Mom is fixing his collar. It’s a new shirt, a nice one. She tucks it in neatly into his navy-blue sweater–also new. Baby brother has spilled ketchup on himself, so Mom has to swerve around to deal with that scenario, but she quickly returns to the college boy. Refocusing her attention, she reminds him to greet the professor, to make eye contact, and for goodness’ sake to sit up straight. She adds, “It’s important that you get a sense of the type of learning that goes on at this school. This is a wonderful opportunity, remember?” He nods and rolls his eyes. Mum still fusses with the collar. She continues, “We’re going to go to a lecture and open panel from actual students here.” She’s excited. He’s excited. “We’re so proud of you.” He smiles.
It is April 17 today, and they are sitting in Hutchinson Commons on the University of Chicago campus. It is the April Overnight Program, and a semblance of the Class of 2012 has descended upon campus to get a feel for the University–as soon-to-be-UChicagoan Daniel Rosenbaum put it, to understand the “atmosphere.” This is the test drive: the real experience beyond the brochure. However, at the UofC, there is an additional burden: shaking the dead fun stereotype. Prospective students asked, covertly and overtly, formal and informally, if by the grace of God they can get out on Saturday nights. The truth in the ubiquitous “Where Fun Comes to Die” shirt was the elephant in the room.
“My name is Ted O’Neill. I am the Dean of Admissions. We’re glad you’re here. We congratulate you on your acceptance to Chicago. This is something precious.” Mr. O’Neill addressed nearly 400 prospective students and family at Max Palevsky Cinema, home of Doc Films. “I’m sure you have other precious opportunities, as well,” he continued. This is a unique place, which attracts a unique student body “who read books, who don’t dismiss questions, who stay up late and like to discuss these things.” O’Neill looked up at the crowd and smiled. “I am here to introduce John MacAloon, someone I’ve worked with, and earlier, when a mother introduced herself to us, I said this is my boss. There’s no question that at this university, the shots are called by the faculty.” He reminds the crowd how the distinctive quality of the University is rooted in the devotion of the faculty. He continued, “I work for the faculty, not for the President, not for the Board of Trustees, or ‘U.S. News and World Report,’ but for the faculty.” The crowd cackled, all too familiar with the college rankings published annually by the magazine. He then introduced John MacAloon, the Associate Dean of the Social Sciences Division.
John MacAloon provides the incoming class with a summary of the distinctly UofC take on education: the Great Books are great, the Core curriculum is important, the first two years of college should structure and provide the foundation for learning. MacAloon drew from John Dewey, which his current “Power, Identity and Resistance” class is reading. He focused on the need for critical thinking, a breadth of knowledge in multiple disciplines, and a commitment to the intellectual roots of the University. His talk simultaneously defended the academic focus of the University and aggressively attacked the superficial calculus used to pick a college. He paused at one point, looked up, and asked why “the hotness factor of the university” was an acceptable criterion. He continued to stress the importance of academic rigor. Perhaps his most distinct observation was the effect that the University would have on the prospective students. He cautioned that there will be a “shock of going back home after one semester.” The intellectual rigor is that perceptible.
MacAloon then fielded several questions. The first, asked by a young woman in the front row, was a well-phrased question on grade inflation. She drew an analogy to peer institutions, the competition for graduate school, and the pressure to do well. “’Why are we so mean?’ was what I just heard,” MacAloon quipped. He continued, sarcastically, “We are rigor for its own sake, we are rigor to make our students be rigor, and then we kill them, and rigor mortis sets in.” The crowd laughed, although a little nervously. He continued, “Let me dismiss that last concern, as quickly as I can. There are institutions with some grade inflation and some not as much.” He trailed off for a moment, but quickly added, “If you’re a graduate of the University of Chicago, people know what you’ve been through.”
The “fun-death” elephant in the room reared its head again during the carefully constructed student panel. Immediately after MacAloon’s talk, Ted O’Neill introduced five current students who answered questions from the audience. The student panel was split in two: an “in front of parents” and a “not in front of parents” section. The latter came about when all the parents were asked to leave the room, to take a bus tour of Hyde Park. During this time, prospective students were dispersed to dorms and had the opportunity to ask questions sans parental presence. Although each section drew on distinctly different vocabularies, the focus was similar.
For example, in both sections, prospective students asked about workload. Answers varied. Julian, a first-year who lives in Broadview and serves on Student Government, responded cheekily that he deals with his work through “lack of sleep.” Allen, a first-year living in Snell-Hitchcock, explained that priorities were essential. Judith, an international student majoring in biology, explained that her classes are genuinely interesting, so finishing her work is easy.
Anecdotally, it seems that there is a paradox in the “Life of the Mind.” There was a perceptible tension between fears of workload and the intellectually rigorous life–desiring the latter without the former.
Despite the apprehension, prospective students also asked about triple-majoring, graduating in three years, and available prestigious research positions. One undoubtedly-soon-to-be-Chicagoan asked, “Is this place epic?” It seemed so in the brochures, she explained. Amalaya, a member of the student panel, assured her, “The brochure is an actual representation. It’s not just fluff, it’s what it’s actually like.”
Moreover, the Class of 2012 was chosen out of a record-high 12,418 applications–a twenty-percent jump from the Class of 2011. The result was the lowest acceptance rate in the University’s history. Ted O’Neill characterized the Class of 2012 as retaining the Chicago intellectual life and argued that the University is not becoming more mainstream, but rather that more intellectually-focused kids are discovering Chicago. He explained, “It includes more kids than anyone ever thinks. There are more people like [‘the UofC type’]. It is limited. But, it’s not severely limited. Most high schools in America have kids just like that.” He added, “They have not always applied to us. More are figuring it out.”
He added, “[The Class of 2012 is] enormously strong. I mean, they are strong across the board–measured by the standards we care about most. They can write well. They want this kind of education; they want the liberal arts. They are not strictly and thoughtlessly just interested in careers. They seem like the right kids.”
I then asked him, “Does it get just better and better?”
He paused for a moment, and replied, “I think it does get better and better. Oddly enough, you wouldn’t think anything in the world just gets better and better, but I think the classes do…Maybe this will stop, you know. But, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”