Intellectual Malpractice

UChicago’s penchant for philosophies of the past is unintellectual.

By Dylan Stafford

We live a privileged—and in many ways, arrogant—life here at UChicago. Each of us either pays or receives in aid the more-than $70,000 cost of attendance. In fact, the annual expense of being a student here is more staggering when you consider what the typical family of four in America lives on in a single year: the median household income of $56,516. What’s more, a recent study found that 10 percent of students here hail from the top 1 percent of the income scale ($630k+), while only 24.5 percent are from the bottom 60 percent (<$65k).

Our schooling comes at an indisputably steep cost. To say that we are anything but an affluent community is inaccurate. Yet despite how much of society’s resources we consume in pursuit of this education, we spend a tremendous amount of time concentrated on the theoretical and intellectual underpinnings of a world that only seems to exist in the UChicago imagination.

If this sounds harsh, it is because it should. We live in a troubled globe faced with increasingly complex challenges. Our response as members of an institution with impressive financial and human resources cannot simply be to evade the difficult reality that surrounds us.

Working through the Core, however, we students spend countless hours reading about, mulling over, and interrogating the world of—let’s be frank—mostly male western European thinkers from well before the 21st century. In doing so, we neglect the opportunity to delve more deeply into the much-changed, globalized, and diverse world of 2017. While it is true that many of the thinkers we read retain some relevance today, our breadth of study should not be limited to these texts alone.

As students, our attention focuses narrowly on works from a breathtakingly limited scope of cultural perspectives. We spend hours trying to piece together the often incoherent or untenable pieces of different writers’ theories about our world. Then we try to construct our own arguments built on their ideas, and, in doing this, we often strive for grandiose theories that sound smart but often aren’t smart in reality. 

And the truth is that the climate here encourages all of this. Our humanities and social sciences curriculum—with few exceptions—revolves around an almost exclusively textual, and thus necessarily limited, reading of a handful of classic texts. “Why do we read these works?” my humanities professor wondered with a sarcastic smile on the first day of class last fall. “Well, because we always have!”

It’s not necessarily wrong to have syllabi that center on what we consider classic texts. But for an institution that claims its curriculum is “devoted to ‘the knowledge most worth having,’” one must wonder what it says that we have deemed this particular selection of texts most worthy of study. Tradition alone is an appallingly weak justification. Have women and thinkers hailing from beyond the European continent really not produced works worthy of our pursuit?

More troubling in some respects, though, is the intellectual environment that encompasses our studies. Too often, we are rewarded—and we reward one another—for elevated language and over-complicated arguments that offer some sort of cognitive challenge. We prize the sophisticated over the straightforward and the abstract over the applied. And to what end? What do we gain from this?

Often, it seems, we do this to impress ourselves and our professors, or to simply enjoy the puzzle and debate of it all. Perhaps it is no surprise that we feel a pressing, if not subconscious, need to fulfill our reputation as “one of the world’s great intellectual destinations.” But in a world struggling with a host of grave threats and challenges—from climate change to nuclear weapons to the global refugee crisis and a rising tide of nationalism—it is not enough to simply take delight in our own scholarly musings. Our studies and focus should center much more squarely on the real world. We cannot be content to merely seek out intellectual fodder and fun, new arguments for the sake of making new arguments. Our global reality and our unique position in the world necessitate that we do more with the tremendous resources and limited time we have in Hyde Park to think about these challenges.

This is not to suggest that tremendous work isn’t being done already, that the Core should be scrapped, or that liberal education is in any way an unworthy goal. The opposite, in fact, is true. Every day, UChicago students and faculty make critical advancements in a wide range of fields that positively impact our planet. In truth, I don’t know about 1/10 of the progress researchers and academics here make. But to be satisfied with all of our curriculum and our intellectual climate simply because great strides have been, and continue to be, made is deeply complacent and contrary to our very mission as an institution.

It is time for our curriculum—and our humanities and social sciences Core, in particular—to more actively reflect the world in which we live, with its diversity and desperate need for real, practical solutions that are informed by history. What’s more, we should stop mistaking pretentious rhetoric and highbrow theories for intellectual rigor and achievement. 

Call me crazy, but it would seem that as students fortunate enough to attend one of the nation’s top universities, we will be better prepared to lead in all fields when we have dedicated great thought to the forces that will shape the century ahead of us—issues like globalization and its effects, nativism and the crisis of displaced peoples, the future of international institutions, automation and artificial intelligence, and yes, the existential threat of climate change. We not only have a responsibility to think more about the world outside of our Hyde Park bubble, but we have real incentives to do so that have nothing to do with morals or responsibility. We will be all the more successful, intelligent, and informed when our studies reflect our world and our attention is paid to reality—not the clouds.

After all, the great intellectual does not seek to merely rehash the treatises and debates of the past. The great intellectual eagerly seeks to make sense of the future—not for their own sake—but for the benefit of those who aren’t afforded the immense privilege of fully engaging their intellect in the first place.

Dylan Stafford is a first-year in the College.