The summer of 2020 was a season of unprecedented political education for our generation. To see so many students appear to dramatically shift their perspectives on issues like policing, prisons, and housing amidst a pandemic made me confident we were taking a step forward. As a social science major, I saw my peers who typically only engage with theory in classes take steps to engage with organizations to support their communities. It seemed like for once, there was a collective shift in the way we were thinking about applying our schooling towards something in the real world.
Yet, as we return back to classes, the University implicitly pushes us to drop those endeavors. We’re back to career advancement fairs, back to selective application clubs, and the University continues to tout its pre-professional programs. In social science majors, in particular, we are encouraged to, time and again, focus on building our own sustainable career, instead of working to build sustainable communities. That is to say, we are told that if we immediately focus on building the best career, we can somehow miraculously come up with the solutions to provide for people’s immediate material conditions. The University’s actions exemplify this self-service over strengthening community, and ultimately, students end up following suit in choosing to pursue careerism over collectivism.
Until recently, I bought into the University’s framing of career advancement as the single most important aspect of our schooling here. I was told that, as students, our goal should be to open up opportunities in the broadest way possible by prioritizing personal advancement at nearly any cost. But what are those costs? What are those decisions and how do they implicate both ourselves and the University in reproducing harm?
For an example, we need to look no further than the University’s own relationship with growth and sustainable communities. This institution has historically prioritized and continues to prioritize its own growth and presence in the South Side at any cost. It does not care about building a sustainable community of fulfillment for people here. From expediting gentrification with its invasive urban renewal projects, to violent, racist policing of nearly 30 blocks of this city, the University’s actions send a clear message: we should seek to prioritize our own self-centered interests over seeking to create an equitable, just world.
As social science majors, we sometimes treat the aspiration to political work as the best way for us to contribute to solving the world’s problems. We can talk about oppressive systems and the implications of the violent empire that we live in all we want, but then we are taught that rather than strategizing ways to topple or become free of these institutions, we should pursue success within them. We are taught to believe that being good individuals at the top of a system can magically correct, or at least substantially alter, the harm of that system (as if it hasn’t been insidious for hundreds of years).
We as college students can recognize the apparatus that we are currently situated in and the unjust conditions that make that possible. This I know because it’s one of the talking points of many conversations between UChicago students. Often, these conversations are about policing, but they go further, too. Students talk all the time about how they wish they were pursuing a major/career in something they are passionate about instead of seeking high-profit employment. But the conditions of a pre-professional university do not have to inhibit us from beginning to shift our vision beyond careerism. How can we begin to divest from our careerist mindsets? Through collectivism. That means deeply engaging with mutual aid by leveraging our resources to directly help people: for example, donating to people who need help paying their rent instead of to a national non-profit. Collectivism manifests in studying with your classmates because you want everyone to succeed together in a class. It extends to students seeking to forge meaningful relationships with people beyond the University. Find community beyond the oppressive confines of this institution.
If the University seeks to perpetuate its own preservation and wants to place its students in careerist systems that continue to enable unjust conditions, we as students consciously or unconsciously will continue to follow in that mindset unless we radically intervene and actively fight against the individualization of our schooling. The University will never grant us a vision to build sustainable communities. Being a subversive participant in the academy is the only chance we have to find refuge and collective care beyond the confines of this institution, leveraging the privilege and access we’ve been granted. We’re all we got. Let’s continue that organizing, seeking to meet the material needs of people, and finding that sense of solidarity with one another. Let’s make it a practice not just for the rest of the year, but for the rest of our lives.
Noah Tesfaye is a second-year in the College.