A Centennial View
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The natural sciences played an immediate and central role during the formative years, while the humanities developed somewhat more slowly, as they did throughout the country. The study of classical languages quickly became a strong field, as did philosophy. In the years before American literature had become a field and the idea of "modern" scarcely existed in an academic setting, Chicago's strength in early English literature made it one of the country's centers. The University became a leader in the study and production of dictionaries, including the reverse index of Greek and Latin nouns by Carl Darling Buck, two dictionaries of American English, and the major present-day project designed to produce a dictionary of Assyrian.
Although the arts received little attention, the social sciences matured rapidly as an interrelated group of disciplines. Law and medicine came later, and some dreams, such as a school of engineering, remained only dreams. In many respects, the outlines of these early trends can be discerned today as reflected in the strong emphasis on the natural and social sciences and the relatively less central position of the arts.
In other respects, the University has changed: medicine, business, and law have overcome early neglect and emerged as important, widely renowned professional schools. Other departments, such as anthropology and sociology, evolved from disciplines of collection, classification, and observation to assume a more critical, analytical role, an evolution that both paralleled and contributed to broader changes within academia. It is nonetheless the case that in both anthropology and sociology, the University provided major leadership, a trend which continues. The University was committed not only to the singling out of faculty of distinction but to the establishment of disciplines. The University had the first department of sociology and the first professor of sociology. It had the first department of political science that did not emerge out of a department of history or political economy, and the first department of geography.
From its earliest days, the spirit of intellectual inquiry was lively and robust. Teaching and other relationships between students and faculty took a variety of forms. Robert Herrick taught only sparingly, devoting most of his time to his writing. George Ellery Hale never gave a lecture and took on only the very brightest and most promising graduate students.
Others thrived on contact with their students. Robert Redfield carried on an extensive correspondence with his former students which sometimes lasted long after they left the University. Henry Cowles led field trips all over the United States and Canada, instilling in his students a love for nature and ecology. As evidence that fame, recognition as a research scientist, and excellence in teaching are not mutually exclusive categories, Enrico Fermi won the admiration of students and colleagues alike for his ability to lecture and teach. A. J. Carlson turned physiology lectures into an effective performance theater that caught students' attention. In spite of his heavy administrative load, William Rainey Harper relished the opportunity to teach and lecture and filled classrooms with students of Hebrew.
While some faculty members derived great satisfaction from their academic pursuits, others relished opportunities to become involved in matters beyond their own discipline. To varying degrees, social scientists actively engaged the larger society as a natural, and even essential, extension of their academic interests. Professors such as Edith Abbott and Charles Merriam saw their work as critical for understanding societal ills. Skilled in social analysis, they and other progressives who were their contemporaries promoted intervention to alleviate problems of poverty, corruption, and racism. Frank Knight seems to have gained as much satisfaction from his forays into the worlds of philosophy, ethics, and educational theory as he did from his work in economics. A proponent of what would today be called "conservative economics," he lived through the interventionist years of the New Deal not knowing that his ideas would eventually find their way back into public policy.
John Dewey's pioneering and influential work in education represented an outgrowth of his work in philosophy. Dewey's colleague and friend, George Herbert Mead, supported the efforts of Jane Addams as treasurer of Hull House and served on Chicago educational committees. Marion Talbot fought to make education accessible to women and minorities during the administrations of three different University presidents. Franklin McLean organized fellowship programs to assist aspiring black medical students and was directly involved in efforts to provide medical care in the rapidly expanding black community near the University of Chicago.
Faculty served in both world wars, applying their expertise in fields like communications, propaganda, and languages in World War I and their research on nuclear physics in World War II. The University's involvement in the Manhattan Project placed it in the forefront of both pathbreaking science and the moral and ethical dilemmas that soon followed. The careers and lives of Enrico Fermi and James Franck illustrate how scientists of different backgrounds faced this new and unfamiliar terrain. Having crossed the threshold of political involvement, faculty members encountered increasingly difficult questions. By 1968, University President Edward H. Levi noted that while support for freedom was stronger than before, the "propriety of the corporate neutrality of the university on public policy issues having moral aspects has been seriously challenged."
The century we are celebrating has been a revolutionary one in the history of ideas. Much of what we know of the world has been reshaped, sometimes in disturbing ways. The University remains at the center of that change; but it is also responsible for the institutional stability that makes change possible and gives successive generations the courage to face it.
Harper's University was its faculty. It still is.
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