OP-EDS

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January 26, 2007

Where does the U of C scowl come from?

The thinking and discerning U of C student will, as per usual, meet Barney Keller’s latest opinion piece with disappointment. Keller’s attempt to respond to Mark Meador’s Letter to the Editor is a foolish joust at an interesting and carefully written piece. As Eleanor Roosevelt so keenly stated, “small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, and great minds discuss ideas.” Keller’s piece never attempted to respond to the ideas put forth by Meador, but instead sunk into a cheaply constructed mythical binary claiming that the College consists of two types of students.

On the one hand is the Scav-hunting, Aristotle-quoting, published philosopher who remains ignorant of “reality-oriented” concerns such as sports, wealth, happiness, and success. The other type of student is a politically literate econ or bio major who empathizes with the common man, working to make the “real world” a better place while still managing to have fun and enjoy sports. As arduous as it is to cram all of Keller’s descriptions into single sentences, he finds no difficulty in forcing all of these varying and distinct qualities into two types of people.

Of course, Keller’s types are all too familiar. We know them better from popular discourse as the stereotypes of “Nerd” and “Jock.” But Keller takes this binary one further by suggesting that the nerds are “sneerers,” and it is the jocks who feel the “icy sting” of the sneer. For Keller, not only are all Scav-hunters nerds, but the innocuous nerds among us are, with each and every sneer, covertly oppressing the hapless and unsuspecting jocks.

Are we to believe, as Keller suggests, that the nerd whose life’s work will consist of designing educational video games is oppressing the “future investment banker” by means of a sneer? Investing the nerd with this “sneering” ability is not only as ridiculous as the stereotypes upon which it depends, but is an attribution of a malevolent power to an innocuous, even oppressed, figure in society. In other words, Keller has attributed a “witchcraft” to the Nerds.

So, Keller, let the witch hunt begin.

What Meador began as a smart discussion about the Common Application has devolved with Keller’s opitnion piece to something less than a discussion of people—to a discussion of stereotypes. (Perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt would say that “people without minds discuss stereotypes.”) Yet at the level of ideas, Meador’s discussion is one we need to have. The complicity of the University of Chicago in following the trend set by other universities and that “second-rate news magazine,” of steering away from a liberal arts education, where education is an end in itself, is troubling.

Quickly, we can see the traditional teacher-student relationship so integral to liberal education being supplanted by a more profitable—and more rankable—corporation-consumer relationship. Students come to see the Princeton Review as a menu of college brands, each aiming to look more attractive than the next, promising hungry students their respective versions of the “college dream”: the time of your life, a flexible curriculum, and a bright future upon graduation.

It may very well be that the University of Chicago has no choice but to follow the trend, as yearly slips in the rankings deplete our school of faculty, students, and donors who prefer a top-10 university. Yet, does not one still have to hope that, infact the best and the brightest will choose teachers and students over corporations and consumers?

After all, the University of Chicago has taken its role as a leader in education very seriously, even in the face of adversity. We have always been a place for unique and groundbreaking ideas, which continue to shape a world that so many accept simply as it is given. Our motto, crescat scientia, vita excolatur, is a testament to our commitment to liberal education—a testament that has weathered many storms in Chicago, from leaving the Big Ten to the collapse of the South Side economy to today’s challenges, epitomized by the college rankings.

Meador crafted a piece of good writing; moreover, he has offered the student body something interesting to think about. How tragic that these efforts should themselves be sneered at. So let us begin an earnest conversation, not a witch hunt.