To incoming students at the University of Chicago
Dear Class of 2020 Student:
Welcome and congratulations on your acceptance to the College at the University of Chicago. Earning a place in our community of scholars is no small achievement and we are delighted that you selected Chicago to continue your intellectual journey.
When you arrive on campus in September you may find yourself asking, “What is this place? What is this place like? What kind of place is it?” You should prepare yourself now to never, ever find an answer to these questions. I have been here for three years and I have no idea. I know professors who have been here since the 1960s and they also have no idea.
Many students who attend the University of Chicago hate the University of Chicago. You will want to know, why is this? There are many things at this university worth hating. There are also many things at this university worth loving. Most of those things, I have found, are people. The rest are mostly trees, street corners, scalding paper cups of coffee spilled on just-washed garments, books, and libraries.
This is a university that is, probably out of some ineradicable jealousy for the Ivy League and the great and venerable universities of Britain and Germany, obsessed with putting the definite article in front of its name: you do not go to “University of Chicago,” but rather “the University of Chicago.”
This is absurd, of course, because no such place exists. Each of us inherits a University of Chicago, one of our very own. We also encounter all the Universities of Chicago inherited by our peers (so about five thousand to start) and all the Universities that have lived and died throughout our either 126- or 124-year history. Please memorize these numbers: there is one university for every campus coffee shop, while there are about one dozen for every academic division and at least one hundred for every major. Unfortunately there are at least five for every administrative division in Levi Hall. We have made great progress over the past few years in reducing the number of universities per fraternity to about three.
Some of these universities, make no mistake, are absolutely vile. Some of them will make no bones about oppressing you based on your race, gender, class, orientation, and/or disabilities. The worst of them will deny your experiences and your traumas, profile and stop you illegally to ask you for your ID, and lock you out of the central administrative building.
It is your duty, as soon as you arrive on campus,* to resist these universities with all your might. (If you are not sure how to do this, wait a few months: the university you will encounter in your SOSC class will, if you are lucky, provide you with a syllabus containing almost exactly what you need to understand the vicious hypocrisy of a certain few Universities of Chicago and the corporatization of the American university writ large.) I would also argue that it is your duty to forage for and collect, Pokemon-like, the universities that love you and that you come to love. These are out there, whether or not they present themselves immediately, whether or not they look like you thought they’d look.
The biggest mistake you can make is to think that your experience of this place, or anyone’s experience of it, is in any way definitive. This, if only the administration could see it, is the real meaning of “free and open discourse,” or whatever: accounting for differences. Some differences are harmful, others glorious. You must not try to erase any of them.
To me this place means apartment parties with sticky wooden floors, breathtaking conversations had while leaning against walls, hours spent sitting on benches (the benches here are the best in the world—way better than any drug) staring at trees, nights scaling the rocks at the Point, afternoons when you hop on the 2 or the 6 or the Green Line and get the fuck out of Hyde Park, falling asleep during afternoon classes in Cobb and then sneaking out to get coffee so you can contribute since after all you do love the book, books that you love, books that you hate, crying, crying, crying, the dorms, laughing in the dorms, sneaking vodka into the dorms, getting a job, anxiously clutching coffee in Harper Library, learning not to study in Harper Library because it gives me anxiety, ripping the Maroon in half, James Redfield’s Moby Dick class (no longer offered, I fear), pretending I smoked cigarettes so I could meet people, vibrating with joy after successful interactions with the fourth-years I looked up to, getting a horrible grade on a Shakespeare paper and punching a wall, Powell’s, people so stressed and devoted and strange you almost expect them to combust in front of you, people who will change your mind and teach you things, people who will be there for you in ways you did not know people could be there for others, people who will give you coffee when your card declines, people who will listen to you complain (try not to do this too much), people who will mean things to you and whom you will know from the first moment that you will never forget, as well as housecest, protest, course request, all-nighters, typos, real actual tragedy, dancing on Harper Quad on the first tolerable day of spring, a road trip or two, orange streetlights, the merciless flow of capital, the horrible suspension on the late-night shuttles, Z&H, the weird terrace in Classics, and, of course, love, but I would never in a million years assume that anyone I pass on the quad shares even one of these things with me because they simply might not. This is a stifling place and yet it is also one that has so much room, for so many different minds.
You must try to be here for others, because they will need you. Life at these universities is about the balance between ensuring your own survival and fighting as hard as you can for the rights of those around you.
If I had to guess what these four years will be for you, I would guess that they are not going to be a voyage of discovery but rather a process of continuous relentless and ever-compounding disorientation and befuddlement scored across by occasional bursts of joy and gratitude that will you confuse you even more despite their clarity. When you emerge (if you emerge) you will almost certainly be different, so you should be sensitive to the way this place changes you, since that is about the only thing you are guaranteed to get out of these however many years. I think it was Aristotle** who said that intelligence is the ability to discern boundaries, differences. I have no idea if this is correct or not, but it is, at the very least, a good place to start.
Again, welcome to the University of Chicago. See you in September!
John (Jay) Ellison, PhD
Dean of Students in the College
(* There is, thankfully, only one campus, shared by millions of Universities of Chicago. Except for that Booth building downtown, which you will never visit anyway, so don’t worry about it.)
(** Yes, I know—who cares what Aristotle said? But anyway.)