Life of the mind is only half it

By Lee Solomon

The notion of the life of the mind is what has set the U of C apart from its peer institutions as a university with an intellectually rigorous liberal arts curriculum. Though U of C students typically have taken pride in the orientation of their classroom experience toward subjects and issues of theoretical concern, they sometimes look toward practice in the “real world” with disdain. In extreme cases, this attitude produces students with a rabid intellectual egotism that do not care for problems of actual social concern. This needs to change.

Theory is effectively useless if not well integrated into everyday practice. The University is failing to produce the next generation of socially responsible leaders willing to take leadership initiative to solve the next set of world problems if it fails to recognize and remedy the lack of opportunities to develop real co-curricular leadership experience.

What do I mean by co-curricular? Co-curricular is not extracurricular. It’s not something that you do on the side. Planning a club “study break” in Hutch doesn’t count. Co-curricular means learning how to integrate what you’ve learned inside the classroom into your way of life in order to make meaningful improvements to student life on campus.

A co-curricular education is based on teaching the principles of social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurs are individuals who the start of a new venture while assuming accountability for all its inherent risks. Team-building, leadership initiative, responsibility, and organizational management are essential qualities of a successful entrepreneur. These skills are not taught in any U of C class that I’ve ever taken.

Opportunities for students to acquire leadership experience are mostly limited to joining a club, but few of these really engage the intellect of a U of C student unmoved by a cause strong enough to commit to a lifestyle of social entrepreneurship. Continuity between successive generations of student leadership is a major challenge, and few clubs ever establish themselves as fixed institutions.

Fraternities may be one of the few counterintuitive counterexamples. New members are selected and pledged based on their potential to occupy positions of responsibility from very early on. U of C fraternities that haven’t been troubled with administrative intervention have endured much longer than nearly any RSO. Fraternities should not be written off so quickly as successful models for leadership training.

Student Government (SG) must take a more proactive role by investing in individuals with leadership potential. As much as I like the Progressive Gala and would even go so far as to suggest that it is one of the few outstanding demonstrations of social entrepreneurship on campus, SG’s $26k expenditure from the New Initiatives Fund on James Carville’s speaking engagement was not a strategic use of venture capital. Some form of an elite fellowship and training program to produce savvy student leaders capable of organizing major initiatives such as STAND, the Progressive Gala, and Kick Coke Off Campus might entirely transform student life on campus.

Nascent forms of this already exist on campus. The University Community Service Center tries to provide this type of leadership training experience in its Community Service Leadership Training Corps, although it has had some trouble implementing it. The new Hillel executive director, Dan Libenson, has recognized this need too and has vowed to make it a project of the Hillel Center at the U of C to create a leadership training program to raise the next set of professional leadership for the Jewish world.

A social entrepreneur fellowship program would yield significant short- and long-term benefits. The immediate result would be a much more active and vibrant student life because of the momentum built by student ventures and initiatives led by these trained leaders. Alumni who recall being part of something meaningful in campus life will be much more satisfied with their undergraduate experience, much more effective in interviewing for jobs and obtaining career mobility, and a lot more likely to give back as alumni.

It’s time for the U of C to live up to its educational mission by producing socially responsible leaders and not irresponsible social behavior justified by theory found in obscure academic literature. The latter is the case when the life of the mind is taken too far without regard to social practice. I’d like to recall more successes in social entrepreneurship rather than stories of arson in Kent Hall, Nazi impersonations in the Reynolds Club, or straight thuggin’ parties in Max Palevsky when I reflect upon my undergraduate experience one day as an alumnus returning for Alumni Weekend.