OP-EDS

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May 14, 2010

Editorial understates social changes at U of C

The University of Chicago is a great and prestigious institution, one of the top academic schools in the country.

In response to “Weird social science” (May 7):

The University of Chicago is a great and prestigious institution, one of the top academic schools in the country. It has also been a distinctive institution, with a different conception of “college life” than other schools. The University of Chicago has been committed to the life of the mind, and to providing a place for students who are outside the norm. This does not in itself make us superior to other institutions of higher learning. But it has provided a difference from them—it is one of the things, along with our beautiful neo-Gothic buildings and our dark, long winters, which has made the University of Chicago distinct.

Times, however, seem to be changing; the texture of campus life and the nature and goals of the student body seem to be slowly shifting. There has been an increase in students dedicated more to a pre-professional education than to “learning for the sake of learning,” a new crop of people who are dedicated more to future careers than to learning qua learning, and a new emphasis on athletics and social life. I do not think these changes are necessarily bad. Certainly, I would never say that any new students coming to attend the University are somehow less intellectually able than their predecessors. Students will remain as intelligent, as hardworking, as creative, and in general as excellent as they have always been.

The difference, as far as I can see, lies in attitude. These new students, although perfectly intellectually capable of doing so, do not tend to care deeply about “the life of the mind” or about learning for the sake of learning. This is not necessarily a bad thing; indeed, from any rational standpoint, their position probably makes more sense. But this process of change does represent a difference from what was and to some extent still is. We are becoming more like a traditional “top school.” No one would accuse students at a school like Stanford of being intellectually lax; indeed, the very opposite. But there are many institutions with excellent, top-tier academics and students without a commitment to “the life of the mind.” And that is the real danger here: that we are moving away from what has historically made this university distinct.

Look at admissions figures. Historically, the College has had an extremely high admissions percentage as compared to peer institutions, going as high as 77% in 1993 (that statistic always astounded me). The explanation for this has always been that the College is self-selecting—that is, only a certain type of student really wants to come to the University, and that many students therefore simply do not apply to the University. However, in recent years, admissions percentages have dropped precipitously, this year falling below 20% for the first time. Further, cross-admits are up—more students are choosing the University of Chicago over peer schools. If we accept the explanation for high admissions percentages, by extension this means that applicants to the College are no longer nearly as self-selective. That “certain type of student” is no longer the main profile of the applicant. Rather, our student body most likely bears more resemblance to the student bodies at peer schools.

This is not a bad thing. In the long run, it is certainly better for the health of the college. More publicity and a better reputation, a more normal, enjoyable college experience, more alumni who can donate, a more balanced and healthy student body—all of these are unqualified good things. But they do run the risk of wiping away the distinctive qualities that have made this school what it is today. Things are changing at the University of Chicago, one way or another. It will be a more normal place, a healthier place, a more balanced place. But it likely will not retain those unique qualities which have distinguished it for so long—the dedication to learning for learning’s sake, the oddness, the weirdness. And they who care deeply about these qualities, they who were attracted here by them, are right to be worried about their imminent disappearance.

D. D. Ryan

Class of 2012

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