The remains of education

Fourth-years will have to adjust after leaving the U of C.

By Alice Bynum

By the time a graduating class sits down for the Remains of Education speech, the unity that has developed from matriculation to completion of the Core and a cumulative 24 months of winter is about to dissolve. There are no normative demographics to describe 22-year-olds. They might be working, in school, or (likely) unemployed. They might live with their parents, or they might be parents. They might or might not be married, own property, or receive financial support. It’s an age typified by variation and exploration, and that makes it difficult to pin down something that we fourth-years all have in common as we take our seats in Rockefeller Chapel.

However, there is one thing we all, presumably, share: intelligence.

During New Student Orientation, we convened with our houses for the Voices of Our Community discussion. We learned about the diversity of our class—the different races, ethnicities, and nationalities we embody; the various religious and political alliances we belong to; our manifold sexualities. But the O-Leaders didn’t collect data on our SAT scores, our APs and our IBs, our GPAs. These were already known, published on the University’s Web site, and taken for granted. The one thing you knew for sure about the other people in the room was that they were all smart. Even the jocks, the pretty people, and the slackers were a cut above. And for four years (maybe five or six), we enjoyed a mechanical solidarity based on the common worship of intellect.

How many times did people say they wish the world would reward ability and achievement? It’s a natural thing to want when you’re confident that you’d be on top, and when you’ve read Adam Smith at least three times. Yet, society’s not meritocratic. We know that. Competition isn’t pure or rational; life’s not fair. The revolutionary thought that most of us haven’t had is that we shouldn’t want a meritocracy.

No one deserves the kind of poverty or misery that exists today. Rewarding merit only justifies the subjugation of the majority of the people who walk the Earth. If you’re an idealist, if you want to change the world, you’ve got to find some other way to dignify and empathize with all of humanity. It can’t just be about minds anymore.

When you graduate, you’ll have to readjust the presumptive I.Q. of everyone you meet to 100. To respect and love those people, you have to change your values, as well. Stop using the word “retarded” like it’s not offensive. Grow up. You might even benefit from learning to care about your future clients, patients, customers, constituency, neighbors, and unborn “regular” kids, in spite of their I.Q.s, in spite of everything.

I do admit, I’ve enjoyed having my most distinctive asset celebrated and rewarded over and over—in class and extracurricularly, professionally and romantically. But this is a privileged experience. The intelligentsia can’t stay in their ivory tower forever. Or, they shouldn’t.

I’m not saying it’ll be easy to let go of the power of being smart in a place where smartness matters. Still, I think I’m ready for a shift. I’m ready to quit sneering at “idiots” who got a perfect 36 on the ACT as high school freshmen on account of their one non sequitur in a discussion. Only when I accept people for who they are can I begin to like people again.

That’s why I recommend taking your Bachelor of Arts degree and applying for something thoroughly blue collar. Get a job waiting tables; see how quickly you learn to respect the high school drop-outs with 10 times your experience and skill. Develop a taste for good manners, kind words, and basic cable television. Maybe by the time you start applying your education and intellect to humanitarian problems, you’ll have some fondness for the people you’re trying to help.

Whenever you finally decide to leave academia (and that might take a while, since a number of our graduates come back for more schooling), there is one straightforward value that can replace intelligence as your own personal deity: charity. Take what you’ve been given, and learn how to give back. Instead of measuring our self-worth by our scores on (now) the GREs, we can judge ourselves by what we manage to contribute.

Alice Bynum is a fourth-year in the College majoring in sociology.