We sat down for an interview with John Boyer, Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of History at the University of Chicago and long-time Dean of the College (1992-2023). Prof. Boyer is the author of several books, including The University of Chicago: A History and Culture and Political Crisis in Vienna: Christian Socialism in Power, 1897-1918. Earlier this year, Professor Boyer and Lumen Christi Executive Director Daniel Wasserman-Soler co-taught “The Closing of the American Mind and the Death of Philosophy,” a seminar for undergraduate students at the University of Chicago. Part of LCI’s Fundamental Questions Seminar program, the course is designed foster rigorous conversation around significant texts – enabling students to experience the force of the existential questions which animate our lives. 


You attended Loyola University of Chicago as an undergraduate. Please tell us about your experience in Catholic higher education / Jesuit education.

Loyola University had a core curriculum, emphasizing theology, philosophy, and (for some students) Latin. It was a Catholic version of what we would call “general education” at UChicago today, and I admired their willingness to ask students to engage in a broad set of liberal arts courses that were completely unrelated to their major.  The Jesuits also had a compelling philosophy of education. Their idea was that everything you do is for the greater glory of God, even if it’s not directly religious. So, if you asked them to describe the purpose of a liberal education, they would say something about the cultivation of critical thinking skills, but they would also argue that you should deploy these skills for the good of society. That is a philosophy that I tried to carry over to my time as Dean of the College at UChicago. It is why I supported creating organizations like the Institute of Politics that involve civic engagement and why I worked very hard in the establishment of the Odyssey Scholarship program.


What led you to your interests in the history of modern Europe, particularly Austria and the Habsburg Empire?

I originally planned to study modern German history, but during my first year in graduate school I became fascinated by the history the Habsburg Monarchy.  The Empire was a multinational empire held together by an extremely effective and relatively honest central civil service, balanced by a complex set of regional and local governments.  It was a very decentralized empire, with strong regionalist political structures, and it had to be, because of the multiple (and often competing) ethnic groups that constituted it.  The Empire also reminded me of the history of the United States in the nineteenth century:  whereas our “Frontier” was towards the west, the “Frontier” of the Habsburgs was towards the east.

By the way, the College is similar. To make it work, you need coherent, responsible local government—effective department chairs, Collegiate masters, chairs of Core courses. Much of the heroic day-to-day work is done by these local leaders. Whatever larger, macro-level plans one has about moving the institution in one direction or another, you have to have their buy-in and support. Otherwise, your reforms are likely to be short-lived, and perhaps even fail from the outset.


You’ve taught Western Civilization at the University and edited Chicago's Readings in Western Civilization series. What do you see as the place of Western Civilization in higher education today and particularly at the University of Chicago?

Most of my teaching in the College has been in the Civilization Studies component of the Core curriculum, focusing on Western Civilization and European Civilization, and I would hope that many of our students will continue to want to take European Civ or Western Civ as their Core civ requirement, or even as an elective.

I started teaching Civ in the College as an advanced graduate student in 1973.  During my first quarter of teaching, I was asked to teach Greek and Roman history to two sections of 20 students each.  My research specialty is modern Central European (German and Austrian) history, so I had to go to the library and give myself a crash course in ancient Greek and Roman history, along with the history of ancient Judaism and of early Christianity.  I think I took perhaps as many of 200 books out of the library in ancient history, just to get caught up.

It was a transformative experience, and I have been teaching ancient, medieval, early modern, as well as modern European history ever since.  I found that studying intensely new scholarly fields in European history that were (nominally) unrelated to my own research area was fascinating, and it certainly broadened my historiographical horizons.  I really enjoyed the intellectual challenge of working up fields of study that were not directly relevant to the conduct of my own scholarly research.

The broad compass of the History of Western Civilization course also underscores the importance of an informed knowledge of the whole history of Europe, from ancients to moderns, and not only on the undergraduate level.  I fear that doctoral education in History in the United States 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 such ancient authors as Thucydides, Aristotle, Cicero, Sallust, Tacitus, and Augustine in a serious and systematic way?


As you worked on your first edition of The University of Chicago: A History, what was something that surprised you? 

I was surprised by the boldness and openness to risk that marked key leaders of the University, and I was also surprised by serious financial and organizational challenges that those same leaders had to deal with over time. The success of the University of Chicago resulted from its ability to combine two very different cultural traditions, one of which was deeply indebted to the model of the classic nineteenth-century European (and especially German) research university, while the other resulted from an American conception of the college as a local institution embracing the mission of civic service to the community and anchored especially in undergraduate instruction.   From the outset the new University had enormous ambitions, and it enjoyed and grew accustomed to having very substantial philanthropic support.  Yet over the decades tensions between ardent zeal of innovation and the reality of constrained financial resources became all too apparent.  My book explores both themes: the surging academic distinction of the University and its capacity for bold, transformational reforms in American higher education, and its ongoing search for the necessary resources to sustain such distinction.


You participated this year in two Lumen Christi Institute seminars. Can you tell us about what you think the Institute offers to the university community?

I think that Lumen Christi has remarkable opportunities to supplement and enrich the regular academic work of the University by the kinds of intellectual conversations, lectures, workshops, and debates that it has regularly sponsored, particularly in the context of the multiple Catholic traditions of learning and scholarly engagement.


You were Dean of the College for over 30 years. What do you think makes the University of Chicago a special place in American higher education?

The College that has a very distinctive cultural profile in American higher education, consisting of particularly strong intellectual values and standards and bold interdisciplinary programs (the Core, etc.).  The College is also engaged in an educational and developmental process of considerable coherence.  The first and the second years give our students a community of common intellectual discourse and discipline as well as a rich network of friendships and collegiality.  In their third and fourth years we then ask our students to use this social and intellectual platform to engage our curriculum in more specialized studies, as well as to engage the wider world via our remarkable study-abroad programs.

We value students who are disciplined, hardworking, fearless in the face of uncertainty, and intellectually curious about many different facets of the human condition.  Our Core curriculum is an excellent way of training our students on all four fronts. 

A defining feature of our academic culture is also the in-your-face intellectualism of our community. We expect people to both have ideas and be able to defend them, as well as to be open to engaging rival or competing ideas. We say a lot about our commitment to academic freedom, but you cannot really debate ideas freely if you don’t have ideas to debate, so we always want to recruit students who are creative thinkers and who like to play with ideas.