A Centennial View
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Contrary to mythology that has persisted, Harper did not reject undergraduate education, even if he did insulate many of his senior faculty from the responsibility of tending to it. His own experience and the example he continued to provide even from the President's office had shown him the role that undergraduate education would have to play in the ongoing supply of the very scholars he himself was recruiting to the University. While it was obvious that all undergraduates would not enter the world of academia, the presence of sizeable graduate programs could not help but affect collegiate life at the University, as it indeed has continued to. Harper sought to establish a distinction between the first two years of college, which would be devoted to classical education, and the last two, which would move students into preprofessional or preacademic programs. One can see at least the shadow of the Hutchins College in Harper's University.
As Harper acknowledged in his opening day remarks, the pursuit of knowledge might not lead to unity. Harper wanted productive faculty members committed to the full range of ideas in modern intellectual life. Supported by a solid financial base and remaining free of all close affiliation with either a religious body or a governmental agency, the University of Chicago faculty benefited from an unusual degree of freedom in teaching and publishing.
The University's comparatively liberal policies also made it possible for the faculty and the administration to avoid some of the doctrinal battles that had characterized the development of sectarian schools and the ideological battles that were beginning to influence higher education. Harper's fixation on uninhibited research and his reluctance to curb work in areas sensitive to the University's public image fostered a spirit of independent inquiry. When Robert Herrick's thinly disguised novels and plays criticized the Chicago elite who were important University supporters and caused concern among some who felt Herrick had stepped too far, Harper sent Herrick a note of praise and encouragement.
Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class was an open critique of the spending habits of precisely the kind of people whose support Harper sought. Nor was Veblen alone in attracting attention. At a time when the debates over gold and silver were dividing economic, banking, business, and political communities, Chicago was not immune from conflict. Even Harper's tolerance had its limits, although as in the case of Thorstein Veblen, it was usually a scholar's personal life, not his ideas that most aroused Harper's concern. It was not until after Harper had died that the new President, Harry Pratt Judson, asked for Veblen's resignation.
By any standard, some of those included in this exhibition were difficult people. A few were eccentric, others simply had neither the time nor desire to develop the social graces required by general society but often considered unnecessary in an academic setting. The University provided a stimulating environment in which thought and reflection were encouraged. While not all conventions were discarded, as Thorstein Veblen and a few others discovered, the level of tolerance was high. In most cases, those who thought deeply and clearly and articulated with precision survived and flourished.
Finding a common theme among the twenty-eight faculty members represented in this exhibition is an elusive quest. However, the scholars and careers outlined here reflect the historic patterns of strengths and diversity as they have developed within the University.
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