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November 27, 2012

An identity of crisis

Questioning who we are as a university is at the core of the U of C’s intellectual spirit.

Shortly after we return from winter break, campus media outlets will almost certainly be lighting up with giddy reports of another unprecedented jump in the volume of applications to the College. A few months later, they’ll be buzzing about the (wholly unsurprising) news that our acceptance rate continues to plummet. And, at some point, you’re almost guaranteed to read another article bemoaning the inexorable demise of the University of Chicago as we know it.

To outsiders (and first-years), all the ruckus seems to paint a pretty clear picture of us as a university in the throes of an identity crisis, torn between a proud past and a bold future rich with opportunities. The reality, however, is a good deal more nuanced. Rather than pointing to some kind of fatal fracture in the core of our identity as a university, the debate over who we are and where we’ll be in 10 years is an indisputable exercise of that elusive identity itself.

You have good reason to worry that you’ll be graduating from a school bearing little superficial resemblance to the one you applied to. You should also be concerned about whether the administration is making the most of the unique opportunities for growth afforded to us by our history and decorated tradition of influential scholarship. But, as a matter of character, as long as we can keep up the debate and resist the temptation to definitively resolve the question of our identity, I have no doubt that this institution will always remain, in its heart, the good old University of Chicago we know and love. What it means to be a U of C student is to never stop questioning what it means to be a U of C student.

When you were a high school senior comparing prospective colleges, you might have made a list of the most outstanding characteristics of every school you were considering. Some had an awesome location, others an impressive degree of lay prestige, still others a particularly strong athletic program or academic department. Under the U of C you penciled in, among other things, the ‘life of the mind,’ likely followed by a little question mark.

And the question mark only gets bigger the more time you spend around here. That one sacred bond keeping us all together as a school is something that I, for one, have never heard adequately defined. Before you go parading under the banner of intellectualism to either support or refute the administration’s current policies, consider the wild diversity of aliases under which this ‘intellectualism’ masquerades. To me, intellectualism is nothing more than a sort of irreverent playfulness coupled with an unshakable fascination with the world. Some find intellectualism in the pursuit of knowledge, others in the cultivation of certain habits of mind. A friend of mine not unconvincingly describes intellectualism as a sort of sociological fact—a term devoid of any real quantifiable or measureable substance but which nevertheless structures our interactions with others (similar, in this way, to ‘race’ or ‘caste’).

I’m pulling a move straight out of Dean Boyer’s playbook here: In justifying the shifting of priorities which he has spearheaded during his tenure, Boyer is often quick to point out the inherently chimerical nature of the grand old U of C culture we like to imagine. Our history is punctuated by a series of far-reaching reforms; much of what we now hold to be quintessentially ‘U of C’ is the result of what were at the time highly controversial policy changes.

In short, the one continuous thread tying us both to our past and to each other is the fact that we never stop thinking about who we are and where we’re headed as a university. And this is no accident: It’s bound up in our foundational embrace of some form of intellectualism.

There’s no question that change is in the Hyde Park air. I’m proud that we have neither mindlessly accepted nor rejected it, and that, instead, we have been able to enjoy a spirited debate about what this change means and where we should go with it in the future. For our sake, let’s all hope that the debate rages on.

Tyler Lutz is a fourth-year in the College majoring in physics and English.

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