OP-EDS

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March 10, 2009

Uncommon place

U of C students seem unlikely ever to be normal, even as they slowly head that way.

There isn’t a lot that Chicago’s weather can do that will surprise us. Much like the politicians, it’s mostly just a question of what horrible thing will be done next—which law, whether of nature, state, or basic moral code, will be blithely violated and leave us standing like meerkats on an icy Kalahari, perplexed and wondering how we could ever live in such a place. It’s preposterous in a way that is baffling and yet inextricable: We grumble, knowing all the while that it probably won’t ever really change.

The student body of the University of Chicago is another thing that isn’t expected to change much. We’re smart kids, hard workers, wild about libraries, and pretty uniformly social misfits, and so we will remain through the years of lake-effect blizzards and Springfield indictments.

Yet the general consensus is that over the last 20 years or so—coincidentally, about the same time span that Ted O’Neill has led the Office of College Admissions—the student body has gotten, well, more normal. Administrators and alumni seem to agree, with a vague sense of wonder, that there is an unmistakably larger proportion of students who can shake hands and not cry on the inside, and who leave their dorm rooms for more than frenzied backpack waddles to the fifth floor of the Reg. There are little islands of normality in the sea of tie-dye, capes, and bowler hats, a solidly un-weird minority that strolls around and does not immediately bring to mind the word “Sosc.”

It’s strange, in a way. The U of C might not have the general name recognition of its similarly ranked siblings, but few would deny its status as an academic powerhouse. Truth be told, the U of C is the That Kid of the Ivy League class, forever raising its hand to make some profound, if often only borderline relevant, comment about Plato or Weber, and never making direct eye contact. Its contributions, when they can be understood by others, usually move the discussion forward, but often leave listeners staring and plainly wondering a single thing: what?

Does the University lose something in always insisting on digging and knowing and poring over theory—in essence, on being uncommon? It’s likely. Does it gain something as well? Certainly. But it’s worth noting that if the University of Chicago has managed to stake out the position of bookish boor among the bookish boors that are Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, it has taken an unmistakable extreme. It is telling that for so many, the glimmering achievements in economics and social sciences, the Supreme Court justices and medical researchers, can be washed over by the headlights of quirky, Great Books–crazed academics. The headlights must be bright indeed.

“Uncommon” is not in and of itself a positive attribute. Of course we’re unique—this school has such a rich history of achievement that the mere idea that it could ever be “common” is about as likely as avoiding an offer of coffee and a muffin at the C-Shop. To interpret our history of standing out, not as the conclusion of more than 100 years of nourishing bright minds but as the battle cry to arm ourselves against an onslaught of normalness, is striking. The Uncommon Application, the T-shirts, the careful cradling of the Common Core’s every detail—these are, as others have pointed out before, a kind of desperate paranoia. As a school, we seem to need to tell ourselves that we are uncommon, that students at other schools are somehow less unique than we are.

This is not a clash of civilizations between the Normals and the Uncommons—“normal,” after all, doesn’t mean common, and quite often it smells better than the alternative.

Claire McNear is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.