April 3, 2009

Think we’ve got it bad? Princeton agrees

In the waning hours of finals week, long after our reading period had ended, we came across a long-infamous article in The Daily Princetonian, Princeton’s student newspaper, that confirmed our deepest, most profound fears that fun does, in fact, come here to die. The March 2000, titled “Think We’ve Got It Bad? U. Chicago Has It Worse,” detailed how the students at that Ivy League university are “spoiled” in comparison to the students here at the U of C.

The Princetonian’s goal, it seems, is to show through comparison how we are essentially victims of a self-inflicted misery. The editorial reiterated several times that our two-day reading period appears meager and thin beside their generous nine-day stretch. The column also mentions that Princeton has a designated midterms week while our university’s midterms period is an untamed slot of six weeks during which any number of exams and papers can be assigned. After carefully chronicling those and other ways in which our experience is more difficult than the one had at Princeton, the Princetonian concludes that the best possible course of action for Princeton students is to avoid in every way possible emulating the life we at the U of C have. “Let us not share the same fate,” it finishes.

What can it possibly say of our lives if they are held up by Ivy League newspapers as exemplars of what hell is really like? There is a tendency among the student body here to lightly prod at the idea of fun crawling through our quads to take its final breath, but in some respect we regard it as a sort of self-deprecating exaggeration. Yet the image of the University of Chicago as an oppressive gulag wallowing in its own miserable self-loathing has been picked up on by other schools as something very real. Has our sad mantra become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Have all our witty house T-shirts about squirrels and oral sex killed all the fun without our knowing?

In an attempt to defend ourselves and our way of life, we could easily say that our challenging academic careers—which are perhaps even more frustrating than the charge of Sisyphus and more painstaking than the tortures of Prometheus—will, if nothing else, make us wiser, sharper, better, and greater intellectual masters of our modern world than any other group of adolescents. However, Princeton isn’t exactly known for the shallow incompetence of its students. In fact, by all accounts, Princeton graduates—despite their “spoiling”—seem to do very well in the academic realm. And even if we were in some way superior, the promise of a negligible intellectual edge hardly seems to justify such wildly different levels of comfort and happiness. So what good does it do to attend an institution so Germanic in its rigor, discouraging in its reputation, and miserable in its meteorological conditions?

What the Princetonian fails to mention is the special quality that our system here at the U of C gives each student. Aside from the promise of a bright (if equally stressful) future and tremendous work ethic, the University of Chicago instills in its every student an appreciation for all that is small, overlooked, and often taken for granted. Where else will students celebrate two days without classes to write papers and study relentlessly for exams after a weeks-long sub-zero period? At what other school will students line up by the hundreds for a free, mediocre breakfast of omelet-egg-substitute and rejected-meat sausages to eat for the first time in days and briefly relax before returning to work at 1 a.m.? At what institution but this would a man happily declare I only have to read 300 pages this week? For what other student body is the first thought upon seeing a potential sexual mate at a party, Well, they do at least appear to be the gender that I’m seeking? To whom else would making it through a term without a trip home to maintain a semblance of mental stability seem like an accomplishment? Where else would the common retort At least you’re better off than those kids in Africa seem like an assertion subject to vigorous debate?

The answer is nowhere, and certainly not at Princeton.

This acute appreciation for the small and the unacknowledged joys of the day-to-day existence is the wonderful gift that the University of Chicago imparts on us. It is the sublime icing on our miserable cake. Or better yet, everything that does not inspire tears to well in our gentle eyes is our icing. It is this capacity to love all that could be loved—and even some that should, by all reasonable measure, be hated—that will serve us best in life, and carry us through a world replete with frustrations in a state of near-constant bliss.

After all, where else could one walk outside to fresh, 34-degree morning and marvel, Ah! Today is a warm day. God has smiled on the University of Chicago.

Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin are first-years in the College.