I would like for us to dispense with an oft-posed question. This is bound to be difficult since it seems to be a harmless question, and I suspect that most of us enjoy the mental tickle of asking and answering harmless questions. But the inquiry that I have in mind only appears innocuous because the damage it causes is peripheral; the harm occurs not as a result of our aggression but rather as a byproduct of our negligence. The question is: “What defines us as a college community?” Trying to answer it is worth neither your time nor mine.
Don’t get me wrong: I have no bone to pick with the University as an institution. I will have none of this recent nonsense-talk on the Internet and elsewhere that college is an overrated drain of money. In my first year as a student at this very expensive school, I have had hugely enriching out-of-classroom experiences, been transformed by great works and professors, and met people I only ever dreamed of stalking. I have never felt cheated by the promise of college. And yet, as October draws us all together again, I find that the mirror, as Nabokov said, has been fatally starred. The question of who we are, which seemed so important when I was inducted into that ‘we,’ seems entirely unimportant compared to the question of what we will do.
The conversation surrounding university identity is necessarily stilted, and as battle-worn veterans of the college admissions game, we should all know why. It’s because two of the main ingredients of ‘identity’ are red flags that very often wave in the face of truth: marketing and our own self-esteem. College-bound high school students make personal, emotional connections with stylish websites, funny letters, and famous names before they even step on campus. The statistical reality—that they are each but a measly drop in the ocean of the highly accomplished—is disheartening, but the manufactured quirk allows students to feel courted, desired, and understood. Yet, the emotional dimension to the college application process remains with us post-decision, and that brings us to where we are now: accepted, attending, and convinced that our college acceptance was a personal validation.
But it wasn’t, and this is merely because we are not pilgrims. We arrived in different ways and for different reasons: by dint of college résumé–ready activities, with the assistance of the fortunate economic status of our parents, because we had no idea what the hell else we were going to do, by virtue of unexpected generosity, by sheer force of will, by mistake. Some of us chose here over there, others faced a Hobson’s choice between here and there; others chose here over nowhere. But there are certainly some who were never given the opportunity to choose, and among those there are certainly some with I.Q.s and work ethics identical to those of you fortunate enough to be here now. The uncomfortable truth is that a U of C student (this writer included) is not necessarily a good or successful person. In fact, a U of C student is not necessarily anything.
But that isn’t bad news. It only tells us something we already know, which is that a life’s work is never finished with any single accomplishment. It only tells us that with hands poised to build a new world, we would be senseless to spend our time patting ourselves on the back.
At the risk of forfeiting whatever intellectual credibility I have so far earned, I’d like to quote a character from a frequently maligned British historical drama (read: thinly-veiled soap opera) as he addresses the man who owns the titular estate. “You think you have the monopoly of honor,” he accuses, and there are times when I think we think so too. There are times when I catch a distinct whiff of the belief in UChicagoness-as-ether, imparting virtue and value automatically to those privileged enough to breathe it in and move about in it. This place is beautiful, extraordinary, rife with opportunity—all that is true. But it is not a finish line.
So to all you first-years who are no doubt being bombarded to bits with advice, I would remind you: This is not destiny. This is fortune. Learn to tell the difference, and get to work.
To my fellow returning students: I hope we can all agree that the world will be better for our believing that we do not already deserve it. The intellectual might of this place is radiant; it beams with power and potential. For goodness’s sake, let us turn it on something other than ourselves.
Emma Stone is a second-year in the College.