October 7, 2011

Shames of education

U of C students should not be embarrassed of their intellectualism

We are a tremendous institution, are we not? A rich body of learning, a pool of eager and worldly scholars. But we don’t exactly get the respect we deserve. There is in the very idea of the University of Chicago something that makes it different. By this I don’t uniquely mean special, because there are other prestigious universities that for some reason do not fall under the same category as ours. Is it our superior intellect—far beyond and unmatched? My vanity wishes to say yes, but logic and a touch of humility make me think otherwise. So it must be because it is so much colder here than anywhere else, right? But it’s cold in Madison, Wisconsin, where my brothers are at school, and the weather is hardly a thing to mention. It is most likely because we go to a school almost universally acknowledged as the most rigorous, and we do so by our own choice. To many this choice seems illogical, and the difference between us and everyone else is therefore an unidentifiable something that brands us, for this reason, as not only weirdos, but weirdos par excellence. We say it ourselves: “At normal schools...but here...”.

After three years I’ve realized that we aren’t weirdos by some virtue of our organisms, but because of our intellectuality. It is, unfortunately, one defined by shame.

We have seminar classes, which are supposed to be thriving havens of discussion, but by the end of the quarter only a few ‘that kids’ are left superciliously battling the professors. Some of us feel intimidated and do not speak even if we are—simply by being students here—equally matched with those louder students. We have coffee shops, but we feel as though bringing up anything more serious than how skinny our jeans are and how Grounds doesn’t have that vegan couscous anymore would be some betrayal against the very casual, pseudo-intellectual atmosphere everybody has worked so hard to cultivate. We go to parties, but all we do is try to pretend Core books were done for personal reading (“Oh man, I once read The Division of Labour in Society, and...), and mock in the most platitudinously ironic tone the lives of artists without ever actually mentioning their work. We may have drinking buddies, but save a rare few here and there, we don’t have those pillars of intellectual discourse we looked forward to. And this is, of course, not because we don’t have it in us to have these conversations (we do), but because we are ashamed. Ashamed of feeling and sounding too pretentious, afraid of being wrong.

Part of what separates us from Harvard and Yale and all those sweet names is that students there often have enough confidence and arrogance to do something public and declarative with their intellectuality. They have literary societies.

And where are ours? Am I to believe that the University of Chicago doesn’t have 20 or even 10 students with enough courage and brainpower to get together and actually discuss? Or are we too busy putting on little plays and recitals that we don’t even tell our friends about outside of Facebook because they’ll mock us and probably won’t come? I’m certain that the students who once did consider forming an intellectual society of sorts were too afraid to suggest it to their peers, because god forbid we take what we do and love seriously.

I don’t mean we need to have the robes, the incantations, the centuries of racism and anti-Semitism, the bizarre ceremonies that made George W. Bush touch himself in a room full of men. No, fraternities are already an option for those who wish to join. But something should be done. Just because we can’t for a moment let go of the idea that our undergraduate education is better than the Ivy League’s doesn’t mean we should abandon and repudiate the spirit of the practices that made them such venerated institutions.

I’ll make a declarative, intellectual statement right here: I want to discuss art, literature, philosophy, I want to know your ideas and pick your brain because you, whether or not I am humble enough to admit it, are just as intelligent and potent as I am.

Alex Aciman is a fourth-year in the College majoring in comparative literature.