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April 20, 2012

Losing your student ID

When it comes time to leave school and enter the real world, it’s important to put your education to good use.

My neighbors here in Hyde Park include a family of four: Mom, Dad, and two boys. Both parents are college-educated—she’s a homemaker, he’s a teacher in Chicago Public Schools—and the boys are in grade school in the neighborhood. My roommates and I have gotten to know them over the year; one roomie has cultivated a rather close back porch smoke-break relationship with the Mrs., and it’s paid dividends in the form of a number of free dinners. We have cookouts with them, we swig beers and talk about the news—we’re neighbors. And what has struck me most as of late is how incredibly little they care about the University of Chicago, or how little my attendance here affects my relationship with them. In other words, with them, my identity is completely separate from my education. (If that seems like an obvious point, I submit that it’s not.) In that case, what will life after the U of C mean?

Here, we’re students and always have been, apart from maybe a gap year or two. Over half my life has been spent in school, and I imagine the same is true for most of my peers. Until this year, spring meant summer break meant a new school year, and around and around the cycle went. Think about it: If you filed taxes this week, your occupation was likely “student,” and Latin root (“to seize”) aside, the English meaning works too. School occupies us—our time, our energy, our efforts, and often our identity.

My fellow fourth-years and I are going to graduate in June and be hurled into a world where a University of Chicago education won’t be our current occupation. It won’t be the all-encompassing venture that we undertook four years prior, and in fact, many of us won’t be in school at all, meaning our 15–20 year educational careers will be over. (Next year’s grad students can stop reading here.) Sure, we graduates are excited at the prospect of no textbooks, adequate sleep, homework-free weekends, or counting the weeks in ways other than sets of 10 (or not counting them at all). But all that freedom means we’re also without the safety net that says, “When in doubt, you’re a student. Wake up tomorrow and go to school. You know how.” And if that’s gone, then so is the brand that comes with being a student, at the U of C or elsewhere. Our college education really will be reduced, in a lot of cases, to that expensive piece of paper we’ll be getting a hold of soon. It won’t be what we’re doing—the universal, the present, the thing that’s everywhere and in every moment. In turn, we will each become our own person. To those of you who think you already have, you haven’t. I haven’t. It’s not possible given the demands this place makes of our time and effort.

But the thing is, freedom from school doesn’t make me anxious. It’s a lot to worry about, sure, but there’s no use in worrying. If my college degree becomes a literal piece of paper, I’ve got to think about new ways to get return on my investment. My classmates and I should be excited to get out and actually do something with our educations. So far we’ve all been learning to learn more, passing classes to pass more; education has been a means to an end of more education. When we all graduate and are free of this place, we’ll get to see how our experience of the last four years can be put to use. We’ll see how we’ve embodied or adopted whatever intellectual ideals we’re supposed to take with us out into the world. Will we see society in a useful and meaningful light, and not just in the critical ways borne out of rote Core discussions? Will we tackle problems using new or interesting ideas, or will we be too disillusioned to get our hands dirty? Will we actually do something with the aim of public service, something that takes the academy into the world and proves its much-vaunted worth, or sit back, inactive, pleased with our collegiate accomplishments?

Largely expanded, this is what I get when out on my porch with my neighbors, when at no point in the conversation do they ever ask, “How’s your quarter going?” I’m forced to look outside of myself and outside the University. I imagine how my peers and I might give value to the life of the mind, once it’s ours to live.

Adam Gillette is a fourth-year in the College majoring in history.

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