February 1, 2011

Popping the bubble

Leaving the "UChicago Bubble" means focusing on something other than school once in a while

Before coming to this school, I heard a lot about the “University of Chicago Bubble,” but didn’t understand exactly what the phrase was supposed to express. It didn’t take long to realize that people use it to refer to the University’s geographic situation. Our campus, despite University efforts, admittedly does create at least something of a bubble separating itself from the surrounding communities.

To counteract this, we U of C students do our best to get out and about in this vast city. Be it a house trip to Dat Donut on 82nd and Cottage Grove, some vintage shopping in Wicker Park, or a visit to some less fortunate friends at Northwestern, I think it can be safely said that, for the most part, we recognize when we need to get out of Hyde Park.

However, it has occurred to me more often over the last several months that maybe this U of C bubble exists as something more than just our physical location on the South Side of Chicago. I began to realize that while, from time to time, this bubble lets our bodies leave Hyde Park, it almost always holds our focus and attention.

So long as the quarter is in session, our minds are almost exclusively stuck in Hyde Park: in the pages of Foucault, or in null hypotheses, or in ontological proofs. And this isn’t really anybody’s fault, it’s simply the way things are at a school as demanding as this one. I personally rarely have time to focus on anything beyond my Hum and Sosc readings. And when I do, I have to study for Bio.

But sometimes we pick our head up off the desk, wipe the drool off our Nicomachean Ethics, and in that split second before checking Google Calendar we notice something happening outside our bubble. (Okay, I know this is a little exaggerated, but sometimes we all just need to complain about our work load.)

For the past week, the major distraction looming outside our bubble has been the political unrest in Egypt. The Egyptian youth have led the nation to release its frustration with Hosni Mubarak’s thirty year, one-party dominion. They have taken to the streets in astounding numbers demanding he leave his office and, more importantly, that a proper democratic process fills the void after his rule.

I know this is probably a hackneyed observation, but I can’t help when something like this happens but to step back and think about the fact that I don’t even vote. Maybe I have my reasons for that, maybe I am just too lazy; that’s not really the point. The point is that while we run to Reynolds with our heads down, thinking about Hobbes, there are people on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria fighting for their rights to live in a free state.

At the risk of drawing too thin a connection between our environment of academic disinterest and the real world, we should at least acknowledge that the Egyptian students knew when to step out of their bubble. Obviously we don’t have the same pressing motivation to fight for our basic human rights, but certainly there are causes out there that we all care about. Obviously we don’t need to march on Daley Square and demand democracy, but we probably couldn’t get 50 students to march on the quad if necessary.

Take, for example, the article from the 1/11 issue of the Maroon about our school’s recent poor free-speech rating. A large population of the school read the article, or at least gave it a cursory glance. I heard many people at least mention the headline. But despite all that attention, not many people were or are very interested in doing much about it. We are so wrapped up in our midterms that even if we could change University policy, we wouldn’t have time to enjoy our victory.

This is not an indictment of our student body, if anything it is mostly self-incriminating—there are hundreds of students here who are much more active than I am. But here’s some advice for all of us: We all love to complain, that’s obvious. It’s part of the reason we came to this school. But the next time you’re about to complain to your roommate about how your sadistic professor assigned a problem set due on the same day as your midterm, consider instead complaining about the fact that you have very little say in how your school operates, or that your marches are subject to censorship before they are approved, or maybe even complain that Safe Ride made you wait outside that party for an hour last weekend. As long as you remind yourself once in a while that there’s something outside the bubble.

Colin Bradley is a first-year in the College.