Irretrievable Opals

By William Baude

All right, I admit, I haven’t been a very good columnist. I agreed to produce at least 15 pieces this year for the Maroon and I have produced…6. Somehow every quarter I would sit down with a bunch of things I meant to write, and somehow every quarter would go slipping through my fingers before I noticed.

Funny thing, that. It’s a fairly apt description of my entire experience at Chicago. There are still great professors I haven’t met, great classes I haven’t taken, great places I haven’t gone, and very shortly it will be too late. Those things are irretrievable opals.

That’s what makes this university such a great place. When we first got here—disoriented by orientation—we sat down for the Aims of Education address. How strangely telling that one of the most prestigious lectures at the University is given to a bunch of befuddled and bored first-years.

Similarly, my first quarter, Professor Andrew Abbott—a famous and busy guy—took the time to type out pages of responses to each of our Sosc papers, which were (in my case) perfectly rotten. There he was, an eminent academic, teaching some almost randomly chosen elite kids how to write a paragraph of prose.

I’ve been grateful for that kind of stuff: the attention and information that is sometimes showered upon us and sometimes lies concealed, requiring effort to unearth. At the same time, I have been pursued by the persistent doubt—don’t these professors have better things to do, more important people to talk to than us? (And to be sure, many of those professors certainly thought they did.)

But the University of Chicago’s answer, in some strange sense, is “no.” The ethos for its undergraduate education is one of benevolent waste. Here are more books than you’ll ever read, more professors than you’ll ever meet, more knowledge than you’ll ever grasp, and more work than you’ll ever enjoy—have fun.

That leads to the strange double character of this place. On the one hand, unforgiving—of laziness, of sadness, of arrogance, of un-curiosity, of my grade point average; and on the other hand, forgiving—of indecisiveness, of my lack of discipline, of my lack of respect. At no other school could I have learned so much and gotten so little credit for it.

The temptation is to look back and think of all of the things I could have, should have, done differently—bad decisions and wasted time. I could have: dropped econometrics before nearly failing it, never wasted a quarter wasting away in Cambridge, bought a winter coat before my second year, spent less time checking my e-mail, majored not in mathematics but in something I understood.

And yet. There is something strangely appealing, perversely wonderful, about missed steps, lost roads. At least, there is something wonderful about a university that forgives them, even encourages them, so long as we are willing to keep moving and keep learning, picking up the slack where need be.

More than that: Those mistakes, that wasted time, those strange obsessions, that incoherent stuff that didn’t make sense at the time and didn’t make any more sense later—all of those things are not just the side-effects of the University of Chicago; they’re the benefits. Benefits that some of us have come to enjoy perversely, and others will never appreciate (despite the best efforts of later fundraising presidents).

To be sure, we kid ourselves when we claim no other place is like this one. (Sometimes we say that ruefully, eagerly eyeing a transfer application; other times we say it proudly, turning our nose up at the Harvard kids.) Colleges (like snowflakes) are not unique. But that hardly matters. This place is uniquely ours—pretensions, depressions, and all. That’s the kind of contrarian thinking that four years here has taught me—waste is good, austerity is welcoming, flaws are benefits. (That, at least, has been my experience here, possibly entirely different from yours.)

And more than all of that, the University of Chicago is embodied in a particular attitude, a sort of aggressive defensiveness. “If you don’t like this place, if you don’t like the pressure, the work, the classes, the winter,” Chicago seems to say to us stonily, “that’s your failing, not mine. So like me, or not, but make the best of what’s around.”