characterized as a community in which all members are philosopher-citizens. The University is, in a sense, the democratic version of Plato’s ideal constitution.

The conversations we have in our dorms, classrooms, and dining halls are indispensable instruments of our academic democracy. In our republic, the bonds of justice that maintain order between the different factions and sub-communities are civil discourse and critical inquiry. There is no law but to ask, to think, and to respect, and ideas are the both the means and the ends of our collective enterprise. We students hail from many different nations, yet we are all citizens of this University, and we exercise our citizenship through constructive dialogue with each other, in order that we may enrich ourselves, our school, and our world through the ideas we generate.

At the end of her address, Allen gave our class the following advice: “As you speak with your fellow students, developing in each of you a strong confidence in your own ability to think, talk, and judge as well as a confidence in the ability of others to do so with you, you practice citizenship.” Our graduation from the University of Chicago does not necessarily entail an end to our citizenship in this academic republic. We graduate from being merely its citizens to becoming its ambassadors. Just as our conversations with fellow students in the last four years were acts of citizenship in the common pursuit of knowledge and individual growth, the conversations we will have with those outside the University for the rest of our lives will be acts of citizenship in the global community. We must create intellectual conversations where none exist and contribute productively to conversations that are ongoing. Ideas shape the world; we must carry with us our love of learning and ceaseless pursuit of knowledge as we travel to new communities in order to ensure the growth of new ideas for this century.

Our journeys will take us in many different directions, but we will always hold in our hearts the memories of conversations we shared while studying at Chicago. Finally, I would like to convey to all of my fellow graduates some words of wisdom from the Jewish tradition, which are often recited when a person completes a stage of his or her education. “May you live to see your world fulfilled. May your destiny be for worlds to come, and may you trust in generations past and yet to be. May your heart be filled with intuition and your words be filled with insight, and may your vision be on a straight path before you.”

Let the rest of our lives’ conversations begin.