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February 5, 2015

The Seer’s Tower

The Study Chicago Quarter shouldn’t be the only way for the University to encourage students to explore Chicago.

Two weeks ago, the University announced its latest “study abroad” program, the Study Chicago Quarter, which will allow participants to learn about the history, art, and politics of this city. The announcement has been met with a largely positive response, with supporters applauding the University’s effort to broaden students’ minimal exploration of the fascinating and beautiful city around them. The Study Chicago Quarter is indeed a great idea for a number of reasons, and the University deserves praise for making it a reality.

But it seems something of a shame—and altogether too fitting—that a sequence of classes is what it takes for UChicago students to explore Chicago. It’s a tired topic, really: our failure as students to leave Hyde Park. Many before me have implored their fellow students to get out and see the city, as will many after me. The truth, though, is that it’s a pain in the ass to explore Chicago.

While studying in Paris last quarter, I appreciated how much of my educational experience was implicit, and how much was outside the classroom. My teachers expected me to explore the city, to spend my time outside of class doing far more than studying. Despite the fact that the city I was in had little to do with the topic I was studying (African Civilizations), professors expected my classmates and I to see the city, to learn from  it, and to enjoy it. And upon returning to the United States during winter break, I wondered why I didn’t do the same in this city. Chicago is, in many ways, as grand a place as Paris, just with nicer people and cheaper food. Why is it, then, that I have yet to leave Hyde Park this quarter? Why is UPass, whose cost-efficiency hinges on students riding the CTA four times a week, generally condemned as an unwise investment?

In thinking about why I explored Paris so much more than I do Chicago, I realized there are some pretty evident and irreconcilable differences in my situations in the two cities. For one, Paris has one of the best public transit systems in the world, while it often takes an hour to get anywhere north of the river on the Red Line. There’s also the reality that when you live in a city for only three months rather than four years, you’ll tend to be more inclined to see it while you can. There’s little to be done about these disparities, but these are also not the main reasons we don’t get off our couches (or out of our carrel desks) on the weekends.

Those reasons, as I see them, would be these two: It’s always colder than the abominable snowman making that one face that Vladimir Putin always makes, and school is far more difficult here than it is abroad. Now, it would seem that there’s little the school can do to affect the weather, although I’m sure we have some labs working on that. But if the University really wants us to see more of Chicago, they could simply schedule school for months when the space between here and downtown isn’t occupied by a frozen deluge. The only months when students really go out of Hyde Park anyway are those blissful six weeks in May and June when the weather (last year excepted) is beautiful. So why not give us more of those summer months? Modifying our quarter system to more closely resemble Dartmouth’s—which brings students to campus in mid-September and then lets them go from Thanksgiving until January—would not only eliminate September’s status as something of a lost month; it would have us on campus for the sunny days instead of the snowy ones. Classes could even start earlier, perhaps at the beginning of September, and then we could all be gone for as much of the now-annual snowpocalypse as possible. If it’s nice out, we’re all the more likely to get out.

Changing the quarter schedule is a relatively simple matter. The rigor of classes, however, is not. We are obviously an institution famous for academic rigor, and will continue to be one. But rigor doesn’t always foster enlightenment, and at a certain point hinders it. I understand that I’m railing against a philosophy that’s been held dear for decades, and perhaps if I don’t agree with it I should just shove off and go somewhere else. But if seeing Chicago is something we value, and if learning outside the classroom is something we want to foster, then perhaps we need fewer homework problems. This is not a change that will happen overnight, nor is it necessarily one that needs to happen. Perhaps as an institution we really do value rigor over metropolitan discovery. In order for students to have the time to get into the city, though, something’s got to give, and it seems to me that that something should be coursework.

It’s easy to implore others to get out and see Chicago, but it’s a lot harder to actually do. There’s always snow and homework in the way. I don’t blame students for not leaving Hyde Park. Most of the time, trouble, and stress of doing so isn’t worth it. But that can be fixed—if not entirely, at least partially. Some changes are easy, some quite difficult. It may be a tired message, but Chicago is a great city worth seeing. The Study Chicago Quarter is a great way of doing that, but it shouldn’t be the only way. While some responsibility lies with us as students to get off our asses, there are steps the University can take to help us learn from and see not only UChicago, but Chicago as well.

Liam Leddy is a third-year in the College majoring in economics.

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