This sucks and I suck, or, what I learned at UChicago

So, I graduated about two weeks ago.  As schooling is wont to do, UChicago taught me many things: how to churn out A papers during all-nighters, that my alcohol tolerance extends to roughly half a Mike’s Hard, and that I do not understand economics at all.

But most of all, UChicago taught me intellectual humility. Which is just a fancy way of saying that it reminded me over and over again that I sucked. For four years, I was surrounded by kids who were much smarter than me.  Much nicer than me.  People who really, really cared about stuff and then actually did something about it.  Better writers.

Now, this might be the masochist in me (maybe the same masochistic urge that makes me prefer Chicago to LA), but realizing that I sucked felt good for me, if not pleasant.  I was learning a truth about my place in the world: that I was very unimportant.  It’s a commonplace that there will always be someone better than you. (Or maybe that’s just what I learned from Dragon Ball.)  But these someones weren’t hypothetical anymore.  They were here, wrecking the curve in my stat class, getting their work published, winning fabulous prizes.  Often, they were my friends.

But just as I was realizing that I was no better than my peers, my peers seemed to be realizing the same thing.  You could tell by the number of That Kids through the years: so obnoxiously common in PhilPer, none by fourth year.  That Kids are sort of the abrasive, vocal barometers for what happens in general: they come in all full of themselves, which is perfectly natural—we’re all smart.  But sometime during these four years, they learn to stop mouthing off.  Onslaughts of work tend to have that effect on people.  I also think of this slogan, told to me by another UChicago alum: “Before I came to UChicago, I thought I was the shit.  Now, I’m just shit.”  Maybe part of what UChicago teaches you is how to be a smart person and not insufferably egotistical.  Because there’s always something more important than you.

*

This slow crushing of ego seems to make sense with UChicago’s whole ethos.  Somehow, my uncomfortable awareness that I suck is connected to why UChicago cares so much more about theory than practice, why the Core exists.  UChicago has one very specific goal.  As Robert Hutchins articulates, addressing the Law School’s Class of 1929, UChicago exists “not to teach men facts, theories, or laws; it is not to reform them, or amuse them, or to make them expert technicians in any field; it is to teach them to think, to think straight, if possible; but to think always for themselves.”

Part of the way it does that is by basically telling us that we don’t have the skills or the knowledge to do anything of worth yet.  The papers and p-sets and exams we’re told to complete don’t have real world repercussions.  This makes us very different from schools that are concerned with engineering or entrepreneurship, schools that train you to do something specific.  Those schools tell their students, in effect, that they are good enough to do real-world stuff, right now.  This approach is great for people who are trying to change the world (and it always seems to be about “changing the world” for them) in a more physical way.  Because for these practical-minded students, making mistakes with real repercussions is the teaching.  If you’re building something the wrong way, it just won’t work.

But UChicago’s not trying to churn out the best young engineers.  In the world of ideas and letters, UChicago’s domain, you can say whatever you want.  Your ideas and words won’t physically hurt anyone.  The things you say might be wrong, or not entirely wrong, or maybe even right, but for the wrong reasons.  The problem is that it’s very, very hard to tell which of these your ideas actually are.  (And if you buy into the idea that ideas make a difference, it does matter whether you’re wrong.)

This is why you need discourse, and argument, and hardass SOSC grad students who will call you on your BS.  UChicago’s more of a training ground that develops “habits of mind.”  It doesn’t teach you new information so much as it hones your intuition or refines your sensibilities.  So that, eventually, we can go out and say things that are a little less wrong.

*

But UChicago’s commitment makes some serious demands on its students.  To get the grades I wanted, I needed to spend all of my time locked in my room working—and sometimes that still wasn’t enough.  Forget about holding down a part-time job or getting really involved in RSOs or whatever.  When I actually ended up doing those things fourth year, I was aghast at how tough it was.  How the hell did those student marshals and Rhodes Scholars do it?  (Answer: They’re just much better than me.  See?  Learning!)

As much as I loved my time at UChicago, I spent much of it genuinely miserable.  My inadequacy is a fact more real than maybe anything the “real world” will throw at me, but it was still hard to hear every day.  How do you keep going?  Well, a lot of people drank.  But beyond that, you concentrate on the work itself.  UChicago forces us to focus our attention on those things that are more important than we are, because there’s just no other way to finish everything.

And how do you properly learn otherwise?  If you want to think, really think, about something, you have to forget about your petty ego. So my mental state at UChicago was a kind of balancing act: I was painfully conscious of every one of my failings, but I pushed these concerns aside.  I had to.  Because somehow, UChicago made me care about what I was doing.  I cared about Chaucer and fossil invertebrates and writing, my friends and housemates, Scav.  Giving these things their rightful due became more important than my personal inadequacies (or health or hygiene).

So to me, this was UChicago’s saving grace: that I cared enough about what I was learning and doing that it was worth putting up with all the other shit.  And moreover, that everyone seemed to really, really care about something.  (That’s what nerds do, right?)  So I graduated humbled, but grateful.  Because I’ve never cared so much about so many people before.  Even if they are all better than me.

Advertisements