May 23, 2008

Finding common ground

Spring quarter of your fourth year brings some mixed emotions. There's the panic of realizing that grades are due early, meaning you should probably start working on that massive research paper. There's also the worry of not getting enough tickets to cover the 35 relatives who want to see you graduate. Worst of all, there's the despair of not having a job when everyone and their dog seems to be going into consulting. But spring quarter also brings a glimmer of hope: For one glorious week—Senior Week—the administration and U of C students drop the pretense that we represent some higher order of humanity and enjoy a University-subsidized, fun-filled extravaganza, which includes a trip to Six Flags, a White Sox game, and a pub crawl on the North Side.

The contrast between the scenes of some hardworking fourth-years in the library and those of some, er, less-than-lucid ones stumbling to the next North Side pub is indicative of a larger truth: Being a University of Chicago student often requires true mastery of doublethink. We subscribe to the idea that we're somehow smarter than our peers at other schools, but know that most people in our classes have nothing but inane comments to utter. We believe ourselves to have a unique dedication to the life of the mind, but many of us would rather spend our free time watching Indiana Jones than studying anthropology. We're told that we are a unique pool of self-selecting students, and yet many of us would probably be at an Ivy League school right now, had we been accepted into one.

The dilemma grows even worse during your fourth year, as the expectation that our time and toils at the U of C should have led us to being newly intelligent individuals conflicts with the desire to do little more than play Nintendo. And then, the doublethink finally comes to an end: For one week, the administrators and students drop the hypocrisy and contradictions and openly embrace the obvious truth—far from being uncommon or unique, the Class of 2008 at the University of Chicago is a fairly typical group of young adults. We like going to baseball games and having fun at Six Flags, and we need little motivation to go on a pub crawl. Sure, many fourth-years spent a fair chunk of weekend time at the library this quarter, but that's only because we were slacking off in the fall and winter instead of writing our B.A. theses. The invitations for Senior Week may be decked out with drawings of gargoyles and allusions to our "unique" identity, but the week is a celebration of what makes us the same.

There's nothing wrong with not being different. University of Chicago students don't have to be better or smarter than anyone else to have a good time. And this realization isn't exclusive to Senior Week. This year's Summer Breeze was the latest example, as students had a blast despite the rain and Cake's curiously (if fittingly) incoherent lead singer.

Of course, the U of C identity isn't completely fake and not entirely contradictory. Students work hard, but they also know how to relax. But if U of C students have one thing that truly makes them unique, it's the extent they go to in order to construct an elaborate identity and culture that they don't actually live up to. We feel constantly compelled to remark to friends and ourselves that certain things and conversations "could only happen at the U of C." We transform our quirk into institutions such as Scav Hunt, perhaps because we fear said quirk would not exist if not for its constant and conscious reinforcement. One of the goals of a liberal arts education is to make us self-aware human beings, thus allowing us to improve ourselves. This forced and often artificial identity only serves to delay, in some cases indefinitely, this self-discovery.

In a few weeks, while underclassmen slave away in the library in preparation for finals, fourth-years at the University of Chicago will be greatly enjoying themselves. Just as in years past, the graduating class will have a blast during Senior Week, reveling in the opportunity to openly acknowledge its sameness. It's enough to make one think that perhaps the rest of our time here would be a bit more enjoyable if the administration and the student body recognized sooner that life here is entirely unspectacular and acknowledged that the uncommon life is actually pretty common.

Zack Hill is a fourth-year in the College majoring in NELC. He is a member of the Maroon Editorial Board,