Not a born identity

The UChicago culture is the product of nurturing, not nature.

By Marshall Knudson

In four years at the University of Chicago, I can’t recall a time when alarm bells weren’t often ringing out some imminent calamity or other, foretelling fatal threats to our uncommon and precious campus culture. I can’t say what I must have thought when as a first-year fledgling I heeded the call and took up with the Burkean leftists on the quads. These were people who lost their lunches quivering anxiously over the collapse of the College, imagined to come about by some demographic coup d’état.

Like white Americans brooding over the loss of statistical majority in the nation’s ranks, we cringed with each passing blow to the imagined traditions and historic memory of our College, demonizing the Common Application as a sacrilege to its sacral purity, and reading it as a harbinger of dismal change announced in a locust swarm of new recruits molded differently from students of the old stamp. Our foes afield took umbrage at such patronizing prattle and pointed out that our conscientious objections were but churlish impositions to the betterment of the University’s corporate image and the burnishing of our college degrees.

Standing back now in cheerful nihilism with one foot already out the door, I find both arguments have a little truth to them, but very little interest. What they express are just two ways of imagining the U of C corporate brand. Some of us came here to glean an authentic education, with rigor and grade deflation, stripped down from the highfalutin hot air housed in the educational tenements of the Ivy establishment, while others came on the backing of our parents or the funding of foreign governments, driven to get the skills and credentials needed to seize power or pelf on the global stage. And of course, there’s everyone and everything in between.

We all chose Chicago, and we justify that choice on the basis of what we think it offers us, or ought to offer us, but we too often forget that the changes in the institution that seem to threaten our University’s brand identity—falling astray of its own traditions or converging with others’—are chimarae compared to the question of how effectively our University promotes an environment and a program for comprehensive and rigorous studies that meet the moral, scientific, and political challenges of our time.

Debating the loss of typological attributes in our student bodies or the quirky currents in our intellectual culture seem to me wrongheaded ways to chart the character and course of our alma mater. It is neither unfounded nor unwarranted for students to invest care and concern in the quality of their educational experience; such devotion is paramount in the development of a civic ethic long associated with the liberal education. But the U of C retains its value as a place of learning on the basis of the standards it observes and the practices it promotes, not on any particular vision of homogeneity or heterogeneity beyond the common ordeal of the college experience.

My point is the buck doesn’t stop with an admissions decision, and it’s fanciful to believe that a U of C student could ever come ready-made from the high school crop. Instead, I think it’s quite clear that U of C students are not born but made, formed in thought and habit through a four-year, love-hate relationship that elates as often as it oppresses.

The U of C needn’t be treated as a world heritage site or as an endangered species in need of protection or preservation. And we shouldn’t expect the admissions department to play the park ranger, even if it is the gate keeper. What we should be asking is how adequately the College serves the need for an education suitable for our century, neither tethered to the memories of the past nor enslaved to the vagaries of the present. And we can’t pretend that our peers don’t sometimes do a better job at one thing or another. We should ask whether our educational programs are durable yet flexible enough to train both successful civic-minded professionals and conscientious, hard-working scholars. Instead of fixating on the distinctiveness of the place, we should hedge our pride in its capacity to raise leaders and thinkers who will justify its existence through their work in the world. This means aspiring to high standards of pedagogic devotion and student commitment, while investing in the programs and policies that undergird such a vision. Enhancing opportunities in the arts and providing possibilities for diverse social life and civic engagement do not dilute the promise of this; they enrich it.

Marshall Knudson is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Anthropology.