April 4, 2014

Viewpoints has no new points

The Maroon’s Op-Ed section is subpar, but readers carry the responsibility of improving it.

A couple years ago, I read a hilarious article in the Onion about a college student studying abroad in Paris who realizes, as he pisses in a Parisian toilet, that “Hemingway and Miller once stood in this exact same place and were doing this exact same thing” (emphasis his), and yet he is nevertheless disappointed to find the experience insufficiently transformative. The piece captured with the Onion’s renowned fidelity the complacent, whiny entitlement of a college student studying abroad. There was only one problem with the piece: it didn’t run in the Onion; it ran in the Chicago Maroon.

As long as I’ve been a student at this university, the Viewpoints section has rarely been a credit to the Maroon, being all too often filled with the smug pronouncements and imbecilic ramblings of cocksure college students who are inexplicably certain that their inane prattle deserves a spot in the best public forum this college has.

I don’t want to single out the article mentioned above, since it at least made me laugh, which is more than I can say for the countless other unartful genres eternally retold in the Viewpoints section: the failure narratives, in which formerly straight-A high schoolers bemoan the experience of being challenged for the first time; the meandering ruminations on contemporary geopolitics by too-eager first-year political science majors; the aging narratives, in which the occasion of “dropping the deuce” (in the words of one particularly inscrutable column) prompts a rambling stream of consciousness totally devoid of introspection or self-reflection; and too many other sorts to list. Twice a week I slam down the paper in frustration and rage.

In response to these sentiments, a prevailing attitude on campus is, “So what?” or “Why do you keep reading the Maroon if it makes you angry?” These questions have the same answer: The Viewpoints section matters, for a couple of important reasons. First, the Viewpoints section, in showcasing the mood on campus, shapes public opinion of this university. Just as pieces like the Harvard Crimson’s recent “Fifteen Hottest Freshmen” (among them: the fancifully named Archibald I. H. Stonehill, whom I suspect is a Thomas Pynchon character) confirm common suspicions about Harvard’s culture of status and materiality, so too do our opinion columnists publicly present the prevailing opinions and debates happening among college students here.

The stakes are especially high here at the University of Chicago. There is a proud tradition of belief here that our college is exceptional, one of the last bastions of serious academic rigor and the life of the mind in a time when such ideas are quickly losing popularity. Such beliefs are belied by the quality of the Viewpoints section: If we’re all so focused on studying, how can the Viewpoints page be so often peopled by the seemingly illiterate? As a believer in the greatness of this college, I suspect that we can do better.

Second, and more importantly, the Viewpoints section of the Maroon is a truly democratic forum, open to all students of the University, for issues of interest and import to this campus. By “democratic” I do not mean, as some former editors of the Viewpoints section seem to have believed, that Viewpoints ought to be open to any idiot with a 20th birthday or a pointless anecdote. Rather, the Viewpoints section is open to anyone who is able to stimulate dialogue in a productive manner. All of us at the University of Chicago are united in a shared quest for wisdom, and I am certainly not alone in believing the Socratic maxim that such a quest requires a shared engagement in discourse and dialectic.

And there is no better source for promoting discourse on campus than the Maroon. The Viewpoints section could use more authors like Emma Thurber Stone, whose columns are not only well-written but also insightful, leading to productive dialogue on campus about contemporary feminisms. I ought also to laud Eliora Katz, whose bold, provocative pieces have in their own way instigated a great deal of valuable discussion. Without columns that offer thoughtful, assertive, or at least opinionated stands on matters relevant to students here, the Viewpoints section has no reason to exist and will eventually collapse under the weight of a thousand banal slices of life.

It is our responsibility to demand more from the Viewpoints section. Instead of sighing wistfully when we encounter yet another aimless, thoughtless Viewpoints column, we ought to agitate, to complain to the Maroon, or to lend our own voices to the paper. This college is full of vibrant, enthusiastic conversations, and I’m sure that many of these would find a natural home in the Chicago Maroon. Unless we work together to make our newspaper better, we’ll continue to get the Viewpoints section we deserve. And that’s a frightening prospect.

Benjamin Gammage is a fourth-year in the college majoring in mathematics.