February 20, 2009

Abnormal distribution

The University of Chicago can’t maintain academic excellence without staying “uncommon”

A few days ago, I had a late-night discussion with my suitemate. It was the kind of discussion that can only arise after hours spent on a calculus problem set. He was complaining about something that many other pre-professional College students have a beef with: that the University of Chicago places far too great an emphasis on theoretical knowledge and the liberal arts, providing an education that does not prepare students for the real world. Near the end of our conversation, he turned to me and with the sad, deprived look of an unfed kitten, asked, “Why can’t we just be normal?”

Unfortunately, it seems the College has taken note of this sentiment and decided to act on it. In fact, what can loosely be termed a “normalization process” has already become visible in the actions of faculty members and admissions committee. First, we saw the abandonment of the only feature that set the University of Chicago admissions process apart from other schools: our beloved Uncommon Application. Simply placing the application on an entirely different website, apart from the busy hustle and bustle that was the Common Application, isolated us in our own world of intellectual quirkiness. This, along with eccentric essay prompts (which the admissions office has decided to keep, though who knows for how much longer) and the Common Core, persuaded me, and certainly hundreds of other students, to apply here. It also convinced thousands of others that the U of C was just too strange for them even to consider. Thus, given its recent obsession with boosting application counts, it is not unreasonable to think that the admissions committee may continue the ongoing normalization process, taking from the College its heart, soul, and (Common) core. Granted, this may seem an unlikely occurrence, but even if emphases don’t stray from theoretical- and liberal arts–style learning to more pragmatic modes of education, the argument for the U of C’s pseudo–liberal arts curriculum is still one worth making.

Before defending this stance, let’s consider the counterargument. It is as follows: Being required to derive mathematical proofs and read philosophical texts does not add to one’s practical wisdom. What use does a doctor have for Nicomachean Ethics, or a lawyer for delta-epsilon proofs? And more importantly, what purpose does this learning serve in the general scheme of things? Surely Conrad’s Heart of Darkness did not lead to the creation of chemotherapy or the invention of the Internet. Then why is it worth a peek from non-English or non-philosophy majors?

The obvious and conventional answer to these questions is that these things do matter and that they educate one not only to be a productive worker, but a moral, ethical, and educated citizen of the world. And in a strictly pragmatic sense, if a doctor applying for a job is actually able to discuss the philosophy around the Hippocratic Oath, she is certainly more competent than her peers. The case for theory is made just as easily; without a fundamental comprehension of theoretical concepts, practical knowledge cannot be appropriately acquired.

Unfortunately, as many of my friends are quick to point out, these rebuttals can only go so far. They’re right—learning about certain things is useless, at least in a practical context (think Swahili in a Midwestern city). It is here we have to step back for a moment and consider theoretical learning outside the context of pragmatism. Whatever happened to learning for the sake of learning? Whatever became of “crescat scientia; vita excolatur” (let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched)? It is true that these principles seem more befitting to a liberal arts college, but it was on these principles that the Core was founded and it was on these principles that the University operated for more than 70 years. It was our affinity for free thinking that once attracted minds like Carl Sagan and Kurt Vonnegut. And today, it is our love for bohemian knowledge-seeking that sets us apart from the competitive, business-minded institutions occupying the top 10 spots in U.S. News and World Report’s ubiquitous rankings.

So to answer my suitemate’s question, I say being normal is simply incompatible with the University of Chicago. Let’s embrace our quirkiness and hold on to our Greek philosophy books ever more tightly.