May 8, 2017

A Political Education

Attending college is a fundamentally political act.

The Class of 2021 is all but finalized at this point. This year has certainly been tumultuous for the University, specifically because of its stance on free speech in light of the Trump administration. There was the letter that distanced the University from trigger warnings and safe spaces, controversial speakers like Sean Spicer and Corey Lewandowski, and plenty of heated discussions about history professor Rachel Fulton Brown’s affinity for Milo Yiannopoulos. Time and again, the University has deferred to free speech as a catch-all defense against any and all attacks on its decisions and actions. These campus controversies presumably factored into the considerations prospective students have made in deciding to enroll here. For some, the University’s free speech policy is disconcerting, and many newly enrolled students likely made their decision in spite of the University’s unbending determination to allow any and all voices to be potentially legitimized. Many students might even be arriving at UChicago with the explicit goal of creating safe spaces in a setting where these spaces have been institutionally discredited. For another subset of students, it is exactly these opinions that drew them here. In all likelihood, there is also a large subset of students who believe such policies don’t affect them or have not considered their implications at all when making their decision to attend UChicago. However, all students, even those who claim to be utterly uninvolved in politics, remain entrenched in the political arena merely by choosing to attend UChicago.

Thus, there is something that needs to be made clear to all new and current students—attending college is an expressly political statement. Moreover, every major and field of study has political implications. It is often believed that some majors fall out of the purview of politics. However, the political context in which you gain, and then apply, your knowledge is what gives your study political importance. For example, many might claim that becoming a pre-med is an inherently apolitical choice and that doctors simply provide their services, which are detached from the political realm. However, there are many applications of medicine that have profoundly political implications. Pursuing a medical career in public health is a very different use of a medical degree than going into private practice, for instance. How you focus your studies and then how you choose to apply your skills are vital determinants of your own political positioning in this world.

College attendance in general involves undeniable political significance. Simply the fact that you are able to come to college is a signifier of privilege. Privilege takes many forms, but at its core, college is a signifier of academic privilege, and often socioeconomic privilege as well. Having privilege is not something to be ashamed of but instead something to remain cognizant of, especially in an academic setting that can often feel divorced from politics. You do not attend college by accident, but rather, you make a choice to attend college, ultimately because you believe it will make you better off in the future. Many people do not have that same luxury, so we must always be aware of this fact. These are things the Class of 2021 should be aware of. No matter what controversial events enrapture the campus or what major any individual student decides to pursue, college necessarily remains political. Every moment you spend at this (or any) university, is one that has deep political implications, and this fact deserves careful examination from incoming students.

Andrew Nicotra Reilly is a third-year in the College majoring in economics and political science.