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Restless Inquiries A new report explores the impact of the Neubauer Collegium's humanistic research collaborations.

June 4, 2018

The Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society offers a new approach to humanistic and social scientific research. The world we inhabit has never before been so dramatically shaped and altered by our own activity. But how are we to understand—and perhaps change—our world-making and world-destroying activities? The difficulty lies not only in the staggering complexity of the problems, but also in a peculiar but crucial aspect of our lives. If we are to understand ourselves adequately, we must do so, at least in part, in terms of our own understandings. The entire world we inhabit—our cultural and political institutions as well as the natural environment—is shaped by human thought. So, for example, if we want better to understand the possibilities for freedom, we need the most exacting studies we can devise for measuring income inequality, outcomes of early education, the impact of affordable health care, the availability of meaningful employment, the formation of social structures in which people feel safe, the electoral systems that honor people’s choices, the challenges of technology and data-gathering, the psychological, social, and economic pressures that tend us toward bigotry and oppression, and so on; but we also need to understand what freedom means, what freedom has meant to us throughout the ages and, perhaps, what freedom should come to mean. The possibilities for freedom are inevitably tied to our conceptions of what freedom might be. This we can learn from poems and paintings, plays and novels, histories and memoirs, philosophy and ethics.

If we are to find ways to flourish—and to allow nature to flourish—in this age, we need more than vibrant thinking in the humanities and social sciences. We need to find new ways to integrate these remarkable modes of inquiry—so that the most rigorous search for new evidence is of a piece with the deepest exploration of our values and commitments. The Neubauer Collegium is committed to the idea that working together we can come to better understand ourselves and the world. Some of those understandings will be for their own sake. Surely, one of the triumphs of the human spirit is to understand; another is to create beauty. But other discoveries will be for the sake of addressing the many challenges that confront us. The aim is to use thinking and planning and creativity to make the world a better place.

Collaborations are ever more necessary because the issues that confront us require approaches from many perspectives. We need to develop research methods that may lead to the emergence of new areas of inquiry. Unique among research institutions, the Neubauer Collegium aims to integrate humanistic thinking into even the most advanced quantitative research. By taking the broad range of our thinking into account and facilitating constructive conversations, we can begin to rethink our possibilities. The Neubauer Collegium is above all an aid to the human imagination through collaborative conversations.

In its first five years, the Neubauer Collegium pursued its mission through four major initiatives. First, we supported collaborative research projects that brought together faculty from all areas of the University, as well as scholars, artists, curators, policymakers, tribal elders of indigenous peoples, diplomats, and politicians from around the world. We have thus sponsored eighty collaborative research projects with 142 University of Chicago faculty. Second, our Visiting Fellows program has brought fifty-three thinkers to campus to join in the research projects, as well as to participate more broadly in the life of the University. These visits regularly establish contacts between the University and the home institutions and countries of our Visiting Fellows. Third, our exhibitions program supports our belief that artistic expression and aesthetic understanding need to be integrated into path-breaking research. The gallery hosts exhibitions that open up new ways of thinking about art, the human, the world we inhabit, justice, and beauty. Finally, through the Roman Family Director’s Lecture series we have brought major thinkers to campus to speak publicly on the most important challenges we face. Although only in our fifth year, the Neubauer Collegium is already a recognized center of excellence at the University of Chicago.

The next five years are crucial. The Neubauer Collegium needs to maintain its standards of excellence and enhance its current programs, but it also needs to develop in three new directions. First, there ought to be a Global Solutions initiative. Our research programs draw on the imagination and ingenuity of University faculty to devise research topics as well as methods. This has been enormously successful. In addition the Neubauer Collegium ought to isolate a pressing world-historical problem and invite applications from faculty and researchers around the world to form a research team to solve it. For example: How should democracies respond to contemporary challenges to their very existence? The Neubauer Collegium would support the proposal that had the most promise to make a real difference. In this way, the Neubauer Collegium could contribute to the University’s overall mission to make lasting global contributions through the finest research available. Second, the Neubauer Collegium needs to establish a robust Global Visiting Fellows program. In the first five years we have relied on visitors who have sabbatical funding from their home institutions or countries and on visitors from the University’s global centers. To achieve a truly global reach, we must be able to invite researchers, thinkers, policymakers, and artists from all over the world—especially from economically developing regions such as Africa, South America, South Asia, and the Southern Pacific—who do not have funds to support themselves on such a visit. Third, the Neubauer Collegium needs to launch a Next Generation program. We ought to invite interested undergraduates and graduate students to join the path-breaking research in which the Neubauer Collegium projects are already engaged. This requires building the infrastructure so that students can genuinely be integrated into the research, but it is an important investment in the future of thinking and research.

So, these are our projects and our goals. This book, Restless Inquiries, aims to give you a glimpse of what the Neubauer Collegium does.

—Jonathan Lear, Roman Family Director

 

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