Just a year ago, when Corona was a beer and I could say “life of the mind” unironically, I spent my lazy afternoons preparing for my first year of college by poring over course descriptions, excitedly revisiting those Core classes I gushed over in my “Why UChicago?” essay. My expectation, formed by shiny brochures and overenthusiastic tour guides was that the Core (alongside $1 milkshakes and Scav) formed the foundation of the UChicago experience. With three quarters of classes behind me, I now know that is not the case. The vision I had been sold faltered as I watched those around me race to fill Core requirements through their major or “easy” classes. Conversations with classmates shifted from being about the content of readings to complaints over their length and irrelevance. Only recently, as my first year wrapped up during a pandemic, did I realize that the Core really did shape my understanding of what was going on around me by forcing me to step outside of my comfort zone: my major. Now, I realize the Core is a formative element of the UChicago experience that is too often dismissed. While as students we must challenge ourselves to engage seriously with the Core in order to appreciate its applicability, UChicago must also do its part by maintaining a diverse curriculum that reflects current affairs. Together, we can shed the narrative that the Core is a chore and instead realize its importance.
As an incoming first-year, I took Power, Identity, and Resistance, a Sosc sequence notorious for manufacturing “That Kids,” eager to have my worldview turned upside down. Instead I found myself submerged under hundreds of pages of dense reading. Even when I did understand material, it felt somewhat arbitrary to someone with little background in political theory. It was only when the world did quite literally turn upside down that I began to realize the significance of what I had been taught.
With society unhinged by the threat of coronavirus whilst systemic prejudices are finally being addressed, it is time for all of us to voice what we think our world should look like. It is a time where, because there is so much instability, it feels as though change is truly possible. And having read a year’s worth of authors who argued over what change ought to look like, I feel informed enough to push for my own version of change in whatever way possible.
Although in the fall and winter, I’d succumbed to the mentality that the Core is a chore, I ultimately found that the Core classes I took first year have shaped the way I take in new knowledge. And this is true not only of discussion-based classes like Power, but also of Core Biology, which I initially took as part of my quest to “get the Core out of the way.” A basic understanding of viruses and how they are transmitted is all one needs to identify the misinformation which has been spreading at a pace to rival COVID–19 itself. It may sound dramatic, but being able to spot fake news can literally be a matter of life and death during a pandemic.
Through the Core, I have learned to read, view, and think about current events critically, drawing comparisons from across the curriculum rather than taking popular media at face value. I would not have obtained such breadth in knowledge had I tried to align my classes with my current interests or strengths. Sure, without Core requirements I would be a lot deeper into my Econ major. But the hours I would have spent drawing indifference curves in Saieh would have bred just that: indifference. The Core is unique in providing students with exposure to so many modes of thinking and so many different topics, from cell biology to political theory. This allows us to form new perspectives, and to feel engaged with a broad range of issues. Not only this, but it places people with varied interests in direct discussion, allowing them to learn from one another. Many paths would never have crossed, many interests and friendships would never have formed, were we pigeonholed into our major classes.
The unique multidisciplinary education the Core offers us is worthless if we do not apply it to contemporary issues. It should not have taken the events of 2020 for me to start doing so. Yes, students must change the way they think about the Core and actively seek Core courses outside of their comfort zones, but the University itself also has a role to play. Though new Sosc and Hum sequences have been added in the past few years to reflect shifting student demand, the College should commit to continually updating the Core to highlight its relevance to the real world.
Placing readings in relation to current world events would not only deepen students’ understanding of content, but it would widen the context under which we could apply it later on. Untangling the pages of dense theory written in the 17th century generally does not do wonders for student engagement—it is when what we read is made relatable that it becomes interesting to us, and it is then that we become motivated to push our reading further.
The solution could be as easy as including more authors of different races and backgrounds: namely, less old white men. The way we reflect, the way we act, is shaped both consciously and subconsciously by the material we have read, which is why it is of the utmost importance that we get the chance to encounter a wide range of backgrounds and opinions in our classes. Life is multi-faceted: our readings should present as many sides to it as possible.
Outside of class, it is our responsibility as students to remember that we chose UChicago in part because of the academic rigor the Core provides. We should rekindle that first-year excitement over being able to take such a broad range of classes and stop viewing each class as a checkbox for our major. Take the plunge. Take that class you’re interested in but know nothing about, because this is how you will maximize what you learn. 2020 has been a year of change, good and bad. Change begins on an individual level, and this process can only begin when you shift what you are reading and thinking by stepping outside of your comfort zone.
At the end of my first quarter of Power, my professor asked the class whether what we had learned had shaped the conversations we were having with others and the way we understood current events. I didn’t have much of an answer at the time, but two quarters later, I do. It only took the end of the world for me to realize it.
Emma Weber is a second-year in the College.