January 12, 2007

Analyzing the all-too-common U of C Sneer

The Sneer: As a student here at the U of C, you’ve surely felt its icy sting on your face. Maybe you were a bio major sitting in European Civ who couldn’t hide your disinterest. Or an econ major struggling to find Aristotle relevant and earning the contempt of a nearby Sneerer for your trouble.

The Sneer was in last week’s Maroon, courtesy of Mark Meador’s column arguing that “the goal of the College is not and never has been to get us jobs. The goal of this fine institution is, first and foremost, to educate.” No jobs? Damn! If you’re like me and had a notion that all those hours spent writing position papers on Indo-European economic trade deficits could be turned into something resembling a rewarding, interesting career, or even a profitable (gasp!) career, this is very bad news. But Meador is not content just to rob us plebeians of our dreams of success and wealth. “When our energies become distracted by artificial measures of institutional success and shallow attempts to boost careers, our pedagogical dedication is the first thing to suffer,” he Sneers.

Reading Meador’s column is quite depressing. Are we destined to go to school forever in pursuit of “pedagogical” purity? God help the poor fools in professional programs or vocational schools in their descent into the hellish intellectual toilet that is full-time employment.

Meador’s comments are hardly the only recent example of The Sneer in action. He also used the word “gormless” where the more pedestrian “dumb” or “idiotic” would have worked just as well. But that is a characteristic of The Sneer. If you are not demonstrating just how smart you are at all times, then your value as a student, if not as a human being, is constantly in question.

At the University of Chicago, the desire to be “uncommon” or nerdy is so powerful that students walk around with T-shirts declaring just that. The drive to avoid fun is so overpowering that students walk around in sweatshirts declaring that this is “where fun comes to die,” and they actually seem proud of it. This is why we need the Common App.

We need it to promote diversity within the student body so that people will see that there’s more to life than can be found in a book, that you can’t know all about politics just by reading Tocqueville, and that there are other reasons to ditch class besides the Scavenger Hunt. That sometimes it’s fun to go to a college sporting event, even if you have no idea how the game is played. The Sneer and the attitude it brings to this school perpetuate a state of mind that is destructive, ignorant, and unhealthy.

It’s true: If we switch to the Common Application, we may get more students here who want to graduate and then get a job, not just go to graduate school because that is the most “educated” thing to do. Perhaps we will get more students from blue-collar families who want to know how to become criminal prosecutors because of all the crime in their hometowns, not just because constitutional law is such a thing of beauty. Does the University of Chicago fail at its goals when a person goes his whole life without writing a published academic paper? I hope not.

Bringing the Common Application to campus will give The Sneer more targets. Then we will be a happier, more reality-oriented student body that can enjoy the life of the mind without ignoring real life and have more fun on campus, too, while providing more fodder for the contempt-a-holics who think sneering at future investment bankers is a career in and of itself. Hey, a happy ending for all! Now, that’s nothing to Sneer at.