November 17, 2006

Save the U of C's soul: Save the Uncommon Application

Reading the Maroon news article “U of C courts Common App” and the staff editorial “Easily applying the Uncommon way” left me with a sick feeling in my stomach. The article, which discusses President Robert Zimmer’s push for a switch to the Common Application, and the editorial, which supports the change (as long as, it should be noted, the traditional University of Chicago essay questions are preserved) are both symbolic of how the University of Chicago has lost its way.

In the news article, President Zimmer is right in arguing that a partial change to the Common Application would make it easier to apply to the University, and the Maroon helpfully points out that it may also help the U of C’s college ranking by increasing the size of our applicant pool. I don’t take issue with either argument, but it depresses me to no end that both arguments are put forth as appropriate for our University. In my perverse view of the world, Harvard and Yale are supposed to be full of humorless bureaucrats crunching numbers and desperately trying to inflate their rankings, whereas the admissions offices at the University of Chicago are supposed to be full of eccentric philosophers with wild, unkempt hair, conjuring up next year’s batch of odd questions to pose to potential students. While obviously exaggerated, I’ll admit something personal: I really thought about it that way. I bought the propaganda thrown at me before I applied. I bought the idea that we’re special, that we occupy some sort of moral high ground, and that, hiding behind a wall of self-selectivity, I was attending a university that was lovable for its quirkiness.

Sad to say, however, as the recent Maroon article reminded me, this image is a complete lie. Although the effort to remove part of the Uncommon Application is symbolic of our decline, I don’t mean to place the blame on our new president; the destruction of our supposed identity has been taking place for many years. The University of Chicago is not a special place, at least not in the way we were told it was. Deep down inside, you’ve probably noticed this. You’ve noticed that, with a few exceptions, grade inflation abounds. You’ve noticed that for every lovable nerd who mutters to himself about philosophy when he’s not quoting Sun Tzu by memory in your Sosc class, there are countless others whose main concerns are completely non-academic.

This is not entirely the fault of the students who attend the University. At some point in the past, our University sold its soul in order to imitate the monolith of other colleges. Our once rigorous Core has become a mere shadow of its past self. Merely getting by in classes is now acceptable and even encouraged. True thought and deep discussion are not valued as much as stuffing one’s resume with impressive sounding accolades and internships. Attending appointments at CAPS are pushed with more rigor than visiting professors’ office hours. The administration displays a depressing amount of enthusiasm in trying to shove us into whatever earns the University higher numbers in glossy magazines, the same magazines that are valued by the exact type of grade-grubbing, prestige-seeking high-schoolers we should be avoiding.

It is then with a heavy heart that I fully second the recent Maroon editorial supporting a partial switch to the Common Application. Heck, why not go all the way? If we’re not special, we shouldn’t pretend to be, and the Uncommon Application has become a mere vestige of the quirkiness and inventiveness that presumably was once ubiquitous at the University of Chicago. However, if we’re going to be ordinary, we might as well be the best at it. The next steps should be canceling Scav Hunt, ending Shake Days, and eliminating whatever other rogue traditions remain. After all, none have any influence on our college ranking, and they are taking up money that could be spent imitating Yale. Let’s set the standard in achieving a new level of conformity and mediocrity. As long as the editors at U.S. News are happy, I’m happy. One small quibble, though: We’d have to stop pretending that we’re special.