April 6, 2012

Drawn together

The Logan Center needs to be a space where disciplinary lines intersect rather than divide.

This quarter marks the student opening of the Logan Center, and, really, the chaos of the space is the least of my worries. I’ll take anything over the fallen-in dance floor of Ida Noyes and the ruinous beast of a “theater” that is University Church. The new space is a gift, just one that needs to be broken in a little. Personally, I’m more concerned about the way “the arts” are viewed in this community and how the Logan Center fits into that image.

As the College is a liberal arts institution within a research university, there is naturally some of that classic strain between the arts and the sciences, the humanities and economics. It’s in our reputation. The Universty of Chicago, aside from being known as the place “where fun comes and die” or whatever, is known for being a champion of neoclassical thought as well as a bastion of intellectualism. I mean, when you look at the list of our Nobel Laureates, the overwhelming majority are for Chemistry, Economic Sciences, Physics and Physiology, or Medicine. In fact, there are only four Nobel Laureates outside those fields: three for Literature and Barack Obama for Peace. This is a legacy that a lone building can only begin to contend with.

But the strain in our college goes beyond University prestige and new construction. I’ll be blunt: The way certain non-humanities students react when you even bring up an arts assignment is downright problematic.

Example: A girl in my dorm was carrying a traffic cone. I asked her what it was for. She said it was for a visual arts assignment. She needed to collect a number of orange objects. This response was immediately followed by the expected sarcastic, “Ohhhh life as an arts major is sooooo hard,” response from another student (a pre-med).

I’m sorry, but why can’t collecting orange objects be just as meaningful as your problem set? I know it’s easy to hear this and immediately think of your labs and discussions and exams and see collecting orange objects as wasteful and, well, stupid. And that’s fine. But to dismiss art so completely is a dangerous thing.

The attitude that an arts assignment is somehow insignificant because it does not require time spent in the Reg is dangerous. The attitude that a major in English or TAPS or visual arts is somehow less “useful” than a degree in the sciences because it does not funnel directly into professional school is equally dangerous. And building a “Center for the Arts” that both condenses the many artistic disciplines into one space and removes them all from the central hub of campus does, in some ways, enhance these dangers.

To make something of a reductive comparison, our University did not build one building for all of the sciences. Each branch is given its own space and its own identity as well as its own place in the Core. Though, of course, this is done to accommodate the sizes of these departments, it does make me question why we need to localize all of “the arts” on campus, both in the physical space they take up and their place in the Core.

It will be interesting to see what the Logan Center does for our community as a whole. It is truly a fantastic building and will provide many people with new opportunities. But its place in the culture of our campus has yet to be determined. Will it simply entrench the arts as a sphere of thought and learning separated from the rest of the college by old attitudes and the physical buffer of the Midway, or will it promote interdisciplinary learning?

It is my hope that with the Logan Center, we can work towards a more interdisciplinary culture. I hope that we can move towards a new attitude, where we carry artistic approaches to the BSLC and scientific approaches to the Logan Center. But culture is hard to change; it will take a lot to convince everyone that TAPS 101 and Math 151 are even remotely related. With the Core, we study broadly, but that doesn’t always lead to interdisciplinary thought. Interdisciplinary learning begins with exploring different subjects, but beyond that it asks you to make connections between not only the content of these subjects, but also the ways of thinking which unite them.

The Logan Center will certainly enrich the already vibrant artistic community at U of C, and I can even see it going some way toward quelling the stereotypes of artists as dilettantish or somehow unserious in their studies. But it is ultimately up to us, the members of the University community, to actively bridge the gap between the arts and sciences—to connect the life of the artistic and the scientific mind—on an individual level.

And that may well start with collecting orange objects inside a shiny new building.

Meaghan Murphy is a first-year in the College.