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Professional courtesy

Applying the life of the mind outside academia is just as meaningful.

Photo: Darren Leow

When I first came to campus, I remember being (pleasantly) surprised by the number of students whose career plans amounted to “an academic of some kind.” Having gone to high school in suburban Georgia, I was accustomed to a certain level of condescension and derision toward the nerdy academic type who did not live and operate in the “real world” and whose work was supposedly useless, so it was wonderful to meet people who cared so much about learning and knowledge that they considered dedicating their lives to pursuing it.

Of course, as time went on, many of these people’s plans changed as they decided they were interested in other things and wanted to work outside of academia. And though there isn’t anything wrong with that, it sometimes seemed to me that, at least in a few cases, there was a feeling of guilt about “selling out” or about finding a more ordinary job, because there was something more inherently pure and admirable about being a professor. In other words, people had become inculcated with the idea that those who really love learning and the “life of the mind” (I think there’s a very good chance I will spontaneously combust the next time someone says “the life of the mind” to me) become academics, and everyone else is ignorant or a sellout or just not really U of C material.

I think that as a whole this outlook is changing—perhaps slowly, but also inexorably. The more the U of C wishes to climb rankings and attract applicants, the less it can afford to be seen as a college whose main purpose is to train future professors. Of course, issues regarding the changing character of the U of C tend to be complicated, arousing strong opinions on both sides; I don’t really want to talk about those changes as a whole, except insofar as they relate to a supposed rise of “pre-professionalism,” which many people wrongly consider a threat to the school.

I don’t think anyone can deny that the U of C is moving in a more pre-professional direction and is doing more to help students find employment outside of academia. The only real issue worth debating is whether this is a bad thing. And it seems perfectly obvious to me that it is not, and that the only way anyone can believe it is would be assuming that a rigorous education that values learning for learning’s sake (another phrase that makes my blood boil after 4,000 repetitions, but never mind) should be available only to future professors and nobody else.

This viewpoint is incredibly misguided. Though nobody can really deny that the pursuit of knowledge as an academic is an admirable and worthy career choice, it’s far from the only one. Indeed, it seems to me that the great body of knowledge available to us as students is almost wasted if none of us decides to go into the “real world” with it. I believe in the education I’ve gotten here. I believe in it so much that I’m willing to say that the world is a better place when it has more lawyers who’ve read John Locke, more investment bankers who’ve read Karl Marx, and more artists who’ve read Plato. I think this is manifestly clear, and if anybody really wants to deny it, then it’s clear to me that he or she does not really believe in the purpose of a liberal arts education.

I don’t think the dislike for “pre-professionalism” is a universal affliction. If I had to diagnose it, I would say it’s more of a general feeling that finds its way into many of us at some point during our three or four years in Hyde Park. I think that most of us outgrow it, that we realize one’s career decision does not boil down to “academic” versus “sellout.” But occasionally you do encounter this kind of mindset, even if it’s not quite so explicitly voiced. And there’s not much one can do about it, because for some people, the U of C is fundamentally about protecting that mindset, and that’s that. In the end, I don’t think this is a debate that can be “won” by one side or another. But, perhaps fortunately, it seems to me that the rising applicant numbers we read about every year will, at the end of the day, move things in the “pre-professional” direction, regardless of what anyone has to say about it in the pages of the Maroon.

Peter Ianakiev is a fourth-year in the College majoring in math.