Sunday, 30 October 2016

"Generation X': A Brief History of Dropouts from the U. of Chicago"

I'm honored to be among the former U. of C. students from "Generation X" featured in a thoughtful article by Hannah Edgar in the current issue of the student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, Generation X': A Brief History of Dropouts and Transfer Students at the University of Chicago.

(The title of the article is an insider pun on the way the U. of C. refers to alumni like myself as "ex-degree", with an "X" and the year we left the University, in lieu of our degree and year of receiving it.)

Congratulations to Hannah Edgar for digging so deeply into this underreported (for reasons some of which she explores in the article) topic, and for including me in this distinguished company along with others including Andrew Patner, my classmate and, much later, one of Ms. Edgar's mentors.

And thanks to the U. of C., in all seriousness, for a profoundly valuable educational experience.

One of many issues Ms. Edgar and I talked about that didn't make it into the article was to what degree the inability of the U. of C. to deal with its "image problem" was, and perhaps still is, related to homophobia and/or Asperger's Syndrome.

When I read a description of the longstanding negative stereotype of a U. of Chicago student quoted from a former President of the U. of C. in a recent history of the College, my reaction was, "Is this a description of a stereotypical faggot? Or of a stereotypical person with Asperger's? Or both?"

The answer, of course, is "both". But no matter how obvious that answer is, it's one the U. of C. has yet to confront. Here's the U. of C. student stereotype. You be the judge of what it means:

Every high school principal and college counselor knows precisely the kind of student they think we want, and they endeavor conscientiously to urge these students to come to the University of Chicago. The stereotype varies a bit in different parts of the country, but it adds up pretty well into a certain kind of youngster. First of all, he must be odd and not accepted in games and social affairs by the other students. He must be bright, not necessarily in the conventional sense of high I.Q., but in some extravagant and unusual way. He must have read and pondered esoteric things far beyond his years. He draws a sharp breath when reference is made to Aristotle, St. Thomas, John Donne, and James Joyce. He wears glasses, does not dance, deplores sports, and has advanced ideas on labor and the theory of relativity.... The converse of this stereotype is also the case. As one college counselor phrased it to me, "It simply does not occur to any of our normal students to go to the University of Chicago." We have insisted that the purpose of a university is to train the mind, and the inference has been drawn that the rest of the person may go hang so far as we are concerned. We have deplored fun, snorted at anyone who wanted to develop himself physically, and sneered at anyone who conceived of a college education as having any vocational or practical significance.... The stereotype which emerges is thought to be the only person who would be interested in or profit by our system of education." [U. of C. President Lawrence Kimpton, address to the faculty, 1954; quoted by Dean of the College John W. Boyer, Chicago Occasional Papers on Higher Education XXII, 2012, pp. 82-83.]

I can't say whether there was any larger a proportion of queers at the U. of Chicago than anywhere else -- I arrived on the Quads as a 17-year-old sexual naïf who was completely oblivious to such matters even though there were already some out gay students in the College. I wouldn't have a concept of bisexuality, much less the sexual self-awareness to be able to recognize it in myself, until a year or two after I left Chicago. But looking back on my time in Hyde Park, it seems clear that a (mostly) deeply closeted, unspoken, and unexamined gay male sexuality was a significant component of the "cloistered" culture of the campus.

As for Aspy's, the U. of Chicago was and is a center for for the study of psychology and human development, among many other things. So there were probably U. of C. scholars who had heard of "Asperger's Syndrome" as early as the late 1970s, when I was there. But the term wouldn't enter general public discourse until decades later. And to this day, I have never heard anyone describe the student body of the College of the U. of C. as characterized by an inordinate percentage -- even compared to other "elite" and "hothouse" academic institutions -- of people "on the spectrum".

Today, however, now that we have the words and concepts to describe it, that should go without saying -- or should be said, and its significance and implications discussed openly and in some depth. It would be impossible to address the character of the typical student at the College of the U. of Chicago without reference to Asperger's.

(For what it's worth, the graduate and professional schools at the U. of C. were more "normal", or at least more in line with the norms of graduate and professional schools.)

I'm quoted in the Maroon as saying, among other things about my time at the College of the U. of C. in 1979-1980, "It was the first time I met smart and interesting people who were weird in the ways that I was weird, and who didn't make fun of me or think that I was terribly weird. And that was all wonderful."

As I told Ms. Edgar in the course of a long conversation (her story has been in the works for months, and reflects an immense amount of research), I wasn't just talking about finding myself for the first time in a community of Aspy's, or at least where Aspy's were common enough not to be a focus of special attention. That was, however, certainly a part of what it meant for me to find a home, in some sort of personal as well as in an intellectual sense, at the College of U. of C.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 30 October 2016, 01:26 ( 1:26 AM) | TrackBack (0)
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