April 10, 2009

Passion trends

Life at the U of C hinders, but ultimately harnesses and refines true interests.

There came a moment in late September that was sadder than the idea of leaving my family for the first time, relocating, and going through the process of making new friends. It was the one in which I realized that the summer, during which I had read what made me happy, wrote as much as I pleased, traveled, stayed awake often past dawn, and did essentially as I liked, was finally over. Of course, summer was finished, and I was sad—who wasn’t? I would have to go back to school again and work. But for the first time, I would have to dedicate all of my time to that work—the life of the mind promised this much, after all—and to give up, for a while, what I loved. Never had I regretted so much making the choice to lock myself into a labor-intensive, highbrow university.And give things up I did. The first week of the quarter swung with full force and knocked the pleasure reading and the notepad from my hand. I am sure that this was the case with nearly every student, from me to the athlete forced to stop doing crunches for a while to read some Marx. But this is, after all, what we signed up for—we all chose to sign our lives away and work for four years. We chose the University of Chicago and not another school that might have given us the liberty to juggle work and everything else with greater ease.It was near the beginning of the quarter that something happened. I spotted here and there and even, unexpectedly, in my own Core classes, elements that tied not only into my interests and what I was planning on studying, but also into what I was passionate about. It became slowly apparent that a certain career- and fortune-concerned tracking system, which seemed to actively undermine any chance of revisiting the passions I once held and to which I was so close in my pre–U of C days, instead ran somewhat parallel to them and even, at times, complemented them.After some reflection, I slowly realized that the passions I was so concerned about were, although very real, somewhat vast and untamed—definite but also broad. They were, and still are, unfocused desires with a certain goal in mind, but with only a vague idea of how to attain it. As classes continued, I realized that my courses are not the antitheses of my passions and the things keeping me from them; rather, classes are the means to truly understanding them.Literature courses do not prevent students from enjoying books freely. Though they can be challenging and even, in the hands of the wrong T.A., tedious, they are not there to destroy love of literature. For me, they are a way of better understanding the art to which I attribute such great importance and the same is true of the rest of the University’s course listings. So while some classes may be masked as career-tracked sections because of the work they require, they allow students to do the things on the syllabus—the reading, the writing, the calculating, the dissecting—with greater intensity and intelligence, in no small part because of the guidance of professors. The intense labor that seems at first like it will ruin a passion by confining it to workshops and problem sessions is often responsible for carving it, perfecting it, making it focused and directed, and, ultimately, steering students through their area of interest and leaving them with a more precise understanding of what they really love. The labor of work doesn’t extinguish passion—it sharpens it.

Alex Aciman is a first-year in the College.