In my four years at the University of Chicago, students, faculty, and administrators all seemed to agree on one thing: We are a school dedicated to and built around “inquiry-based learning.” Students don’t passively learn by writing down the professors’ answers, but rather, they inquire, explore alternative perspectives, and conclude whether such answers are valid. An inquiry-based education implies that we will learn from each other and grow from the experience of exploring something together. Ultimately, this comes from diversity—geographical, political, socioeconomic, and even personal. The greatest strength of institutions like the University of Chicago is that they are able to pull students and faculty from all corners of the globe with an assortment of personalities, experiences, and perspectives into a single geographically limited space. In high school, my classmates had roughly similar social and economic backgrounds. However, at UChicago, I met students who had spent their entire lives in other countries and professors with C.V.s whose lengths rival Greek plays. I was surrounded by intelligent people who disagreed with me and saw the same material in a different way. And this diversity that I learned to love was by no means limited to the classroom. The housing system, too, places students of unlike minds, different backgrounds, and that same thirst and drive for discovery together. The University encourages diversity by giving several fundamentally different options for student housing. We can live in dorms with co-ed bathrooms or single-sex floors, choose how far we are from campus (and downtown), and even decide if we want to live in traditional college dorms or a renovated former retirement home that once had a psychiatric ward. But with the recent closure of small dorms, we lose this diversity in housing and thus lose one of the most important requirements for an inquiry-based education.
The housing system, as a whole, acts as a facilitator for diverse minds to come together by breaking up the imposing monolith of the stereotypical college dorm and allowing students a more manageable space where they can learn and grow. Each house holds its own culture, and gives students the opportunity to experience something new. The value of the houses is not that they are smaller than dorms from other schools. The value is that each house is different from the other houses. Unlike other colleges, students can choose which unique environment they want to be a part of; this is irreplaceable in creating and perpetuating house culture. This is why meeting someone from Max P or South is different than meeting someone from Maclean or Breckinridge. Diversity does not simply come from our backgrounds. Diversity comes from the fact that every day we live different lives, and the housing system acts as a way to provide options for the multitude of ways students want to live their lives.
With the loss of the small, independent houses, the University loses more than several old and decrepit buildings (which, I’ll admit, they are). We lose distinct perspectives that can only come from being shaped in those small houses. As we live, we cannot help but be influenced by the physical space around us. Education is dynamic—the person I was when I first walked through Hull Gate developed into the person I was when I stood in my graduation robes on the quads four years later. For me, and I know for countless others, that change was (in no small part) facilitated by my house. The variety of different houses, big and small, sporty and nerdy, close and far, all help the College (and the University as a whole) grow into a truly diverse community.
This is not an issue that can be resolved by trying to preserve distinct house cultures as they move from their own dorms into Campus North. Even if the houses were transplanted into the new space, they would still inevitably change dramatically. Part of the culture of the independent houses comes from the very fact that they are independent. The organic development of the diverse cultures we see today in the houses comes from, in part, the nature of the physical space of the house itself. To lose those small dorms is to lose something integral to the larger University of Chicago community. Diversity, and therefore inquiry, requires students with different experiences in all aspects of life; the multitude of housing options helps foster this development of a fundamentally unique experience for each student. Parity is important—we should give students equal opportunities to live in a healthy manner—but we must take the utmost caution that parity does not breed homogeneity. Because with homogeneity there are no new perspectives, no radical world views, and we can no longer truly learn through inquiry.
Jason Quino McCreery is a college alumnus (A.B. '14).