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Hard Core Goes Soft

Must the University of Chicago loosen up?

A few years ago, when debates over the fate of “Western Civ” requirements raged at Stanford and elsewhere, traditionalists often pointed to the University of Chicago as the school where the old ideals of liberal education remained the most intact. Now that bastion of tradition is itself under attack, not by deconstructionists and postmodernists but by economists and accountants.

The turmoil is over a proposal to transform the old “Common Core” curriculum, some version of which has been in place since the 1930s, into the so-called “Chicago Plan.” The university administration wants to reduce the number of required courses in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences from 21 to 15 and to remove a longstanding foreign language requirement. Students, faculty, and alumni who object to this change are also up in arms about a plan to expand the size of the undergraduate student body by about 20 percent, to 4,500.They further object to efforts to change the school’s image from superintellectual to smart but fun. One way this makeover is to be accomplished is by changing the school’s handle from the University of Chicago to just “Chicago” (to identify the school with the hit Broadway musical, perhaps).

I should probably start by declaring my own hypocritical feelings in the matter. I grew up in Chicago (the city) and thought seriously about attending “The University” as it was known in my family, before deciding that it was a bit too cloistered and socially claustrophobic for my taste. Instead, I went to a big-name Ivy League university. I suspect that I would have got a superior education at Chicago, but I’m still glad I didn’t go there, both because college is partly about leaving home and because I think it would have been too hard and not enjoyable enough. Having rejected Chicago in part for the reasons that its officials are worried about, I can’t easily argue that they’re being absurd.

On the other hand, my instinctive sympathies are entirely with the alumni who are withholding contributions until their alma mater quits threatening to loosen up. What was best about the undergraduate education I subsequently got at Yale was what was done in imitation of Chicago–a freshman year Great Books program, structured around discussion in small seminars. I think it’s important that the beacon of that kind of liberal education continue to exist, even though I didn’t–and still probably wouldn’t–choose that education for myself. My old boss at the New Republic, Marty Peretz, used to say he wanted to found an organization called Jews for Hard-Line Christianity. Mine would be Nonalumni Against Changing the University of Chicago.

A s reports about the campus culture wars go, the Chicago story is refreshingly man-bites-dog. Instead of being driven by a bunch of tenured radicals, the dumbing down of Chicago’s curriculum is being pushed by the university’s Board of Trustees and its president, Hugo Sonnenschein, an economist who casts the need to change as a simple issue of competition. Chicago wants to attract the best students, and those students are offered more “choice” about what to study by other colleges and universities. Opponents of his plans think Sonnenschein, who came from Princeton, misunderstands the culture of the school he runs. One sign was his hiring as one of his vice presidents a marketing specialist from Ford who said cringe-making things about making the university more “fun” until he was driven out a few weeks ago. The leading opponents of reducing the amount of Aristotle, physics, and English composition in the curriculum are liberal professors, students, and alumni, who reject the consumer-market model of education.

The best argument for change is that it’s the only cure for a looming financial problem. Chicago’s $2 billion endowment is puny compared to the big Ivy League universities’, and it has run a small deficit in some years. The main reason its financial situation is weaker than that of other schools (though hardly desperate) is that Chicago has a much higher proportion of unprofitable graduate students. Undergraduates are the cash cows of higher education, both because they pay tuition and because they later contribute money when they become alumni. The unstated logic of the changes is roughly as follows: To produce more revenue you need more undergraduates. To get more high-quality undergraduates–meaning those with high SAT scores–you need easier course requirements and a more appealing atmosphere.

Chicago’s revenues also suffer from the way undergraduates are taught at Chicago–in small, participatory seminars led by full faculty members. It’s retail rather than wholesale education and requires more faculty than a lecture-based system. In recent years, the university has been holding larger seminars and using more graduate teaching assistants. Those protesting the Chicago Plan are really objecting as much to what has already happened in this regard as to what’s promised.

Chicago hopes to attract more smart kids by becoming an easier school that offers its students less individual attention? This isn’t necessarily as nutty at is sounds. Consider Brown, whose undergraduates have a higher average SAT score than those at Chicago, and which gets three times as many applications precisely because it has a reputation for being a blast and lacks any real requirements. The problem with this logic in this situation is that Chicago’s whole history, tradition, and reputation are on the other side of this divide. Intellectual intensity is its great–and perhaps sole–selling point. Rebranding the University of Chicago as a “fun” school deserves a place in the annals of marketing lunacy, alongside “Weyerhaeuser: the tree growing company” and the New Coke. It’s like trying to sell spinach as a delicious dessert. Chicago will never be fun, except insofar as intellectual stimulation is a species of pleasure.

That does not, however, condemn it to an inexorable decline. It’s not clear that Chicago’s financial problem is all that serious. But if it does need to woo more undergraduates, it would probably have better luck emulating Columbia University. Columbia, the university that has the toughest core requirements after Chicago’s, is as trendy as Brown–it admits only 17 percent of its applicants, versus 62 percent for Chicago. Of course, Columbia has the advantage of being in New York City instead of in an isolated enclave on the South Side of Chicago. But it also markets the strength of its curriculum. It boasts about its set menu instead of apologizing for not being a cafeteria.

Chicago ought to do the same. What’s valuable about Chicago isn’t just that it’s a high-caliber, difficult school. It’s that, in a time of confusion about the ends and means of higher education, it has the clearest and best notion of what constitutes one. This is isn’t simply reading the Great Books chosen by Chicago’s legendary President Robert Maynard Hutchins and his sidekick Mortimer Adler. It’s a commitment to general education–a sequence of courses intended to develop critical thinking in a wide variety of disciplines–in opposition to early specialization. And it’s the pedagogic method that Chicago largely invented: small seminars based on original texts and the examination of original works.

As for Chicago not being as selective as its Ivy League rivals are, the administration should quit worrying about it. Part of what’s appealing about Chicago is that it’s more open and democratic than other comparable elite institutions. Unconventionally gifted kids, who didn’t get top grades in high school or who don’t have perfect SAT scores, stand a better chance than they do elsewhere of getting in–and of being presented with the highest level of intellectual challenge. People at Chicago like to say that it’s harder to get into Harvard but harder to get out of Chicago. This makes it one of the few possible end runs around the meritocratic-credentialing complex, whereby standardized test scores determine future opportunities. Chicago has resisted institutional peer pressure for 50 years. It would be a shame to see it finally give in and become more like everywhere else.