April 28, 2008

Bring the mind back to life

[img id="80547" align="alignleft"] The “examined life” is a thing more often discussed than lived at the U of C. For all our questioning, one thing that goes largely unquestioned is the U of C’s own educational philosophy and academic culture—as well as the actual quality of the lives of students living in that culture.

Is it desirable to be the school where “fun comes to die,” where high stress is a constant fact of life, and where everything—friendships, mental and physical health, extracurricular interests, personal growth—is supposed to be subordinated to academic work?

Many prospective students choose the U of C over other schools because they are attracted to the academic culture and the symbols that represent it: the “crescat scientia vita excolatur” motto and “life of the mind” slogan, the imposing austerity of the Reg, the students bent over books in coffeeshops, the solitary walkers with their iPods and cigarettes. The University’s image and selectivity attracts hard workers, and so the culture is continually reinforced.

But perhaps we’ve misinterpreted the University’s symbols and turned academic work into a false god. “As knowledge increases, let life be enriched”—but is it life-enriching to spend 10 hours a day in the library, neglecting personal interests and relationships? Does the average U of C student appear to be living an enriched life, an “examined” life—or simply an unbalanced one?

“The life of the mind”—but whose mind? The mind of the individual student? And yet academic work as understood by a major research university isn’t about an individual student’s education. Instead, it’s about the scientific development of academic disciplines—about journal articles, symposia, and Nobel Prizes. Participating in and observing the world of academia can be an education in itself, but the development of a student’s mind is only a by-product of his participation in academia, not the aim of such participation.

If the education of students were the top priority, we would not be forced from our first first-year papers to write exclusively in academic prose; we would be given more time to think, grow, and explore outside the confines of course syllabi; and we would be given more space to breathe and be physically and mentally healthy without having to constantly choose between academic work and everything else in life.

Critics will object that there is a wide range of work ethics at the U of C and that the student who slaves away in some corner of the stacks every Saturday night will graduate alongside the student for whom academic work is a minor logistical hurdle on the way to a career. They will point out, also, that the University has plenty of resources for students who are struggling: counseling services, academic advisers, leaves of absence.

But, most will admit that the University’s academic culture is not neutral; there is a clear, if often implicit, value system at work in which a premium is placed on self-reliance, autonomy, and individual toughness in the face of stress. That value system makes withdrawal from the high-strung academic culture feel like a personal failure.

There is a major disconnect between the number of students who struggle under the weight of their work and the number who seek to deal with that through counseling or a sabbatical. Instead, many simply fall out of love with their work. Their academic performance declines, they begin to experience academics as a chore rather than a pleasure, or they experience burnout—and each case is accompanied by a corresponding drop in self-esteem and happiness.

Administrators should make student well-being a higher priority. They should seek honest answers to the question of whether students are happy at the U of C by adding a comprehensive psychological test to the online surveys required of students every year. Asking students point-blank whether they feel overwhelmed by their coursework isn’t enough: Many students’ answers to that question will be affected by the fact that their sense of self-worth is closely connected with their sense of their ability to handle a huge academic workload.

If such a test revealed, as I suspect it might, that there is a large number of unhappy students at the U of C—students who, even if they “like it here” and buy into the academic culture, have serious issues with work, a personal life, stress, and sleep patterns, and whose personal development is crowded out by their coursework—the administration should be prepared to make major changes aimed at improving student happiness.

Such changes might include the replacement of letter grades with written evaluations, a restructuring of course syllabi to cut required reading to 100 pages or so per week per class, a reevaluation of the quarter system, and an overhaul of the University’s educational philosophy to prioritize the intellectual growth of individual students.

Ryan McCarl is an M.A. student of international relations. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.