Outside the world of sitcoms, people rarely take the time to act in “the true spirit of the holidays.” Thanksgiving is about football and parades and gorging ourselves on turkey and stuffing, and not so much about giving thanks. Don’t get me wrong; those things are worthy of a nation-wide celebration. But as long as we’re taking a break from the everyday ebb and flow of existence, we would be well served to take the time to reflect on what we’re grateful for. Sometimes stepping outside of your routine is the only way to get perspective on what’s important to you and what makes you who you are.
Our Thanksgiving break came just as a debate that forced us into exactly that sort of self-examination was heating up. President Zimmer’s proposal that the University of Chicago adopt some portions of the Common App has sparked an uproar among the student body, with opponents blasting the move as another attempt to alter the fundamental nature of the college. The undergrads are proud of our quirky, geeky, hard-working image, and are not at all pleased about our increasing alignment with the mainstream.
This spontaneous defense of our essence is certainly a change from the usual. Unbridled negativity about this school generally seems to be much more a part of the U of C character than idiosyncratic essay questions for prospective students. Yet when our eccentricities are challenged, we completely ditch that disdain. Deep down, we apparently really do value and believe that we benefit from the atypical aspects of the University. So why do we only acknowledge that we do when they’re threatened? The rampant animosity that we direct at the U of C poisons this campus. Considering how highly we regard the very off-beatness we grumble about, it’s time for us to let it go.
Our education pushes us to question and criticize. Combine that with the rebelliousness of youth and the influence of a skeptical world, and you get a group of undergrads for whom sarcasm and cynicism are instinctive. There’s no getting around that, and I happily embrace it. But too often we go too far. The admissions office can dismiss our culture of complaint as innocent and good-natured, but there is a nasty tinge of bitter resentment attached to it. The U of C is at times an extremely angry place, full of people who are thoroughly convinced they’d be having the time of their lives if they had just gone to Northwestern (you know, where the kids with social skills are). This mindset is both self-defeating and self-perpetuating—our pessimism makes this an unpleasant place to be, giving us more to gripe about.
The many theoretically minded here will note that this outlook is not just harmful, it’s unreasonable. On the heels of a holiday that’s about expressing gratitude, none of us should have any trouble thinking of things to be grateful for. Like students at any elite school, we’ve all been issued a free pass to third base. However tough things may get, we’re more privileged than 99.9 percent of the world’s population. More than that, we get the unique gifts of the U of C in our stockings. This school forces you to actually learn to earn your degree and to learn from a wide variety of fields. In the process, it exposes you to a socio-academic environment unlike any other. The “haven for nerds” atmosphere that prevails here on the South Side allows for a kind of personal development that’s difficult to get in Cambridge, Palo Alto, and especially Evanston, letting people who love to think be themselves and have fun doing it. The self-selectivity embodied by the Uncommon Application has filled our school with undergraduates who quite possibly couldn’t have been as happy anywhere else, no matter how hard it is for them to see that while studying Core Bio on a Friday night.
As the Common App rebellion has revealed, we actually are aware that the polka dots on our Ivory Tower are to be cherished and defended, however ugly they may appear. But the University of Chicago would be a much better experience for all of us if we all were willing to recognize the advantages of that distinctiveness even when it wasn’t being assaulted. The administration can improve quality of life here as much as they like, but better dining halls and more exercise equipment aren’t going to cut it. It starts with us. It’s a matter of action (would it kill you to admit that you’re not going to do any work tonight and go out and socialize?), but it’s also a matter of attitude. As a group, we’re too prone to see unavoidable and unmitigated disaster wherever we turn. We identify the problem, but refuse to either accept it or work to change things. At a certain point, negativity becomes a choice, and we need to seek another option. A more cheery world outlook would do wonders for the dreariness that dogs us from November to May—as any psych student can tell you, perception matters. And a nice side effect of this will be that Chicago will be more attractive to prospective students, mitigating the need for the elimination of our beloved wacky institutions to appeal to a wider base.
New Year’s is fast approaching. Here’s hoping we all resolve to enjoy more and whine less in 2007. Happy Holidays.