Not That it Matters: Life of the Mind, outside looking in

Reflecting on what career-oriented students can learn from fully devoted academics.

By Victor Tan

For all intents and purposes, people who aren’t a part of the UChicago community often construct heuristics about what we are supposedly like because it helps them understand. Think back to the time before you came to experience UChicago through prospie weekend, move-in day, and the 10 hours of p-sets that you expected but never suffered through. What did you think of this school? What did you know about it, beyond what the brochures told you, beyond what you heard on College Confidential?

In part, we joke about being UChicago kids as if there is a unique UChicago “type.” We’re unconventional, we’re the odd ducks, the mound of broken toys on an island far away—nerdy misfits in a quirky little windy city, perfectly content to be what we want to be. We are UChicago. We are weird, we are proud, and we have lots of smart old people: If our school were a country, it would rank 4th in terms of Nobel Prizes.

Having applied and eventually gotten here, I remember facing this whole dichotomy and wondering about what it meant to not belong to such an identity. Now that I am here, I feel like I don’t belong in the idealization that I created of this school. I don’t consider myself all that weird. I don’t dream of electric fish, nor do the tendrils of the Life of the Mind stretch themselves out to me, threatening to subsume me into a Ph.D. program, because I’m just not that kind of person. The euphoria of learning is not something into which I always throw myself wholeheartedly. Sometimes I just kind of get by without any love for what I’m doing.

Do you study 17th-century Russian literature fanatically, seek arcane truths within the Book of Shadows, traipse happily along, reading Marx’s ridiculously convoluted words and cherishing the intellectual vitality that you drink, bucket after bucket, from the intellectual fire hose that UChicago constantly aims in your general direction?

Odds are, half of you will say that, yes, you actually do enjoy all that reading and thinking. And ten percent of that half will actually go into academic work related to it, perhaps to the disbelief of your family members, to the laughter of false friends and career-oriented corporate kids.

I know that there are people at this school, myself included, who are concerned less about academics and more about job prospects. In two short months, I’ve watched first-years already begin recruiting and socializing at career fairs, attending a couple of banking events. I have watched the same crowd prepare speeches in their mouths, transforming from that-kid-in-Math-class into a model of corporate perfection, groomed by a bathroom vanity hundreds of miles away from home.

Now, I don’t think that this is a bad thing—conversely, I think it’s great. I’m just not someone who lives the life of the mind in the purest sense, and neither are my career-fair-frequenting peers. I don’t have a complete passion for a certain subject, at least not at the moment, and at this point in time, I can’t envision throwing myself completely into the confines of one intellectual axis of exploration, restricting myself to the boundaries of one academic subject for life, because that’s not the kind of life that I want. While I’m sure that a lot of people begin and end their pathways at intellectual edification, I stride along a road where these things are secondary, where the entire point of education is less an end in itself, and more like a transitory state between high school and the marketplace.

Liberal arts educations honed for cocktail parties, tango lessons manifested in exotic locales filled with beautiful people, strange quirkiness once rejected but now accepted—it’s all so disillusioning. What I’m curious about are the people who make their quirkiness into something greater, something on a higher plane. The Nobel-Prize winning academics, or the guy who stands on the side of the street every day and protests circumcision as if there is nothing better to do.

In a strange way, I admire these people, circumcision protestors and all. The odd ducks, the future Fields Medalists, the 50 people who will receive grants for their research and eventually make something of their academic work, the 32,423,483,290 people who know they can’t get tenure for their subject areas but will nonetheless try and fail. The people who often do things that aren’t even remotely career-related, and even if they do, genuinely want to do so only in the context of contributing to their field of study. The budding mathematician–Fields Medalist–Goldwater Scholar–Fermat’s Last Theorem–won’t-stop-until-they-grow-old-trying academicians who will throw themselves at academic material for years, succeed, fail, fall in and out of love as if enraptured by a strange relationship with an old flame. The ones who show true commitment to the intellectual ship that, to me, sank so long ago.

I really do need to meet more of these people. Maybe I just don’t know what I really want from life. I admire them and their noble pursuit of noble causes. Maybe I want to be a little bit more like them, to learn from their experience of being in love. Maybe I, too, want to live life a little more in the present, rather than continue to prepare for a better future, a better place in the world.

But until then, because I don’t know what I love, I guess I’ll be an econ major.

And I guess that’s not a bad thing.

Victor Tan is the blogger behind Not That it Matters. He is a first-year in the College.