April 26, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 15

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Past Opine interviews:
Lauren Berlant
Stephen Berry
John Boyer
David Cohen
Jerry Coyne
John Cunningham
Richard Epstein
John Frederick
Henry Frisch
Austan Goolsbee
Bernard Harcourt
Greg Jackson
Martin Marty
Martha Nussbaum
Raymond Pierrehumbert
José Quintáns
Jan-Marino Ramirez
Saskia Sassen
William Sewell
Herman Sinaiko
Geoffrey Stone
Cass Sunstein
Simon Swordy

    Opine: John Boyer

    John Boyer

    This week, John Boyer, Dean of the College and the Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor in History and the College, answers the Chronicle’s Opine questions, which have been answered by other faculty members since October 2006, when Opine debuted.

    What book should every person read and why?

    Cicero’s De Officiis, or in English, On Duties. It is a wonderful compendium of Roman political philosophy, as influenced by the Stoics and the Academics, written by an imaginative thinker but also a very unlucky politician. It was one of the most popular books read by intellectual and social elites in early modern Europe, and it raises many interesting and relevant questions about the tensions between honor and expediency.

    If you could meet any scholar, author, composer, musician or entrepreneur—dead or alive—who would it be and why?

    Thomas Mann. His works, particularly his great novels such as The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus, provide intricate and searching meditations about the relationship of politics and culture in modern German history.

    Among the complex moral and political issues that affect humanity, which do you believe will never be resolved and why?

    Chronic disparities of wealth will never disappear. The open question is whether nations and states can find smarter and more imaginative ways to alleviate the resentment and even bitterness that these disparities engender. Ensuring that most of the population enjoys a reasonable level of economic security and health insurance, as well as access to effective educational resources, is a basic requirement for any advanced democracy in this age of bottom-line global competition to be able to function cohesively and thus successfully.

    If politicians had to pass an exam before they were allowed to serve in public office, what question would you add to the test?

    Are they willing to meet regularly with people who disagree with their most cherished views? A critical problem facing any leader in public life (or in the not-for-profit world, for that matter) is how to ensure a regular second-guess perspective, forcing her or him to think about other policy options and other programmatic alternatives, without falling prey to timidity or indecision, which may be even more dangerous than refusing to engage thoughtfully with those with whom you disagree.

    If you could choose any three University professors and give them a one-year sabbatical together to solve a problem, develop a theory or make a discovery, who would they be and what task would you assign them?

    I would love to ask three colleagues who are distinguished scholars with a capacious sense of the history of their own disciplines to write three parallel accounts of how the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences have changed as domains of knowledge over the past 100-plus years since the founding the University, and then to have an international symposium on their findings.

    Think of a renowned scholar from the past who added great value to your area of study. What would this person think of the advances that recently have been made in this field?

    As both a historian and the Dean of the College, I often think about what William Rainey Harper would make of the place now, 115 years after he founded the University of Chicago. Harper liked institutions, but he liked communities even more. He would be very proud of the University’s research luster and its distinguished international reputation, but he also would be deeply concerned that, in the past at least, we failed to create a strong residential community for our undergraduate students on this campus. Today we are barely able to house 58 percent of our College students in our residential system, whereas most of our peer universities house well over 85 percent. Over the decades this problem has hurt the University in many critical ways. I would like to see at least one more major College residence hall built on the campus that would house no less than 500 students, mainly juniors and seniors in shared apartments with kitchens.

    What building on campus do you think is the most interesting architecturally and why?

    Harper Memorial Library, by a long shot. Harper is probably not the most architecturally distinguished neo-Gothic building on our campus, but its location, dominating the Midway on the south and defining the great Harper quadrangle on the north, gives it a dramatic aesthetic presence. Harper serves as the official memorial to our greatest President, while also functioning as a large library study space and a classroom building for undergraduate and graduate students, a center for the writing program, a faculty office building and as an administrative center of the College. It is, in a word, a microcosm of the University that Harper wanted to build.

    Will a liberal arts education remain relevant to students in our increasingly technological society? Why or why not?

    Frankly, the way that many American universities teach the liberal arts to beginning undergraduates is a recipe for their (the liberal arts, that is) oblivion. We do this better at Chicago because of the Core curriculum. The future of our nation in the new century will belong to leaders who are disciplined, hard working, fearless in the face of uncertainty, and intellectually curious about many different facets of the human condition. Our faculty-taught Core curriculum is an excellent way of training our students on all four fronts. The Core constitutes a critical legacy bestowed by our predecessors on the current generation of faculty and students, and it is thus a fundamental element of the University’s general cultural capital.

    How will the next generation of scholars—today’s students—change your field in the decades to come?

    In the humanities and non-quantitative social sciences, I fear that doctoral education is becoming ever narrower and more specialized, to the point where students are losing a command of the field as a whole. This is a common complaint, and no one knows what to do about it. To give but one example: one really cannot understand modern European culture without a solid knowledge of ancient history and the cultures of antiquity. Yet, how many American graduate students specializing in modern European history nowadays have read Aristotle, Cicero, Tacitus, or Augustine in a serious and systematic way?