February 16, 2007

Face it, the U of C does need reform at times

Lately, I’ve heard a lot of 19-year-old U of C students sound like their grandparents. In response to the switch to the Common Application and a January 23 Maroon article citing Zimmer’s comparison of the U of C’s competitiveness with that of other schools, many Chicago students feel that the nerd haven they have come to love is under threat. The U of C, they argue, is on a downward spiral, and the result will be something resembling Brown.

Apparently, a lot of these people have forgotten what they learned in Hum class. If they hadn’t, they would have remembered Nestor’s speech in Book I of The Iliad, where he bemoans that the men in power during his youth were much greater men who made better decisions. In fact, the trend of longing for the better days of the past is a common political and psychological phenomenon that affects every generation. If everyone who cried about the cultural degeneration were right, Western Civilization would have been on a constant decline before it even began.

Let’s look at Zimmer’s actual quotes from that January 23 article. The most frequently cited quote in anti-Zimmer rants is: “The U of C certainly has a unique academic program, but the life of a student in the College is not so excellent.” The other is: “Is it OK that we have half the number of applicants as some of our East Coast competitors?”

The first quote is contentious to those who enjoy life here and think Zimmer wants to change it. But does this imply that he will bring in more frat boys and cause students to learn less? The problem with the second quote is that they think Zimmer is more concerned with our reputation among East Coast schools than maintaining the unique student body that goes here. But does increasing application numbers change student life on campus, or the standards of those who actually get accepted?

Zimmer’s main problem at this point has been communication. The fact that people’s fears hang on two or three Maroon quotes shows he not making himself or his policies as open and transparent as he should. By not being more public, he only leaves open the door for the wild, unfounded speculation that he wants to turn the school into Brown (never mind the fact he was at the U of C for 25 years before going to Brown). This is something Zimmer seriously needs to work on in his future as president, and he has already begun to do so.

Yet, the fear of the oncoming decline of the life of the mind is something that exists beyond Zimmer. People fear that the bookish nerd who Scavs hard and would rather discuss Aristotle than football will be replaced by people who only come here for the name recognition, who may very well be an econ major who joins a fraternity. Many people see this trend already happening, as frat boys and sorority girls have apparently become a larger presence on campus.

In reality, however, the percentage of economics majors hasn’t substantially changed recently, and the number of fraternities has dramatically declined. Currently, there are 10 fraternities and three sororities on campus. In the “good old days” of 1928, when the University was supposedly dedicated to nothing but academic discourse and full of nothing but intellectuals, the school featured 33 fraternities, 12 women’s “social clubs,” and the most dominant football team in the Midwest (back then, that fact wasn’t merely ironic). Even though frats made a slight resurgence in the ’80s, the student who scorns the frat boy and fears his increasing prominence is a larger presence on this campus than the actual frat boy. What other school would show the white frat boy econ major as a discriminated group in its diversity video during O-Week?

Another problem with the fear, one that angers many people when I point it out, is that there is an inherent classicism and racism in the search for the Platonic U of C student. The U of C has the largest percentage of children of professors of any college in the country (myself included). It seems that the typical U of C student has been raised in an academic culture. Yet, if we only accepted this student, the class of 2011 would be nearly 100 percent white and would hail from some of the wealthiest families in the country. An entire body of purely academic students would create a boring, homogenous body of students, and students who have potential, but have not been raised with a focus on learning, will be shut out.

Furthermore, all the talk among undergrads about the decline of the life of the mind forgets the fact that the students in the College have very little to do with what makes the U of C special. The U of C is the U of C because of its top-notch research, elite faculty, and its pool of young, inspired graduate students. In this regard, the U of C has done its job in maintaining the key aspects of the U of C by improving graduate students’ financial packages. It’s time students in the College realize that their academic experience is the result of a uniquely intellectually focused institution, and not the cause.