It’s no surprise that we beat Harvard

By Phoebe Maltz

The Wall Street Journal’s “Opinion Journal” ran a piece on April 29 by Michael Steinberger that brought immense, seemingly inexplicable joy to the U of C community. What did Steinberger write? A defense of of cold winters? Of all-night study spaces? No. What really gets U of C students grinning is a definitive assertion, in a highly respected and much-read publication, that U of C is better than Harvard.

After discussing Harvard’s other failings, Steinberger writes:

“Harvard is also a much less important intellectual hub than it once was. The University of Chicago, for one, has wielded much more influence in recent decades. It is no exaggeration to say that Chicago laid the intellectual foundation for the conservative ascendancy and nurtured the ideas that now drive the debate over economic policy, legal theory, and foreign affairs. The key ideas of the so-called Reagan Revolution, including monetarism and deregulation, trace their origins back to the free-market theorizing of Chicago’s economics department…And while Harvard certainly has its superstars, when you look at the people who have taught at Chicago in the past 40 years or so—Milton Friedman, Richard Posner, Allan Bloom, Leo Strauss, Robert Lucas, Albert Wohlstetter, Richard Epstein, Leon Kass, Saul Bellow, Martha Nussbaum—it is pretty clear which school has been giving off more heat.”

Oh, we like this. We like this very much. But why? Did the typical Chicago undergrad play any role in shaping “the ideas that now drive the debate over economic policy, legal theory, and foreign affairs”? Well, no. Delusions of grandeur about our late-night dorm discussions and blogs aside, none of our current crop can claim credit or responsibility for neoconservatism. Is the typical Chicago undergrad bitter about not being at Harvard? Not really. While it begins in some as a perverse and defensive pride and in others (myself included) as a genuine belief that nowhere but Chicago would do, students seem to get a kick out of being here, and seem to enjoy spending all those hours at the library.

Steinberger asks and answers, in essence, why Harvard is mentioned everywhere while Chicago remains hidden away under a pile of dirty springtime snow:

“So why does Harvard continue to get so much more press than Chicago or any other American university? One possible explanation: Harvard graduates are disproportionately represented in the upper echelons of American journalism.”

Well, that may be. But to answer both his question about why Harvard is so high-profile and mine—which is why Chicago students get so excited to see Harvard put down and Chicago lifted up—here’s another possibility: The Harvard kids did better in high school. They are better at winning. Chicago undergrads are those who could have won but chose not to, who could have gotten that A in pre-calculus but were, for better or worse, too busy wondering, “What is truth?” This quality is what makes us appealing to grad schools and less appealing to certain employers. We are also a school of masochists, of kids who want the professor to assign that extra chapter, who write much longer papers than were assigned, and who willingly submit ourselves to more math classes than we’ll ever need, not because the hard work will get us somewhere, sometimes but not always out of a love of learning, but out of a need to be challenged at all times.

And finally, Chicago is sometimes referred to as a school for those who lack social skills. I have not found this to be the case. Instead, I’ve found U of C students to be kids who do perfectly well in social situations, but who are happy to avoid such situations during most of the week, who do fine when they go out for a drink or for coffee, but who, more often than not, secretly wish they’d stayed in and worked on a problem set. Students who would be stunning if they only changed out of those clothes their mothers bought for them in seventh grade.

A school filled with kids doing their own thing will not do the same job at self-promotion as one inhabited by those specifically selected for their skills at self-promotion, who not only know how to sell themselves but who genuinely have fun doing so. As for Chicago students, on a certain level we think that the way we do things is, in fact, correct, and by not seeking prizes, we get to be all the more pleasantly surprised when we win them all the same. Like the “smoker-athletes” profiled recently in The New York Times, we get a certain thrill out of knowing that we make things more difficult for ourselves but from time to time win so spectacularly that we can think of no better response than an enthusiastic, “So there!”