May 30, 2014

Scavenging for meaning

Scav has untapped potential for affecting social change.

Recently, a grad student’s critique of Scav sparked outrage on the Overhead at UChicago Facebook page. For those that were fortunate enough to avoid that social media storm, the critic asserted something along the lines that Scav is a) annoying b) a waste of University resources and c) a waste of student resources. His point came down to this: “This place has talent and resources. Why are we wasting them on SCAV when we can use that time to do much more meaningful things? Why are we ignoring our social responsibility?”

This raises the important question that extends beyond Scav: whether we—as students at a University with a tumultuous history of social engagement, and just as citizens of the world—have, “an obligation to do something meaningful and relevant,” as the poster said. And even more important and less clear, what constitutes meaningful and relevant? What are the implications of equating “worthwhile” with “making society better”?

As a self-proclaimed social-justice crusader, my first instinct is that the poster’s claim is not unreasonable. However, I would argue that an obligation to consciously work for social change doesn’t exist. Individuals are entitled to be concerned with what they want to be concerned about. In fact, this type of mentality only alienates people from involvement in social progress campaigns—the way to get people excited about social justice isn’t by shaming those who don’t partake in it. 

And not only are people under no obligation to do service, people who do devote their time and energy to social justice are not necessarily living any more consequential lives than those who pursue activities that don’t aim to solve societal problems. I personally don’t feel like I can achieve morally sound fulfillment without feeling like I am giving back to society. But that opinion is specific to myself, not a mandate for every student at the University. If creating a beautiful piece of music or solving hard math problems gives you joy—regardless of the positive impact those things may have on many lives—that in and of itself is a good enough justification to pursue the activity, much like the reason many Scav.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of Scav. The lack of a limit on monetary expenditure for the completion of items and teams with a huge number of members make it hard for passionate, but resource-lacking teams like Breckinridge and I-House to win. These problems are largely irreconcilable if we mean to keep Scav as the largest scavenger hunt in the world. But the critic’s comments are more easily solved without compromising Scav as it is now.

How, you may ask? A working comparison is those healthy brownie recipes where moms can sneak spinach puree into the chocolate batter to get their unsuspecting children to eat their vegetables. In both of these, people think they’re doing one thing, but they’re actually doing another. 

For Scav, this type of thing could be as simple as donating the pie each house produces in a pie-athlon to a food pantry or filming a nature documentary that also outlines realistic conservation efforts for national environmental resources. Items such as “produce an accurate tampon commercial” already have the potential for discussions about the objectification and shaming of women’s bodily functions in the media, which can be further brought out. One commenter facetiously posted, “Next year’s Scav list: People who understand humanity with more breadth and nuance, a trauma center, a solution to the massive incarceration problem in the U.S.” While these goals are unrealistic for a bunch of college students to achieve over four days, I see no reason that they shouldn’t be included on the list. Putting items that address social issues in a document that a large fraction of the student body sees and personally cares about can get people thinking about these issues, even if it won’t completely solve them. Scav fosters a unique variety of creative thought accompanied by risk-taking and ambition which has no real equivalent forum on campus. If these big problems are going to be solved, Scav is as likely a place for these ideas to start as a Big Problems class, maybe even more so.

The purpose of Scav, in its current manifestation, is not to inspire social change. And that’s fine, but there is an untapped potential for it to spark discussion and problem solving around some of the pressing issues in society. There are those that choose not to be interested in these pursuits, and who will continue to Scav as they always have—and that’s fine too. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it were these very people who did indeed solve the massive incarceration problem in the U.S. in Scavenger Hunts to come.

Kiran Misra is a first-year in the College.