Professor Colm O’Muircheartaigh, dean of the Harris School for Public Policy, recently offered a sober admonition to a gathering of high school students. Learning purely for the sake of learning, he suggested, is a selfish act.
Scattered amongst more than two thousand teenagers from across the country and the world, three hundred Chicago undergraduates fidgeted uncomfortably. Dear Dean O’Muircheartaigh had just taken a sympathetic swipe at intellectual life at the University. But while their applause, when it came, may have been somewhat wooden, the dean had chosen his audience well. The staff of the twenty-third Model United Nations of the University of Chicago was as receptive to his message as any demographic the college could boast. For Model United Nations (MUN) lends itself to such an idea—that the life of the mind ought not to be lived only in the mind.
For nearly a quarter-century, the University’s student-run high school MUN conference has exploited the particular characteristics of a peculiar forensic format for pedagogical purposes. Other forms of debate encourage the reciprocal exchange of sophistries, and aim at an argument won (although not necessarily proven). MUN promotes creative political persuasion, and strives for compromise—for solutions to problems. Whether simulating the UN Development Program or the British cabinet of Lloyd George, delegates must have learned enough to represent their assigned positions faithfully and then work together with others not only to craft a document, but also to carry it through with a voting majority. On a fundamental level, MUN is about working with people.
While that might be reason enough to inflict the thing on secondary school students, MUN’s subject matter motivates its participants to engage with the world around them. Questions to be answered and problems to be solved are usually centered around ways to improve peoples’ lives: how does the Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Committee promote the rights of women in developing countries? How can the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs help combat drug-financed terrorism in Latin America?
In both process and object, then, MUN’s format privileges the union of social action with learning. It is insufficient to trumpet the manifest rightness of one’s platform—the successful delegate must be able to marshal support for his ideas and is, in effect, evaluated by his competitors as meaningfully as any judge. If there is one debate format that promotes engagement with the real world and real issues, this is it.
It is precisely for that reason that it is heartening how students of the College excel at teaching and practicing MUN. They do so for two reasons. The first is the much ballyhooed facility for critical inquiry. Digest a nation-state’s entire body of policy on a complex topic: nuclear terrorism, for example. Do this under tight time constraints, and do it well. Only then are you prepared for conference. Second is the Chicago student’s intellectual stamina. Once you have completed the Core, read your Marx and your Herodotus and your Weber, you are ready to spend the hours necessary to bargain with and convince anywhere from twenty to three hundred others that your perspective is the right one.
In case there was any question, Chicago’s MUN team delivers the goods. The competitive season is opened by Georgetown’s conference and closed by Harvard’s. This year, Chicago won both. At Harvard, the team earned twice Yale’s second-place point total, and three times as much as the University of Pennsylvania. Competing on twenty committees, the team earned awards on seventeen of them. It was a rout. The University is no longer in the Big Ten—Model UN is its sport.
At minimum, this particular genius of Chicago students demonstrates what few enough of us were ever really that concerned about—that the critical faculties the University grinds remorselessly into us equip us for just about anything. Chicago’s victories on the circuit this year betray the folly of the claim that one should attend Harvard to rule the world, Stanford to serve it, and Chicago “merely” to learn about it. Let us embrace our natural aptitude. Let us put our learning to the service of others, to the practice of progress, and to the improvement of the world around us.
We’re good at it.
— Andrew O’Shaughnessy is a third-year in the College majoring in political science.