April 26, 2011

A morally neutral curriculum

A U of C education is a tool with a variety of divergent applications

I was reading a copy of the free New York Times (toupee tip to Student Government—I don’t wear hats) at breakfast recently when I noticed a 13.25-oz box of multigrain pasta boldly eyeing me from the side of a column. I am more accustomed to being stared at by boxes of the 16-oz. size, and to feel the beady gaze of a lesser linguine upon my face was, frankly, an uncomfortable experience.

I managed to tear my eyes away from the pasta—there were so many grains!—and read the article in full. It was old news: Processed-food companies stealthily decrease the amount of food in packages while keeping prices constant. Rushed customers fail to read package labels carefully and so unwittingly buy fewer products for the same price as before. However, sellers have a hand in making sure consumers buy into the illusion. The companies don’t just lower the amount of food per package; they employ various tricks to make customers believe they are getting the same amount. Hostile air evicts potato chip families from their native bags. Anorexia plagues the water bottle community under the guise of eco-friendliness. And the whole thing is done in the name of consumer deceit.

The author of the Times article writes, “Most companies reduce products quietly, hoping consumers are not reading labels too closely.”

The word "hoping" is key. People who are "hoping" to swindle us do exist: Gullibility hitmen trying to take us in rather than take us out. Their trade is immorality, and their goal is to fool us into buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have. Our culture supports entire careers grounded in trickery, even sending students off to special graduate schools where they cultivate the necessary skills to screw people over.

Conversely, some careers possess an immanently positive moral code. Take, for instance, the engineer. Though some civil engineers may have entered the field due to a pure love for math or science, nobody can deny that their work helps keep lives safe every day. Their work, far from hurting us as a whole, produces net societal gain.

As you are probably well aware, the liberal arts mentality that permeates the UChicago ideology and curriculum is predominantly concerned with learning rather than with acquiring a particular job. We, as students, come here to learn how to think, not to learn what to think. So, ideally, we should not be acquiring the bias that too often goes along with medicine, marketing, and other jobs, right?

The University of Chicago is morally neutral when it comes to pushing students toward choosing a career; nevertheless, it also inspires us to think critically when considering professions, politicians, and groceries. The University gives us substantial intellectual power without demanding or even suggesting that we use that power in any specific way. The education we receive is like a sword, a straightforward tool that can be used for the greatest good (guarding marshmallow Peeps from roving tabby-cat bands) or the basest evil. There is no engineering department at the University. There is no marketing department. There is a pre-med program, but pre-med students are still required to take the Core and declare an actual major, exposing them to the intellectual rigor that’s a hallmark of the UChicago education. Suffice it to say, most students don’t pick the school for career preparation.

Unfortunately for the purist world of academia, what I have just described is, in large part, an ideal. We could say that economics majors come to U of C to ready themselves for graduate school, or at least to curiously explore the discipline of economics, but we’d be lying to ourselves. The truth is many econ majors are more concerned with grades and getting big-bank or consulting internships and less concerned with the actual subject material. What I take issue with is not that students want to secure their futures; it is that they are so willing to sacrifice a valuable learning experience in exchange for a job.

The important thing to remember, though, is that this is an example of the freedom students have in using a given set of tools, rather than an imposed agenda by the University. Some students use the tools to become engineers; some turn to marketing; others stay the amoral path the University intends to drop them on upon graduation. The University itself, in keeping with its ideal as a cornerstone of liberal arts education, stays as powerfully stolid as the gray stone buildings on the quad. We can rest assured that the quantity and quality of our education, at least for now, remains untouched. Whether or not we choose to take advantage of it is our own decision.