The Aims of Education

One book I read on my trip to the University of Chicago was a compilation of Aims of Education addresses, which are given at the beginning of the year to first-year students at the University of Chicago. I’ll refer to the publication as The Aims of Education. (Note: This is NOT the book of the same name by Alfred North Whitehead.)

Rockefeller Chapel
Rockefeller Chapel, site of the Aims of Education address. Photo credits to The University of Chicago.

I had finished this book before stepping on campus, so it was good, in my mind at least, to have an idea of what the faculty thought of education and the university, especially the concept of liberal (or liberal arts) education and its meaning in the modern world. But the most compelling speech in the collection, I thought, was Andrew Abbott’s “Aims of Education Address” of 2002. (Here is an online text of the speech.)

The speaker is quite frank, admitting, “This is only the third or fourth such oration that I’ve given in my life. And you’re not an easy audience.”

He then congratulates the entering class, saying they have “already won.” That is:

[T]he real work predicting your future success is done not by prestige of college but by other factors—mainly the things for which you were admitted to that selective college in the first place—personal talents, past work, and parental resources both social and intellectual. The estimate of your future worldly success that we can make on the basis of knowing those things already will not be improved much by knowing what you actually do here. Moreover, admission itself sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy; since you got in here, people in the future will assume you’re good, no matter what you do or how you do while you are here.

Why did I embolden that sentence? Because Abbott is basically saying it doesn’t matter what you do once you’ve gotten in. Evidence?

[T]he 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 nine percent in income four years after college. Now that’s not much result for a huge amount of work.

I’m sorry to bore you with this income story but I want to kill the idea that hard work in higher education produces worldly success. The one college experience variable that actually does have some connection with later worldly success is major. But in the big nationwide studies, most of that effect comes through the connection between major and occupation…. But within the narrow range of occupation and achievement we have at the University of Chicago, there is really no strong relation between what you study and your later occupation in later life.

Here comes the interesting part. Abbott proceeds to give statistics as to which majors obtain which occupations, and which occupations are held by which majors, all from a sample of UChicago alumni.

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 seven percent in nonacademic research; the rest are scattered. Physics concentrators are similar, but more of them are engineers and fewer are bankers. Biology produces 40 percent doctors, 16 percent professors, 11 percent nonacademic researchers, and the other third scattered. Obviously, there are a number of seeming pathways here. All the science concentrators lead to professorships and nonacademic research. And biology and chemistry often lead to medicine. But there are also many diversions from those pathways. We’ve got a biology concentrator who is now a writer, another who is now a musician. We’ve got two mathematicians who are now lawyers, and a physics concentrator who is now a psychotherapist.

UChicago is known though for its economics program. What about it?

[T]his is today identified as overwhelmingly the most careerist major…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.

Other social sciences?

Historians are often lawyers (24 percent) and secondary teachers (15 percent), but the other 60 percent are all over the map. Political scientists have 24 percent lawyers, 7 percent each professors and government administrators, and perhaps 20 percent in the various business occupations; the rest are scattered. Psychologists, surprisingly, are also about 20 percent in the various business occupations, 11 percent lawyers, and 10 percent professors; the rest are scattered. Thus in the social sciences, the news is that there are lots of ways to got to law school and to get into business. 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.


English majors have scattered to the four winds: 11 percent of them to elementary and secondary teaching, 10 percent to various business occupations, 9 percent to communications, 9 percent to lawyering, 5 percent to advertising; the rest scattered. Of the philosophers, 30 percent are lawyers and 18 percent software people. I defy anybody to make sense out of that. AGain, the connections include some obviousthings and some non-obvious things. We have two English majors who are now artists and one who is an architect. We have a philosophy major who is a farmer and two who are doctors.

Now, what’s really interesting is when the stats are seen the other way around, from occupations to majors.

Of the lawyers, 16 percent came from economics, 15 percent from political science, 12 percent from history, 7 percent each from philosophy, English, and psychology; and 5 percent from public policy. There was at least one lawyer from each of the following: anthropology, art and design, art history, biology, chemistry, East Asian languages and civilizations, fundamentals, general studies in the humanities, geography, geophysical sciences, Germanic languages and literatures, mathematics, physics, religion and humanities, Romance languages and literatures, Russian and other Slavic languages and literatures, and sociology. You get the point. There is absolutely no concentration from which you cannot become a lawyer.

He then goes on with doctors and bankers/financers, which have similarly large numbers of seeming anomalies. “What you do here does not determine your occupation in any way.”

The next point Abbott brings up is the perceived notion that although a person will in the future forget specific knowledge learned from college education, he or she will retain the general skills. He states, however, “Since this is the argument I have myself made most strongly in the past, I shall take special care to demolish it.”

College graduates, and especially those from elite colleges, are deemed to have these better “general skills.” But the question is whether or not college students already possessed such general skills when they entered. As Abbott put it:

While we do know that people acquire these skills over the four years they are in college, we are not at all clear that it is the experience of college instruction that produces them. First, the kinds of young people who go on to college, and certainly to elite colleges like this one, are quite different from those who do not. If in our analyses we do not have perfect statistical control for all those differences, college may appear to have effects that in fact really originate in the differences between those who go to college and those who don’t.

To this selection bias effect (as it is called), we can add the equally difficult problem of unmeasured variables, Changes that we might attribute to college instruction could actually derive from other things. College students are likely to have more challenging jobs, for example, 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. The differences of skill could be produced by these things rather than by the actual educational experience of the college classroom. 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.

In other words, even though there is a positive correlation between a college education and critical thinking skills (which he later discusses), the tests are not normalized for age, and the increase in critical thinking skill might be a result of maturation, not only college education.

I’m going to jump forward in the speech a few pages. In the skipped sections he discusses further why a college education may not be so useful, especially one from an elite university. Yet, it seems ironic that he would be saying this to a group of students who are just about to begin four years of their life at such a place. So what, then, is the aim of education?

So the long and 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 here—or anywhere else—is that it is better to be educated than not to be. It is better in and of itself. Not because it is a means to some other end. It is better because it is better. Note that 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.

But surely education teaches us the skills to survive in a changing world! Abbott’s response: Not quite. “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.”

If education has no aim, then what is it?

By education I am going to mean the ability to make more and more complex, more and more profound and extensive, the meanings that we attach to events and phenomena. When we are reading a text, we call this adducing of new meanings interpretation. When we are doing mathematics, we call this giving of meaning intuition and proof. When we are reading history, we call it a sense of historical context. When we are doing social science, we call if the sociological imagination. In all these areas, 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 lots of standard routines for doing this—interpretive paradigms, heuristic methods, theoretical schemes, investigative disciplines, and so on. But education is not about 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.

In this sense, education plays the opposite role of what we would conventionally expect: “Education doesn’t have aims. It is the aim of other things.” Now, there is one passage that I wish to quote, not because it follows directly in the argument, but because of a tie to something I read on the flight back from Chicago—Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. First, Abbott:

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. Note that the Zen koan is not enlightenment but rather is a means to enlightenment…. They are exercises we give you hoping that they will somehow help you find the flash of enlightenment that is education.

This is really the point of Siddhartha, the same lesson but taken from different angle. In Siddhartha, the main character by the same name rejects Gautama (the Buddha)’s teachings precisely because he knows he will not obtain the truth he seeks if he tries to learn it from someone else, even if that someone else is the Exalted One: he must experience it himself.

Back to Abbott’s speech. I’ll let Abbott give the concluding thoughts:

To put it simply, the system as it currently 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 in practice completely your decision whether you seek that flash. You can go through here and do nothing. Or you can go through here 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 here mechanically, stuffing yourself with materials and skills till you’re gorged with them. And whichever of these three you choose, you’ll do just fine in the world after you leave. You will be happy and you will be successful.

Or on the other hand you can seek education. It will not be easy. We have only helpful exercises for you. 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.

4 thoughts on “The Aims of Education

  1. Great article, but it makes me wonder if those who must work to stay in college or those who are academically challenged ever have a chance to even think about these sorts of things. The working student goes through the motions, too tired from work to explore everything the college offers. Students constantly struggling in classes keep themselves in study where their only goal is the grade; will they even care what the college offers when they can barely keep themselves from failing out? I feel many college students are too one dimensional and sees college as only a means to an end, never stopping to think about education itself or its importance. I’m still in college and I’ve been in both of these situations, it’s hard to find the importance of just education without it’s application for monetary gains.


    1. Wow, it’s really cool to be talking to an entrepreneur, and a UT “entrepreneur-in-residence” at that! 😀

      I’m reading some stuff on your website and it’s very interesting—I was really intrigued by your idea of the “liberal arts approach to business.” I wasn’t totally surprised though, given that I saw the word “polymath” in your comment, haha.

      Actually I’m still in Austin and haven’t gone to Cornell yet. We’re flying to Ithaca on the 18th . . . which happens to be tomorrow! And it also happens that UT (of course) and UChicago are the two schools I have visited. But financial reasons made me choose between UT and Cornell, and I suppose I am taking the “liberal arts approach to life” by choosing Cornell, which I have NOT visited. There was nothing wrong with UT or Austin; I just wanted a new environment for a change.


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