May 3, 2018

In Defense of Criticizing UChicago

Criticism directed at the University shows that the student body is socially and politically engaged and committed to change.

A few weeks ago when prospective students flooded the quad, I talked to a prospie who was interested in joining The Maroon if he decided to attend UChicago.

“I was looking through the Viewpoints section,” he told me, “and there were so many articles criticizing the school. Is that the general attitude of the student body?”

I thought back to the recent articles I’ve written and read. He was not wrong; much of what our Viewpoints contributors write about is UChicago’s controversial relationship with the South Side of Chicago, UChicago’s free speech policy, Student Counseling Services— the list goes on. Soulet Ali just this week argued that UChicago’s administrative decisions should make prospective students of color think twice before committing.

I think these criticisms, whether expressed in The Maroon or in a community meeting or at a protest, can be understood as much more than just an exercise of free speech. With few exceptions, the criticism of the university over the past year—re: the business major, grad school unionization—has demonstrated to me that our school is filled with passionate, outspoken, students who are confident enough to criticize authority, prepared to graduate and and make actual change in the world. Thinking critically about this university-- the place we all call home-- seems bound up with and indicative of a broader commitment to think critically about the policies and structures in this country and in the world at large.

I tried to explain this to the prospie. I told him that this school is not perfect— no school is. I told him that there is a wide array of opinions about the University and its politics, but that the fact that there is so much criticism out there means the student body is socially and politically engaged and willing to work for the issues and causes they care about.

Maybe it’s because I just finished reading The Communist Manifesto for the third time this year (yes, the third time), but I see Marx as an important figure in a discussion of challenging authority.  I recently read a New York Times article that cited him as one of the first true critical philosophers, mounting a critique of capitalism that has set the stage for present revolutionary movements. The author writes, “Racial, gender and sexual oppression have been added to the dynamic of class exploitation. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the 'eternal truths' of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress.” It seems like in this particular historical moment, many of the unspoken, “eternal truths” of the past are being questioned and challenged.


But what will follow this questioning of authority? Of course, communism in the idealistic way Marx described it no longer seems practical or possible. Does this mean that the demands of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements are impossible as well? Does that mean that our demands that the university work in conjunction with the South Side instead of despite it is only a utopian dream? Surely not.  Not only are our demands not as lofty as Marx’s, but many of them are common sense. If UChicago is going to continue to be the prestigious university that it is today, its policies must demonstrate care for the surrounding community and all of its students.

I believe it is the responsibility of an independent college newspaper to criticize its university, if there is legitimate criticism to be made. The focus now, though, is to ensure that the discontent is being channeled into truly productive channels. Right now, student organizations like UChicago Student Action and UChicago United are taking active steps, either putting pressure on the university to change the policies with which they disagree or working among students to make the campus more inclusive. My hope is the that more the student body begins to mobilize, transforming their valid criticisms into institutional changes.

Alexa Perlmutter is a first-year in the College.