June 3, 2008

Modeling the phoenix

Nothing could be more foreign to the ethos of the University than to suggest that the progress of a student can be measured by how close he is to graduation.

[img id="80706" align="alignleft"] The Chicago Life booklet that the University distributes has a clever explanation of the various gargoyles lining the top of Hull Gate across from East 57th Street: Together they represent the progression of every U of C student. "It goes like this: At the base are the largest figures, said to be the Admissions Counselor and College Examiner denying ready passage. Above them are the first-years, struggling to keep their footing on the slippery academic slope. The second-years, looking slightly more stable, scurry ahead. Snarling at the second-year students to keep them at a distance, the third-year students strain to reach the top. The fourth-years, of course, stand proudly at the educational pinnacle."

The humorless nature of the University's founders is not the only reason that one might suspect that the gargoyles were in fact not originally intended to represent students' progression through their University of Chicago education. This is a good thing, because such a depiction would severely betray what that education is meant to provide. Nothing could be more foreign to the ethos of the University than to suggest that the progress of a student can be measured by how close he is to graduation.

If the founders of this university had any particular animal in mind when they pictured the students they hoped would reap the fruits of the institution they had created, it was probably not the gargoyle; rather, it was the phoenix—the mascot of the University. The phoenix is a rather more uncommon creature. At the end of its life cycle, it builds a nest of cinnamon twigs, enters it, and burns itself to ashes. And then it is reborn, to go through the cycle all over again.

While some students might derive perverse pleasure from the thought, this does not mean that the U of C is some kind of playground for masochists, nor should it be. It does not mean that feeling burned by the difficulty of the U of C experience is somehow a rite of passage that students should take pride in. The phoenix does not pass through a ring of fire; it makes its own fire, and puts the torch to itself. This is the point: The primary purpose of a Chicago education is and has always been to make oneself uncomfortable.

Thinking deeply is, after all, terrifically unpleasant, which is why most people endeavor to avoid it as much as possible. Studies have shown that people are happiest when they are on autopilot, cutting through Goldilocks-style tasks that are neither particularly difficult nor especially easy and living, as Theodore Roosevelt once put it, in that "gray twilight" of mediocrity with "those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much."

Every student here has trod this mindless path at some point, looking straight ahead, thinking of graduation not as a celebration of his accomplishments but as the aim and sum of those accomplishments, no more capable of accounting for his own actions than for the gargoyles on top of Hull Gate.

While the University's motto waxes fat with growing and enriching, the aim of the ideal education is not growth but destruction—creative destruction. When Michelangelo sculpted David, he did not begin with fistfuls of marble and glue the pieces together; he began with an oversized chunk of stone and chiseled away until the result matched his imagination. College is not about expanding possibilities but about cutting them away. The gargoyles notwithstanding, the pinnacle of education is reached not by elevating oneself but by tearing oneself down, à la Socrates, retreating first to the most basic questions and building only from there. What should I be thinking about, and how should I go about it? What is my function, if I have one at all? Am I living the good life, and if not, how can I?

The phoenix understands this, which is why it continually destroys and regenerates itself, closer to perfection with each spin of the wheel. Fun isn't the only thing that comes to this University to die. Everything about us does, and it is up to each of us to think deeply and at length to decide which parts of our character are worth holding onto and how exactly we want to be reborn. Ultimately, every student must ask: When I "stand proudly at the educational pinnacle," how will I emerge? As a work of art, or of a faceless rock?

Nathan Bloom is a third-year in the College majoring in NELC.