May 7, 2010

Weird social science

Student concerns about the decline of UChicago culture are unfounded

In recent years, parts of our community have grown worried that the U of C’s unique culture is being diluted by changes in University policy. Their concerns have found voice in T-shirts and demonstrations protesting the switch to the Common Application, fliers posted around campus decrying “normalizing” forces working within the University, and currently, on the Max P. Scav team’s T-shirt, which bears the tongue-in-cheek slogan, “Keep UChicago weird.”

Of all the purported changes to campus culture, there are two that seem to cause the greatest anxiety. The first is that the U of C is contorting itself to accommodate pre-professional College students, rather than insisting on learning for learning’s sake. The second concern is that ever more pre-law gunners and pre-med grinds are applying and enrolling, and costing us the quirky points of campus life that have long set the College apart. The U of C is no longer the U of C of old, some say, and it is a poorer place for it.

To give these arguments legs to stand on, their supporters have to assume that a real, substantive division exists between those who like to learn and those with pre-professional ambitions. This is a handy trope for teen movies, but it just doesn’t hold in real life, and least of all on our campus. Girls who rush sororities and guys who suit up for football can often debate Durkheim with the best of them, and to think otherwise is arrogant and intellectually lazy. If ours is to be a campus devoted to the critical examination of ideas, then the all-too-prevalent belief that people who party on Saturdays can’t be intellectually serious on Sundays should be the first idea reconsidered and then tossed out.

But before we even entertain arguments about whether jocks and pre-meds can live the life of the mind, we should ask what has actually changed at the U of C. True, the College only recently cracked U.S. News & World Report’s top 10, but our academics have been held in great esteem for far longer. The jump from our Economics department to Wall Street has never been difficult, and the College has long been a starting point for those hoping to go into law, medicine, and other professional fields. We know, because the admissions statistics bear it out, that College first-years are better and better prepared to study here. What we don’t know—and shouldn’t presume—is that we’ve arrived at the College in the gloaming of some Golden Age of intellectual purity. Like any top school, the U of C has always attracted students with a range of interests and ambitions.

Scavvies will be taking over campus all this weekend, and those who are truly concerned about the U of C might want to take a page out of their book. The Scavvies know that college, like much of life, is what you make of it. Instead of calling our college too normal, or criticizing classmates with mean-spirited diatribes and not-so-subtle slurs, they just go and be as “weird” or “quirky” as they want. And if you do that, who knows? If Scav is any indication, the “normal” people might surprise you and join in.

—The Maroon Editorial Board includes the Editor-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.