“I only wanted absolute quiet to think out why I had developed a sad attitude towards sadness, a melancholy attitude toward melancholy, and a tragic attitude toward tragedy–why I had become identified with the objects of my horror or compassion.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
It would seem ludicrous to draw parallels between F. Scott Fitzgerald’s experience, writing from the dim light of some dollar room between Hollywood and insanity, and undergraduate life at the University of Chicago. But Fitzgerald probably never faced ego-breaking finals on the bad end of an all-nighter–he skipped out on Princeton instead–so I’m ready to call it even.
“This is what I think now: that the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness.” More woe is hardly heard more often than at the University of Chicago, where the clichÃ©d jokes about fun dying and the more pious discussion of a university’s–implicitly this university’s–grand mission seldom break for a more earnest talk about the kind of adult life Mr. Fitzgerald presumes we are all destined to occupy.
I don’t mean to ruminate gloomily on some melancholy future, or somberly approach what I’ve been told is the prime of my life (remember when that was supposed to be college?). Rather, I want to figure out why after four years of living the “life of the mind” I feel like such a mess.
The university, Chicago philosopher Robert Pippin once reminded an eager assembly of first-years, is one of the longest surviving institutions in the Western world, along with the Catholic Church and the military. Depending on what you think of the latter two, such a distinction is either dubious or heartening. For me, that fact indicates the kind of structural resilience all of these institutions have shown across centuries–a resilience liberal arts colleges would do well to avail themselves of in the modern age. Perhaps more importantly, such a fact reminds us that the university was the foil to both the church and the military, rationalizing the wonder of the former and resisting the barbarism of the latter. Yet before it ever became home to theorists and scientists, the academy was first the base of those who turned their eyes to heaven–and to each other.
Knowledge, awe, and morality have been forever bound up. It’s well that they should be, considering the First Knowledge, the terrifying awareness of our own mortality, which spawned all that followed. Adam and Eve found that out the hard way, and should we be quick to dismiss the morals of Biblical tales, let’s not forget that Emile Durkheim could think of no better explanation for the joining of knowledge and social reality than Eden. Regardless, we no longer live in magical forests, as my life in the university has made clear.
Coming to the University of Chicago provided two freedoms. The first was the promise of a “life of the mind,” the endless accumulation of knowledge and the assumed benefits of that accumulation. The second was a lack of moral scrutiny, accompanied by a mutual assumption of permissiveness. We could do anything short of breaking the most essential social rules, and no one cared. The brave new world was so free, and yet…
After four years, the “life of the mind” feels less like a life and more like an affectation. “Learning for its own sake” has its shortcomings, and if theory can provide no guide, then practical experience certainly can. Intelligence as I know it is an end-in-itself, seen everywhere in showy student displays of erudition and that trademark Chicago pretense. And if our knowledge has become simple display, so have our ethics. In the paradoxical world of the modern college, where an emphasis on civics has surpassed any thought about personal cultivation, buying Fair Trade beats tenacity or honesty any day, because everybody can get behind that little black-and-white sticker.
The effects are nowhere more evident than in the faces of the students I love and fear–the objects of my horror and compassion. Every activist protest is a reminder of the weak spirit behind it, the unawareness of what Nelson Algren called the kind of winning and losing that matters. And spirit is not the only thing our educations have ransomed. So have conviction, humility, faith, and charity gone by in shackles, in service to the life of the mind. There are no formative crucibles in college, no touchstones of our characters. Fun doesn’t come to die here. Virtue does.
We should not underestimate the importance of it either. For better or worse, regardless of whether we want to or not, we will enter into the ranks of our cultural elite. For us, as Charles Murray writes, it is not enough to be smart. We must also learn to be wise. To that, he adds a caveat: it is not enough for us to be nice. We must also learn to be good. And so I hold the most ineffable respect for those students I know who have mastered both, many of whom I have the privilege of counting among my friends. As for me, I feel at best I have entered into that gray mass internally differentiated only by taste and affectation, not by character or goodness, both of which I have sacrificed at the altar of intellectualism.
So here I stand at the end of my time at the University of Chicago, without spirit or intelligence. I gave my best and got a little back. Maybe this is the kind of losing that matters. F. Scott Fitzgerald, having survived that long night in a broke-down motel, lived to write: “The price was high…because there was one little drop of something–not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these…it was the extra I had. Now it has gone and I am just like you now.” That is how I have become identified with the objects of my horror or compassion. I feel like my price has been as high as Fitzgerald’s.