Free Time for Free Thought

UChicago students need more time to think.


Angie Zhu

By Nathan Cairn Goldthwaite

If you are like me, you came to the University of Chicago to be a free thinker, or perhaps to become a better one. Either way, UChicago promised four years of learning and intellectual growth, of shared excitement and discovery among some of the brightest teachers and young people in the world. Alongside academic rigor, UChicago values include “bold, self-confident questioning” and “intellectual engagement” designed to prepare students for thoughtful and reflective lives. But these values do not correspond with the reality of a Chicago education today; our community is often more exhausted than excited, more hesitant than courageous, and demonstrably unwilling to put UChicago’s nominal values into practice. In its unyielding pursuit of academic rigor, our community has failed to sustain the other necessary conditions for meaningful liberal education. One of these necessary conditions is free time, and here I argue that we need more of it at the University of Chicago. We can protect free time with a number of policy adjustments at the administrative, classroom, and individual levels.

Where do we see this disconnect between the undergraduate experience and University values? We see it distilled in the recent computer science cheating scandal: During a final coursework review last quarter, CS 121 instructors were “shocked and dismayed” at the number of students who had plagiarized on their assignments. Copying the work of others is the opposite of free-thinking; it shows disregard for UChicago principles of curiosity and genuine learning and betrays the panic of students who, overwhelmed by work and desperate to maintain good grades, decided to forgo learning altogether.

We also see the absence of Chicago values in the slough of rumors about class buying, a practice in which students bargain with one another for seats in certain Hum, Sosc, or bio core classes known to be “easier” than others.

That students here would seek out the easiest courses, instead of the most interesting or transformative ones—and spend more money on top of tuition for them—shows that a number us view the Core primarily as a GPA booster instead of the transformative intellectual experience it is designed to be. Finally, we see it in a social culture of aversion towards “That Kids”—an aversion that extends far beyond censuring the truly rude know-it-alls and is instead painting enthusiastic students with the same broad brush. These behaviors signal that our classrooms are not the bastions of “fearless learning” we expected as first-years, and that the actual state of our undergraduate experience does not reflect UChicago’s values.

This problem exists in part because UChicago students don’t have free time. We need free time in order to reflect upon what we have learned, to integrate our knowledge, and to generate meaningful opinions about our subjects. With barely enough time to complete our work and well below what we need to engage deeply with it, we cannot produce the sort of good, original, and valuable thinking that our university prides itself on. We cannot begin to pursue “bold questions” if the pressure of this place compels us to choose easy courses or cheat our way to success. Free time is essential for realizing the nominal values of UChicago; without free time, we cannot truly think freely.

I hold administrative scheduling policies responsible for taking away our free time. Our professors routinely cram a semester’s worth of material into ten-week (now shortened to nine-week) quarters, and the pace and volume of work required quickly overwhelms us and shuts down opportunities for genuine reflection, engagement, or enthusiasm. We are constantly studying for endless exams, reading hundreds of pages for class, or writing papers. High-density courses in the College encourage students to memorize and regurgitate material and embrace academic vocationalism (like buying spots in easy courses) and outcome-oriented studying (or cheating) in order to stay afloat.

In addition, current campus mental health resources do not address the structural causes of student stress and take even more free time away from students. The UChicago Student Wellness routinely offers  study breaks, therapy dogs, and other therapeutic activities, but students cannot reasonably be expected to ping-pong between intense studying and these recovery sessions to repair the damage done by a ruthless education. This unsustainable approach to student mental health adds activities to students’ already-crowded schedules instead of reducing their burdens. It’s a “Band-Aid” for these problems, not a cure. With further constraints to free time masquerading as solutions, students are even less likely to form sustainable relationships with their workloads or engage in the quality of thinking our UChicago values stipulate.

How can we encourage free time and free thinking? First, by removing one unit—a single text from a humanities syllabus or one weeklong topic from a STEM course, professors can improve classroom engagement as students cease to be choked by their work and remember their excitement for learning. Next, the administration should evaluate whether current departmental major requirements are helping or hurting the College’s overarching aim of educating the whole mind of the student. The administration should also consider offering pass-fail grading for Core classes, as one student from the Class of 2022 suggested to me in conversation. Finally, UChicago should seriously consider joining with many of its peer institutions by adopting the semester system. These decisions would all give students crucial time to think about their learning and return earnest enthusiasm back into our classrooms: an enormous benefit well worth a relatively small reduction in rigor.

As students, we can create free time for free thinking by ourselves. We can drop our second majors. We can take leaves of absence. We can study and read what we like during our vacations instead of rushing into careerism. We can engage fully and patiently with four years of unfamiliar and challenging courses that reward us with experiences of true learning, our GPAs notwithstanding. We can keep free time in our schedules and rediscover what it feels like to be genuinely excited about our college experiences every day. If we truly want a value-aligned Chicago education, we must be willing to demand and covet the necessary conditions—including some measure of free time—which make that experience possible.

Not every student would profit from having more free time. There are many students who would gladly shrug off voluntary reflection and enjoy a slightly easier ride to a UChicago diploma. But who should we be catering to here? If our university strives to produce future thought leaders, we should not be educating with mindless rigor by default at the expense of genuine intellectual engagement, lest we raise a generation of scholars who produce nothing more than cheap and shallow ideas. Instead, we should elect to provide enough free time for the truly self-directed students among us to think deeply and develop as free thinkers, creatives, and change-makers. An environment that can balance academic rigor with thoughtful free time will help such students engage UChicago’s values of bold questioning and intellectual engagement and share them with the world after graduation.

Nathan Cairn Goldthwaite is a third-year in the College.