Monday, June 9, 2008

Pomp and Circumstance, Indeed

It's June, and that means that the year is winding down here at the University of Chicago. Final exams finish up this week, and the former flood of stressed out, sleep deprived students madly trying to finish their term papers has been reduced to a trickle. (Of course, that trickle is most likely in deep, DEEP trouble at this point.) The whole campus seems to be breathing a collective sigh of relief, and seems ready to say goodbye to a year of panic and stress and finally embrace the carefree summer that it deserves.

And what better way for the Administration to mark this joyful time of celebration than to have its annual Alumni weekend, when all of the University of Chicago's famous and not-so-famous graduates are invited back to the ol' alma mater for a weekend filled with sunshine, champagne, and reminiscing about their glory days while silently judging all of their less successful classmates. Plus, they can bring their cheque books with them, too!

In honor of the descent of all of these distinguished, well-endowed guests, the campus at the University of Chicago has undergone a metamorphosis that is nothing short of miraculous. The fenced off construction site by my bus stop is now a quaint little park filled with brand-new benches. The campus center quadrangles have gone from being a sink-hole filled, ankle twisting mudfield to a perfectly manicured lawn complete with tulips and lilacs that match the school's colors. The construction scaffolding that has been up all year-long is being taken down to reveal the elegant, 19th Century church underneath. The sidewalk holes and cracks have all been fixed. The drinking fountains all work. None of the toilets are backed up and flooding out into the hallways. Everything has been carefully arranged so as to give off the impression that the University of Chicago is an intellectual paradise, a Utopia of Academia where the classes all start on time, every student is fully funded, and they may be just seconds away from finding that cure for cancer/AIDS/world hunger/pink eye.

I used to think that Bard College was unique in how far it would go to mis-represent itself to guests and potential donors, investors, or tuition payers. For example, the calendar was set up so that your parents would only come at most three times a year: to drop you off in September, for parents weekend in October, and to pick you up again at the end of May. And on all of these occasions the Hudson River Valley was sure to be on its "A" game, with the foliage either at the height of its fall colors or having just finished its spring bloom, with the weather warm yet crisp, and with the sky the color of angels' eyes. (All angels have blond hair and blue eyes, right?) Your folks would most likely look around themselves in awe, and say to you, "What an idyllic, pastoral place this is! This is the perfect setting to be contemplative and to study the great works of Western Civilization! And then, when you're done with your studies, what better way to enrich your soul than by frollicking through the pristine forest! How lucky you are!"

Little would your parents know that, from November through April, Bard College was a muddy, icy, cold, dark, gray, shoddily landscaped swamp that was cut off from the modern world and deprived of such first world necessities as reliable transportation, decent health care, and multiplex theaters. And while they were right about the propensity for students to go running through the woods, that was usually due to either having someone eat the Eyeball acid when they should have had the Spiderman, or the rumor that there was a bear on campus, or the disturbingly regular occurrence of a freshman getting stuck in a bog down by the Tivoli Bays and their friends having to fetch Cliff the security guard to pull him out. Either way, the woods there were filled with terrors and hippies and bottomless pits. All things considered, life at Bard was nothing like the forty-eight hour catalogue photo that was presented to parents, alumni, and prospective students once every Fall and Spring.

But the University of Chicago has one-upped Bard in this category of mis-representation. Because in addition to the unusually well-manicured lawns and the frightfully well-catered buffets that are no where to be seen between November and April, Chicago has the added benefit of reminding visitors that the University doesn't, in fact, need them, that it is doing just fine without their donations, thank you very much, and that, by the way, did you know that Barack Obama used to teach at the law school here? To emphasize their total and absolute superiority to you, they have surrounded the campus with garish, Soviet-style posters portraying famous graduates like John Ashcroft (J.D., '67), Paul Wolfowitz (Ph.D., '72), David Brooks, (B.A. '83), and Susan Sontag (B.A., '51). I mean, how could you ever hope to compete with great minds like these? You might as well just give up now and have another shrimp cocktail. Constantly here, one is reminded of one's absolute insignificance, as one is also reminded simultaneously of how much better one would feel about one's self if one would just make a small donation to the University. But, y'know... they don't really need it. Just if it makes you feel better about your wasted life.

And the fact that you totally used to give David Brooks swirlies after history class every Tuesday.

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