Tom Pavone / Uncategorized

The War of Ideas of the University of Chicago (Tom Pavone)

Registering for classes at the University of Chicago is like traveling back to the Stone Ages.

I know this from firsthand experience. UChicago doesn’t have a course catalog, just a list of time schedules. These time schedules only mention the course title, the professor’s name and the times that class will meet. No syllabus. No course synopsis. If you’re lucky, occasionally you are provided with a list of books, but more often than not, no list will exist or it will be incomplete. Further, some professors may not even decide that they will teach a course until the first day of classes. They may not even bother typing up a syllabus until the end of the first week, when they finally figure out what it is they want to teach. Oh, and you don’t register for classes online; you have to fill out a form and bring it to an office, where they will stamp it and manually register you. If you decide to change your schedule, you have to repeat the entire process. This Odyssey is more inefficient than an Italian post office.

But it’s not the arcane registration process per se that’s most striking, it’s the fact that it’s happening at UChicago, home to the free-market-loving, efficiency-fetishizing, rational choice-revering Chicago school of economics. It’s the home of Milton Friedman, of Ronald Coase, of Roger Myerson. This is where the most rational, optimal, efficient solution should rule.

At least in theory.

Indeed, one of the most appropriate (and popular) shirts to be worn by UChicago students is one stating “I know it works in practice, but… does it work in theory?” So while the course registration process might be inefficient in practice, what matters at UChicago is that it is theoretically justifiable. And indeed, its most prevalent theoretical defense is that it forces students to interact with professors (by requesting syllabi and inquiring about the courses in general). It’s a noble theory, end of story.

But that’s not the only peculiarity that characterizes UChicago.

The university is most well known academically for its Chicago schools of thought (ranging from the Chicago school of sociology to the Chicago school of literary criticism). To return to the example of the Chicago school of economics, it seems like free-market economics à la Milton Friedman still crowds out most other economic perspectives both in UChicago’s economics department and its Booth school of business. In an environment filled with free-market economists, it’s not easy revering John Maynard Keynes when everybody else seems to laud Friedman.

And yet UChicago is also known for its strong focus on interdisciplinary studies. At the undergraduate level, this is exemplified by its famous common core curriculum, which requires all undergraduates to take at 15 courses, including coursework in the humanities, the social sciences, civilization, art or music, mathematics, biology, physics, foreign language and, yes, even physical education. At the graduate level, this effort is institutionalized through its multiple interdisciplinary committees and programs, from UChicago’s influential Committee on Social Thought to its Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences.

So how can a school that clearly values diverse perspectives and interdisciplinarity reconcile these aspirations with the homogenizing impact of the Chicago schools of thought? Nobody has provided me with a convincing explanation so far, but what is clear is that UChicago is a potpourri of paradoxes — the battlefield of a veritable war of ideas.

It’s a place that prides itself on being an urban university, yet the tensions between UChicago and the surrounding neighborhoods, which suffer from economic hardship, is well known. It’s a place that first sought to recruit students by strengthening its football team, which won a national championship in 1905, but went on to cancel its football program thirty-four years later (the program was subsequently reinstated, but UChicago’s football field still seats less than 1,600 people). It’s home to the world’s first living-donor liver transplant, a discovery that would save the lives of many. But it’s also the home of the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, a discovery that would destroy the lives of thousands.

The result is that on any given day, I feel both frustrated and enthralled to attend a university that seems to always be undergoing an intellectual identity crisis. I may never be able to discern the identity of this institution, which, fingers crossed, will soon join the University of Michigan as my alma mater. But what I have learned over the past several months is that you should be skeptical of those who rush to assign labels to spaces as complex as universities. UChicago is not “the place where fun goes to die,” but at the same time, it’s also not “the place where fun goes to flourish.” Indeed, it’s neither of these, yet both of these at the same time. If you find that confusing, don’t worry, I do as well. But, then again, one can’t help but be confused by the living paradox that is the University of Chicago.

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