34 thoughts on “I Hope the University of Chicago Never Changes”

  1. Dude. I had a friend in Chicago who did not go the University of Chicago. I have been out of touch with him for many years. The last I heard, he was running a pawn shop. He once told me that he had been at some social event with a bunch of former U of C students. His comment was, These people were students at the University of Chicago thirty years ago and it’s like they still think that was the high point of their lives. He did not mean this as a compliment. I had another friend who was a U of C student when I was. He said something like, You know what’s wrong with this place? There’s no joy here.

    I would suggest, very respectfully, that I hope some things have changed at the University of Chicago.

  2. Meh. It is not that it was the high point of their lives, but that it was a unique shared experience that creates something fraternity-like among many of its graduates. I certainly feel that way. As to no joy, I missed that part. I met my wife there, and I met people who have been my friends for 30 years, I started a rock band there, I spent hours in the stacks with my best friends the books, and I loved the classes I took. Literally not a day passes that I don’t think about the place. The biggest influences on me are my family, my Catholic faith, and the University of Chicago. It is not for everybody. But no place should be for everybody.

  3. I’m glad it worked for you. I’m not sure it was the best place for me but that’s hindsight. It served its purpose. And of course there was Valois.

  4. “It is not that it was the high point of their lives, but that it was a unique shared experience that creates something fraternity-like among many of its graduates.” This. I have this exact bond with my fellow Illini that went to school while I was down there. I recently met a woman who was there while I was. We never met while going to school, but 21 years later made an instant bond talking about old times and have become good friends quickly. It is a strange and wonderful thing.

  5. “And of course there was Valois.”

    There still is Valois! And it is exactly the same, except the room is rehabbed. Looking at the menu is making me hungry.

    Short ribs are still the special on Saturday. And the cole slaw is still good.

    I hope we will always have Valois.

  6. Jonathan — that might be one of the most ‘damning with faint praise’ .. natch, where is the strike-over function — damning with damning damns i have ever read … it is clear you are trying to scuttle the robo-trollers from fundraising with your remarks … your stonehearted
    “and of course there was Valois” is cri-de-cour … we will always have the REG!!

  7. When I was a student at St Leo High School in Chicago, Brother Stoerr told me he would not write a letter of recommendation for me for the godless U of Chicago. My mother hated him and spelled his name differently in my senior yearbook. He blocked me from a trophy for being an outstanding athlete and scholar. I actually think that was the beginning of my loss of religion. I do know that he and a couple of other Christian Brothers used to go to the beach at 79 th street and conceal the fact that they were religious brothers. I knew other brothers that were very sympathetic and good guys. Several left the order later. It was an odd time. St Leo is still there and doing a good job, although with 100% lay faculty.

  8. How does it rank among academic difficulty for undergrads? I went to 2 colleges Menlo in the Bay Area – a small (400) at the time – then transferred to UVA- I worked twice as hard at UVA and went down almost a point in GPA.

  9. It is essentially a small college attached to a large research university. I don’t know how it is now, but when I was there you could (as an undergrad) go as far as you wanted to if you were talented and ambitious. At the same time it was a poor place to be if you were unfocused or unsure of yourself. You could get lost and the system would not look out for you, although this was more true for grad students than undergrads. There were a lot of brilliant but eccentric undergrads. The grad students tended to be much more conventional. The lost souls who had been working on their PhDs for ten years were legion. The physical environment was bleak, particularly during Winter. It may be better now.

  10. I don’t think that U of C is what it was when I was an undergraduate 1965 — 1970.

    The campus was trod by giants back then. Milton Friedman, who would always stop and talk to undergraduates, Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, William McNeill, George Steigler, .. the list goes on and on. The names I hear now like Martha Nussbaum, and Steve Levitt, don’t seem to come up to that level. Barack Hussein Obama. I can only hope he moves to Hawaii in January 2013 and is never heard from again.

    The undergraduate curriculum has been diluted to the point of pablum. The 10 courses are now 3 or 4. Western Civ is gone. My impression is that the curriculum is more like other schools following the Chinese menu principle, rather than a coherent version of the liberal arts.

    I read in the Alumni mag that they were starting an “Institute for Politics” or something like that and that David Axelrod would run it. I was appalled. It is not just that Axelrod is a vile political hack, the problem is that he does not have a PhD or a record of scholarly achievement. Back in my day they would never have let a person with out a PhD run anything. (What about Saul Bellow and Edward Shils you ask).

    I also read that they were starting an institute for Molecular Engineering. Engineering. OMG.

    They keep asking for money. My money will go to JNF, to my synagogue, to my kids’ school, not to U of C. They have lost their way.

  11. In the end isn’t the “unique shared experience” all anyone can take from college? That and perhaps learning some critical thinking skills.

    Any facts you learn in college can be pretty much learned from surfing the net or hanging around thhe local library, and most of the theories you learn are obsolete soon after you graduate (if they are not already obsolete when you learn them).

    Maybe it’s different for other majors, but from a business major point of view the relationships are about thhe only thing of value you have to show for college ten years after you leave.

  12. He said something like, You know what’s wrong with this place? There’s no joy here.

    My nephew almost the same thing on his visit to the campus – “No one looks happy here.” I told him that it was a great place for grad school (long live the GSB!), it wasn’t a fun place for undergrads.

    (So he ended up going to Notre Dame. Of course, I was forced to disown him.)

  13. Robert,

    If they keep asking for money you haven’t told them not to clearly enough. My daughter was not one of unfocused or unsure (physics major and did well in grades) but something happened sophomore year and it took her 5 years to get back on track. I let them know very clearly their solicitations were unwelcome and they kindly ceased. As Lex says, It is not for everybody. But no place should be for everybody.

  14. Michael Barone wrote an essay, then a book, entitled “Hard America, Soft America.” Most Americans live in Soft America up to and through college. At the University of Chicago, Hard America begins Monday of the first week of the first quarter. It is serious, it is competitive, everything is graded on a curve. There is no grade inflation. You are no one’s little darling. The professors are interested in identifying the small number of very talented undergraduates they may later want in their graduate programs, and the rest are slag at the pit head. You are treated as a grown up. Failing grades are possible. If it is not handed in on the due date it is a zero and an F is in sight. In other words, it was a lot like a real job in real life. For me it was a shock and it was incredibly hard. It served me well thereafter. And the classes were great, the reading was great, the better professors were great, there many great and brilliant and eccentric fellow students, if you sought them out. But, indeed, it is not for everybody. Further, I have been in steady contact with my undergraduate fraternity all these years. The young guys are very good. It seems to be a better balanced existence and somewhat more normal experience these days, still with many brilliant and ambitious people, so it is probably a better experience generally these days.

  15. Mrs. Davis: It will not serve my purposes to be a hard case about it. I throw a lot of mail away every day. And once every few years a drummer has to endure my lecture about the decline and fall of the common core. OTOH, my daughter works there these days and her boy-friend is a student there. So I see no profit in burning bridges.

  16. Getting a hard-America vs a soft-America education is a matter of what you major in and what courses/professors you choose as much as it is a matter of which college you attend. I’m pretty sure that if you’d studied Classics with Victor Davis Hanson at California State (Fresno), you would have gotten a hard-America experience; likewise if you majored in Air Traffic Control at any of the several colleges/universities offering this program.

    At some schools, however, it’s easier to evade Hard America pretty completely and still get a credential with the university’s name on it than at others.

  17. “At the University of Chicago, Hard America begins Monday of the first week of the first quarter.” Pah, what a bunch of sissies. A young chum of mine went up to Oxford one Wednesday and was immediately assigned an essay, to be submitted by Friday lunchtime. Term didn’t begin until the Monday.

  18. @Dearieme

    This would be the subject of a good post – hard America and schools vs soft America – at UVa they have – I think – one of the few honor codes outside the military academies with a strict policy – if caught cheating – you are kicked out.


    On my honor as a student at the University I have neither given nor received information on this exam”

    I remember it to this day since I had to write it each time at the beginning of my blue book.

    And every year 1-2 would be kicked out.

    Is that “hard” or “soft” America? ;-)

    Just wondering.

  19. I once chaired a panel that adjudged an undergraduate to have cheated. Before our judgement, what advice had I had from on high? “Keep this out of the courts.” Pah; sissies.

  20. Oh yeah, to continue my Oxford anecdote: in the first week of term she had to sit an exam that tested her success with the preparatory reading that had been assigned six weeks earlier.

    It’s best to persuade them that they are not there just to drink.

  21. My very first class at U of C in 1988 was the into calculus sequence taught by a Belgian doctoral candidate. 8:30am on a Monday. His introductory statement was something along the lines of “You were all really good in high school, maybe standouts, but now you are competing with all the other smart kids. You will have to work hard and most of you won’t make the cut!” I was offended being talked down to by a french accented grad student. But of course he was right.

  22. Calculus is too elementary a topic for university education: pah what sissies. Unless you mean div, grad and curl, in which case I withdraw.

  23. Thanks for that link Lex – offended – hardly – America needs to become “harder”. I was wondering publicly on this blog earlier what that book was – and here it is revealed!

    I’m at a baseball game for little kids (in full disclaimer it is because I know the parents ;-) ) – and they aren’t keeping score.

    Which reminds me of an episode of Two and a Half Men – where Allan – the prissy brother (as apposed to the boozing, womanizing brother Charlie) – Allan is at baseball game for his 10 yer old son Jake.

    He’s in the bleachers, finally stands up and says to (mostly suburban soccer moms), “ Why aren’t we keeping score? We suck, our kids know they haven’t won a game in the last 10 games – our kids know they suck – why aren’t we keeping score?

    Life is tough – there’s winners and losers – and we are doing no one any favors by concealing that fact until the work place.

    But I do think there are some schools that are hard; others that are soft.

    I would have to say that distinguishing them should be easy – just look at the cumulative GPA.

  24. Well I have to say the U of C (along with Berkeley) was instrumental in creating Los Alamos during WW2 – and the Manhattan Project.

    Oppenheimer needed to have all these physicists in one place – not spread out – for easier communication and exchange of ideas.

    And he picked Los Alamos because he used to camp there as a child.

    Interesting place – everyone there – 1000s – all “worked for the govt” and has the same mail address – “PO Box 63 Santa Fe NM”

  25. “But for most kids who are not on the track to the relatively few select colleges, junior high and high school are something like the Soviet system: They pretend to teach, and we pretend to learn.” — Michael Barone


    In my first hour of my first ever class in a state college my political science teacher called America’s public high schools a “vast intellectual wasteland”. I remember thinking this guy must be a jerk and I was insulted (well as insulted as any 18 year old kid could get.) By the end of my college career I realized he was spot on. He also was the best professor I ever had….That by the way was in 1990.

  26. I took several history classes from Dr. Francisco de Serpa, Ph.D at the local community college. He was a Luso-American, a Portuguese nationalist, and an enemy of unthinking hippie spawn. The intensity with which he lamented the “wrong turn” of 1469 when Isabella I of Castile married Ferdinand II of Aragon instead of Alphonso V of Portugal was awe-inspiring. He enthusiastically drew an alternative history map of the Iberian peninsula that excluded those treacherous Aragonese while Portugal included Castile, Galicia, and Andalusia. It would have ushered in a golden age of global Portuguese dominance that would have brought peace and prosperity to the entire world.

  27. I have a friend who went to Amherst and later to Princeton for grad school. He characterized the U of C as a “grind school” compared to his own where the most difficult thing was to simply be admitted. And there’s simply no comparison in the workload between the U of C when I went there in the ’80s and ordinary schools like the U of Colorado nowadays. 3-4 times more reading per week at the U of C than I see now at Colorado.

    The university has gotten far more political at the state and national levels than it used to be. Remember when Michelle Obama was promoted into a multi-$100,000 job as VP for community development/communications for the hospital (IIRC) when her hubby became senator? And I bet that they’ll offer both of them tasty jobs after his Presidency is over.

  28. Bill Brandt Says: ‘Well I have to say the U of C (along with Berkeley) was instrumental in creating Los Alamos during WW2 – and the Manhattan Project.”

    I think you have your WWII bomb history a bit scrambled.

    The U of C was one of the original laboratories working on the Manhattan project. Los Alamos was another one, as were Oak Ridge, Hanford, and others. The U of C contribution was the construction of the first atomic reactor at the University under the west stands of Stagg Field (Stagg was the U of Cs’s iconic football coach in the first years of the 20th Century). By WWII the UofC had dropped out of Big Ten athletic competition. The field was between Ellis and University and 57th and 56th. The site of the reactor is now marked by a Henry Moore sculpture. It was dedicated in 1965, by Prince Philip. I was there and meet the Prince. The remainder of the field is now occupied by the Regenstein Library and the Palevsky dorm. The current Stagg Field is a block west and north of the old field.

    Later during the Manhattan Project the U of C ran Argonne (to which the reactor was transferred) and Hanford in Western Washington. Los Alamos was run by Berkley.

  29. Robert – I can always be corrected – perhaps I am wrong – but in touring there (it’s a fascinating place just outside Santa Fe) – Oppenheimer needed all these scattered scientists closer together – It was my understanding that Los Alamos was created for that purpose.

    There certainly was a lot of atomic research at U of C – I think they and Berkeley were the top contributors?

    BTW one of the more fascinating historical figures I read about – one whom hardly anyone knows of – Alfred Loomis.

    He was a wall street financier who made millions, with science, and physics, is first love. His WW2 labs took radar – super secret from the British – and gave it the range.

    While it has been awhile since I have read the book I think one could say Lawrence Livermore couldn’t have gotten where he was without him.


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