U and the Modern University7:30 AM
My mother walked in the other afternoon with the mail. That signaled the imaginary period bell to release students of Napoleonic history from their books. Thirty-some minutes of freedom - to wander through the kitchen, sampling tator tots and homegrown cantaloupe, to flip through bills, L.L. Bean catalogs and the college propaganda steadily trickling in. I saw the big white envelope and slipped my finger through to break the seal.
"I already got something from the University of Chicago," I complained.
"They really want you," said my mother. "I get emails from them all time."
It's nice to be wanted.
Inside the big white envelope lay a big white viewbook, neatly designed to bedazzle innocent seniors like me. It is, actually, quite fun to get graphic design ideas from colleges. There's really little else I'm interested in - unless they can offer study in Oxford and a scholarship to pay for it. But because I was on lunch break, I opened the viewbook and heard their spiel:
At the University of Chicago, it's all about ideas. It doesn't matter who you are, where you're from, or what you're studying - what matters is that you're courageous enough to take chances, express your thoughts, discover your passions, and learn and grow from feedback. At the core of our curriculum, programs, and community, students learn how to think and open new intellectual horizons. It's this approach that empowers our students and fosters world-changing ideas.That's nice. I like ideas and world-changing. The thing is, every single shiny brochure has preached to me the same philosophy of community, discovery and "new intellectual horizons." I kid you not - every college boasts students that are "smart, funny, down-to-earth - the kind of people who become friends for life." Radically different colleges say the same thing. So what is what? How does one choose?
I signed up at the ACT for college propaganda for the sheer thrill of the game. It's fun reading appeals to my "impressive academic achievements"; it's flattering to know that they'll waive my application fee because I'm "special"; it's tickle-me-pink hilarious to know they send the same thing to everyone else, too.
But more than all that, I love figuring out the worldviews behind everything. Propaganda is propaganda: I know that. So linking what's in the glossy viewbooks and behind the fancy dean signatures to what the colleges and universities actually preach and teach is an amateur apologist's dream.
Every college claims to encourage intellectualism, integrity, exploration and "the best community." Every college is the unique builder of the up-and-coming generation. Who's pulling our legs?
Somewhere along the way, I think I got a UW-Madison letter. (I lose track. All that stands out is the college who has the orange being unpeeled, the University of Chicago, St. Norbert's and Yale - that was an exciting day.) My daddy graduated there; we still get their alumni publications which I try to read over lunch break before my dad tosses them into the recycling with a deprecating, "Such a liberal college." Worldview training at its best.
Of course, like all the other letters, pleas and glossiness, UW-Madison promised to turn me into an astute, culturally-engaged student at ease with all the ideas being tossed around. Like all the other colleges, it painted itself as refreshingly neutral ground for intellectual debate and idea-propagation.
I looked through my dad's yearbook the other night, bored with Champollion's slow progress to unlocking hieroglyphics. I regretted it.
The gap between the smiling, inclusive cover letter and the actual recap of the year closed very quickly.
Somehow, a visiting preacher and his new wife was big enough news to be included in two full pages of the alumni's memories. They splashed the couple's fiery, unapologetic, fundamentalistic, rabidly intolerant demeanors across those two pages, the surrounding text describing them as one would a rare breed. For big Madison, evangelists were the new circus come to town.
Students skipped classes to watch the duo in action. The preacher in his suit and tweed pants stood out from the wackily-dressed students clustered about him. He claimed to speak the truth, that he was a spokesman from God, that those who didn't believe him would go to hell. (Cue laughter.) And his wife? She was one of those submissive types who did whatever the husband said. "Oh, yeah," the preacher allegedly chest-thumped, "I'm definitely the head of my home!" (Cue laughter.)
I could just see them jabbing each other with their elbows: "Dude, what kind of act is this?" "I don't know, man! I haven't seen one of these in ages!"
Beyond propaganda-drizzled promises and tolerance delusions lies the hard fact of existence: everything has a belief system. Colleges and universities teach out of that belief system. Candy-coated, all-inclusive self-actualization that looks good in viewbooks - there's a belief running that, like Oz behind the green curtain - something not quite like you expected.
Researching different colleges and universities, from radically Christian to conservative to weakly conservative to rabidly liberal, I saw the worldviews seeping up through the propaganda. I learned to read between the glossy lines now, so to speak. What looks good on paper is more often than not code name for humanism.
- "It's all about ideas." Translation: Since there's no ultimate, unchanging truth, discussion of ideas leads only to making certain ideas (whether true, false or stupid) more palatable to the mainstream.
- "What matters is that you're courageous enough to take chances, express your thoughts, discover your passions, and learn and grow from feedback." Translation: Since there's no higher standard to conform to, this is the place for self-actualization and discovering that there's nothing wrong about you. This is the time for confirming through scientific and social research and high intellectualism that anything formerly labelled as "wrong" or "abnormal" can be transformed into "artistic," "modern" and even "thoughtful."
- "Students learn how to think and open new intellectual horizons." Translation: Because we teach from a worldview, students will learn to be open to everything, cutting holes into their minds like a sieve to process everything and retain nothing. UChicago says, "The core of undergraduate classes offers a broad perspective on human knowledge."
- "It's this approach that empowers our students and fosters world-changing ideas." Translation: No need to take a united message to the world. Our students, with their training in no-truth-ism, will transform the world according to the most popular ideas discussed above. As UChicago explains, "We provide the intellectual groundwork; you define the boundaries."
The difference is between "acquiring" and "actualizing," "learning" and merely "discovering." One has a foundation and stands upon it. One has a foundation of air and covers it up in gloss and fancy graphic design.