November 27, 2007

Inferiority complex is so U of C

This Thanksgiving, the only thing my see-once-a-year relatives wanted to hear about was the University of Chicago. I tried to say something that neatly and cleverly summed up my U of C experience. Needless to say, I failed. What is there to say? “My classes are hard.” (Boring.) “People here are kind of weird.” (Too honest.) “I love it so much!!!” (Lie.)

But one comment—I think it was from my mom’s sister’s husband’s sister’s husband—got me thinking: “I’ve heard the U of C is an extremely intellectual school, where everyone there loves learning for the sake of learning.”

That’s what I thought too. Then I came to school here. Sure, everyone is smart—or at least everyone works hard enough—but what about “the life of the mind?” What about “learning for learning’s sake?” Do these catchy phrases really define the average U of C student?

In my (limited) experience, I’m inclined to say that they do not. Of course, everyone here is interested in something. I’m interested in politics, another person might be into theoretical physics, and the next one might love classical economics. But that doesn’t really mean anything; intellectual curiosity at its heart— “the life of the mind”—is the desire to learn about what you don’t naturally care about. That is to say, it’s not an example of “the life of the mind” if I enjoy my poly sci course, but it is if I like my Phy Sci class. (I don’t.) Do most people here have academic interests outside of their one or two majors? Do more people compliment or complain about Core classes? It’s impossible to answer either one of those questions definitively, and that’s exactly the point.

Perhaps the most commonly cited examples of the U of C’s supposed intellectual rigor are the intellectual conversations we have. This is something our admissions office loves to brag about. One (Uncommon!) essay question this year boasts of the U of C “tradition of conversation around…the dinner table. Indeed, on any given night you will find members of our student community breaking bread together, discussing everything from The Symposium to ‘The Simpsons.’” Thank you, admissions office, for the deftly pretentious use of “indeed,” and for dutifully noting that the U of C started the tradition of talking during meals.

The College admissions main page also claims that, “at Chicago, conversation is the style [of the life of the mind].” In my house lounge, when I hear people have a “U of C conversation”—usually discussing Marx or Hume or someone of the sort—someone inevitably says proudly, “Wow! That was so U of C!” The fact that this is so self-consciously admitted detracts from its authenticity.

The forced attempt to create a unique U of C identity seems to stem from both snobbishness and insecurity. Take, for example, the shirts that say, “If I had wanted an A I would have gone to Harvard.” We snobbishly think we’re better than Harvard because we’re supposedly harder-working and more intellectual. But the underlying insecurity in the statement is embarrassingly obvious: The vast majority of U of C students wouldn’t have been admitted to Harvard. Moreover, the idea that Harvard and other top schools are not intellectual is simply ridiculous.

When I started studying psychology, I realized something peculiar: Many psychologists—or, as they call themselves, “psychological scientists”—are oddly defensive about psychology’s place in science. This defensiveness is perhaps reasonable considering psychology’s historically unscientific methods, but it is no longer necessary. In the same way, the U of C is understandably defensive about its place among top universities. We have extremely high admissions rates relative to our peer institutions. Worse yet, most people haven’t heard of us, and those who have think we’re UIC. Because of that, we hide behind vapid clichés like “self-selecting” and “the life of the mind.”

Just as psychology clearly deserves a place in science, the U of C clearly deserves a spot among elite colleges. Attempting to defend this spot on false grounds only gives credence to the possibility that we don’t deserve it.

Matt Barnum is a second-year in the College majoring in political science and psychology.