Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how strange the U of C is. This past weekend, however, when I visited my first state school, that reality was inescapable. I had the pleasure of visiting the University of Wisconsin-Madison, known to many as one of the nation’s elite party schools, known to my Republican brethren as the alma mater of the frozen-faced Greta Van Susteren, and known to my stomach as the fried-cheese-curd capitol of the world.
There, 40 miles north of Illinois, on a campus 29,000 undergraduates deep, lay a world very different than that of Hyde Park. The stillness of our Saturday morning campus ghost town was substituted for a fever pitch built up by pregame chili cook-offs and impromptu beer-pong games, scattered about the legions of red sweatshirts canvassing the city’s wide streets. Gradually, the huddled, drunken masses shuffled into Camp Randall, a former Civil War training site turned 80,000-seat football stage. Once inside, the blob acted as one: shaking their keys on kickoffs, singing the school’s alma mater, and berating the few unfortunate Michigan fans who happened to be in attendance.
After the game, the pre-scripted behavior continued, as tavern-commissioned school buses greeted the exiting hordes, waiting to whisk fans off to their watering holes of choice. From there, it was an extended triumphal celebration, interrupted only by planning for the evening that lay ahead, and the occasional slice of pizza to sop up the booze. This is the true college experience, immortalized in countless films, feeding itself and producing diehard alumni loyalty and rampant nostalgia. How do we, attending one of the nation’s “best” undergraduate institutions, entirely miss the institution of college?
Most U of C students would be quick to self-servingly point out the rigor of our college, and extrapolate from that assertion that we are just “fundamentally different.” The statistics majors, perhaps, might look to the discrepancy in size between the schools, given that Wisconsin and other state schools are six times larger than Chicago in terms of undergraduate population. While this goes far toward explaining why U of C students cannot pack a stadium the size of Camp Randall, it does little to explain our relative lack of campus pride. To prove that it cannot be just about size or academic quality, one needn’t look any further than Durham, North Carolina. There lies Duke University, a school equivalent to us in size (including graduate students) and every bit as selective. So why are they famous for school spirit, while we are famous for nerds and being confused with another school?
In 1905, things were likely different. We had a 50,000-seat football stadium, a charter membership in the Big Ten, and a squad that brought home a national championship—it would be hard to imagine that school spirit then was anything less than rabid. All that came to an end, though, when the program was slashed in 1940 at the whim of University President Robert Maynard Hutchins, a man who very famously said, “When I am minded to take exercise, I sit down and wait until the mood has passed.” So U of C.
Now, the school’s academic reputation is established, but school spirit is gone. Without campus-unifying social events to rally students and alumni, an individualistic attitude takes hold. While this is not a bad thing, per se, when coupled with work, it leads to the inevitability that our social hotspot exists in the A-Level, instead of on the Ratner hardwood. Whereas other universities’ walkways are as monochromatic as a gang roll-call, ours are more likely to don the hipster uniform (flannel on flannel, over tight jeans) than Maroon-colored anything.
It is on this front that the University administration has thus far failed to bring the campus together, a situation slightly ameliorated by its recent decision to change Convocation to a university-wide event. As a result of transplanting the ceremony to the main quad, the previous issue of limited ticketing is removed, affording local alumni and community members an opportunity to see off the University’s graduates. While this is a small step, administrators hope this will foster a feeling of togetherness amongst the University community, although personally I think printing Milton Friedman throwback jerseys would be a bit more effective.
— Steve Saltarelli is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.