June 6, 2003

U of C experience unmasked

The University of Chicago has changed a lot over the past four years. I increasingly realize that as I walk across the quads or grab a bite to eat in Cobb coffee shop. Lest this column be construed as a sappy and trite batch of remembrances, I will assure the reader that there is a point to this. That is that, like all universities, this school is filled with incredibly bright and talented people, who are participating in a community at a time when the role of that community is being called into question. Lest that statement be construed as an idealized view of what a university is, rest assured that four years of all-nighters, evil exams, and seemingly endless papers have stripped away from me any unfounded idealism about what the University of Chicago is. What remains is a sense of value about the place of education in modern society.

One of the things that I've always found really interesting about the U of C is how active students are. When I first got here, the array of political RSOs (from the mainstream to really little interest groups) and community service groups present at the student activities fair was beyond anything I could've expected. Over the next four years, I saw countless flyers advertising protests, rallies, debates, and similar events. There's a real sense, not surprising for the U of C, that ideas are important and sharing (or shouting) them is critical.

At the same time, the world outside of the quads has become a vastly different place. In uncertain times, many people understandably value action over debate and seek certainty in an unstable world. I don't think anyone who was here over the last two years will be able to forget the protests here during the fall quarter after September 11, during the bombing of Afghanistan, or in the run up to Gulf War II. I will also remember the debates over CampusWatch.org and what place, if any, it had in the universe of academic discourse. But taking all of these things together, it struck me that there was a real divide between the opinions expressed here and those expressed elsewhere. I do not see this so much as a political divide (though U of C students predominantly lean left, I don't think they're really out of touch with mainstream politics), but more of a cultural one.

Ultimately, students come to the University of Chicago because they think that the benefit of a degree from here, when calculated over the remainder of their lives, will outweigh the cost of tuition, the hours spent studying, and the opportunity cost (as economists call it) of not spending that time employed. Before anyone objects to the crass materialism seemingly present in that statement, be aware that the benefits of a degree are not just monetary. Nonetheless, the group has different characteristics than the world at large. One of the ones suggested by economists is motivation and opportunity. I think that it is particularly the latter trait that makes people think that academics and students are ivory tower-bound elites.

Members of the University community tend to believe in freedom to debate, and by and large realize that there needs to be diversity in the debate. At the same time, they can be dogmatic once they believe that they've reached the logically correct answer at the end of the debate (the various disputes in the scholarly world are evidence enough of that). This might be part of what gives the ivory tower something of a bad name-its members come to answers through a debate that doesn't always have the luxury to exist in the real world. Furthermore, students and faculty are largely middle- or upper-class, and, even if not, they certainly will have higher opportunities on average by virtue of a degree from here. The people who generally have to live with welfare politics or foreign policy for the Middle East are generally not the same ones debating it in classrooms and lecture halls.

Turning back to my experience as an undergrad, I have come to realize that the debates and intellectual life here are worthwhile. At the same time, academia must not become too self-congratulatory, and must look for ways to bring in the voices of those who will be subject to a particular policy. At the same time, they must find ways to bring more marginalized people into the debate. The upcoming Supreme Court decision on affirmative action will be a test for how far university administrations can define participation. Throughout history, the relationship between academia and the "real world" has been important for society. Academics can help draft government and social policy, or they can isolate themselves. Hopefully, the track toward involvement will continue.