A Culture of ‘Proud Academic Sadism’

Robert Kozloff / University of Chicago
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In our ongoing conversation about the University of Chicago’s letter telling its incoming freshmen not to expect trigger warnings, this description of the school’s culture from a 2006 alumna, Susie Gutowski, caught my eye:

The message, “The quest for knowledge has no boundaries!” is what the University of Chicago prides itself in and consistently, relentlessly congratulates itself for. That is our identity.

My school and its constituents are proud academic sadists. It’s legit a place where people forget to eat because they got lost studying all day. During finals, someone would always gripe about how Harvard has a full week’s reading period and we have only two days. AND WE LOVE IT.  There is satisfaction in the struggle. It gives us fuel to keep going. It’s not “Work hard, play hard.” It’s “Work hard and be content that you are excellent.”

Meanwhile, as reader Joel pointed out yesterday, “The controversy over trigger warnings and safe spaces seems to be a phenomenon specific to elite institutions.” To me, those two observations—the prestige of the colleges with trigger-warning controversies, and the “proud academic sadism” of the people who go there—point to something revealing about the campus culture in which these controversies tend to arise.

I graduated from Columbia in 2015, and my campus was like Chicago’s: We admired most the people who allowed themselves least leeway, who led student government and organized protests and at night could be seen camped out in the reading rooms, barricaded with books and espresso. We bragged about how many cups of coffee we’d drunk, how few hours we’d slept in a week. To excel academically at an elite college is to cultivate a belief that your mind is as powerful and dependable as a machine; that you can feed it texts and it will crank out papers; that your output, your sturdy brilliance, will be the same at any hour of the night, no matter what’s going on in your personal life and no matter how little you’ve eaten or slept. You push yourself to your limit—then, your limit becomes your standard. If high-achieving college students seem fragile, it’s because in many cases they really are stretched to the breaking point by all that they’ve asked of themselves.

It’s a fiercely competitive culture, and very often your toughest rivals are not your fellow students, nor your professors, but your own instincts. Your hunger, your headaches, your exhaustion and frustration. Your reactions of anger or hurt when confronted with a painful topic—or your desire to step back, slow down, think further about a complicated issue, even when the paper’s due tomorrow or the seminar’s winding down or you have another test to study for. You learn willpower, perseverance, and the ability to doubt yourself. Less valuably, you learn to silence yourself—to discount your own worries, even valid ones, as evidence of weakness.

In this environment, it makes absolute sense that some students would call for gentleness—for systems that acknowledge their minds are attached to people, with sometimes-painful histories, and for spaces that allow them to bring up concerns that might otherwise be drowned out. And it makes absolute sense that others—including administrators like Dean John Ellison, who have thrived and excelled for their entire careers in a culture that prizes intellectual rigor above all else—would see that call for gentleness as a threat to their identity. It makes sense, in other words, that the concept of trigger warnings would trigger a defensive reaction. If your strength and status depends on how hard you are able push yourself—how much pain, emotional and physical, you’re willing to endure in the name of inquiry—what will you do when that pain isn’t valued and admired? Will all your hard work still count?

Back to Susie:

The writer of that letter felt our foundations were being shaken: there might be a politically correct world where ideas wouldn't be exchanged, that we'd stop probing out of politeness or fear. So he/the embodiment of the U of C itself had to say “This is what we stand for.”

Unfortunately, that self-congratulatory reminder was lost in a tone-deaf manifesto. The letter was the opposite of the U of C philosophy: it was impulsive reaction. What the letter should have said is, “We seek no impediments in our quest for knowledge, and you should expect to hear speakers and interact with material and people that will challenge your ways of thinking. Do not back down.”

That’s a message that administrators should bear in mind, too.