By Karl T. Muth, MBA ’10
The University of Chicago is one of the few American institutions that is better-known, better-respected, and better appreciated by those one encounters abroad; in Juba, South Sudan, in a sweltering football stadium on the day South Sudan became a country, the man next to me, spying the phoenix on my cufflinks, smiled and introduced himself, “I studied in Hyde Park, too.” Ironic, then, given our institution’s enormous reach, that my UChicago story happens over a seventy-five-year period safely within the ambit of a one-block radius. Our family’s history is inexorably intertwined with three times the world nearly ended while we watched, and adapted, on the 5800-block of South Woodlawn Avenue. It is where our family’s gone to transform for three generations, each graduate like a sea turtle clumsily flapping toward freedom after maturing in an egg buried in the sands of 57th Street Beach.
As far as my grandmother knew, the world might have ended by the time she reached Hyde Park. An Anglo-Chinese refugee after Japan invaded His Majesty’s Overseas Territory of Hong Kong, she came to live in temporary immigration and refugee intake facilities constructed on the Midway and on Woodlawn itself by the U.S. military. Later, she moved into International House. She made the most of this time, studying for a graduate degree (like many studying during the war years, she received her AM after the war), integrating into the wartime immigrant Chinese community, and finding new romance in a new country with my grandfather, a polyglot diplomat-turned-entrepreneur.
My grandmother could not have known the medical tents north of the Women’s Annex (Noyes Hall, then a women’s club gathering support for the war effort, including a campaign that involved a drive-through service on 59th Street removing bumpers from the automobiles of Chicago’s 1940s philanthropists and socialites to be melted down for steel—front-page stuff of ruling-class sacrifice during the war) would transform into something of meaning for her progeny during future crises.
My mother (AB ’71) lived not fifty yards away from where those bumpers were collected when she began her studies at the college at the age of fifteen, the youngest in her entering class. For young men just a few years her senior, the world was ending in a slow, deadly lottery. The weekend her first year at Chicago began, Vietnam protests (motivated by Vietnam-era conscription’s effect on the African-American community) paralyzed the area, moving northeast from Jackson Park. Rickert House (within Woodward Court), her dormitory on South Woodlawn Avenue, was a front-row seat for protests and debates (a series of student-organization-sponsored debates was held from 1968 to 1972, nearly all of them within a brisk five minutes’ walk from Woodward) at the apex of the Vietnam War, the shift from Johnson’s escalation to the Pentagon Papers era.
I began my MBA in the autumn of 2008, in the moment after the lightning strike but before the thunderclap of the financial crisis, when everyone—particularly those betting six figures of tuition on a future investment banking job—thought the world was ending. By the time I arrived in Hyde Park, my mother’s Woodward Court, where she accepted an invitation to the dance where she would meet my father, a GSB student (they would later marry at Bond Chapel), had been demolished and replaced with the Harper Center, a building whose modernist Winter Garden felt like a glass bomb shelter during the first winter of the Great Recession. The Booth Class of 2010 hid together in the twenty-five subterranean classrooms beneath it, learning our trade and guarding our ambitions’ virgin ears from the Wall Street Journal’s headlines.
One day, at Harper, after a class co-taught in room C06 by Gary Becker, Kevin Murphy, and Ted Snyder (the economics equivalent of Glengarry Glen Ross’ casting call), Dean Snyder suggested I might have what it takes to write a PhD and agreed to write a recommendation on Dean’s Office stationery. I smiled so hard I nearly broke my face.
I sat in Noyes that night with a room-temperature black tea from Medici, in a quiet corner, looking up across Woodlawn Avenue to glimpses of Rockefeller Chapel. I sipped at that singular, bitter cup of tea for hours and wrote the PhD application that would take me to London and replace maroon with purple and gold for a few years. During that summer, I ran into an economics faculty member (who shall remain nameless) on the corner of Woodlawn and 58th and exclaimed that I’d gotten into the PhD program at the LSE. I must have been grinning like I’d just robbed a bank.
He sighed and asked me, “Do you know why their mascot is a beaver at the London School of Economics?”
“No,” I paused, “perhaps because the beaver is industrious?” I asked, optimistically.
“Nonsense!” the economist barked, housing a knowing grin at the corner of his mouth, the look of an old man who has the best punchline in the whole pub and has been saving it to enjoy with his final pint, “It’s a beaver because they’re a bunch of fucking socialists doing their damnedest to clog up the stream of commerce!”
It was the quintessential Chicago critique of a rival institution and, by extension, a competing thought process. Clever. Witty. Short. Metaphorical. Multifaceted. Comparative. Rehearsed. Dry. Sharp-elbowed. Rhythmless. Cumbersomely delivered. And alluding to how the world will end if those in charge don’t think like “we” do. If they don’t bleed maroon. Our school is the school for which the phrase “school of thought” was created, my housemate once quipped. I turned to the economist and laughed out of courtesy—the chuckling equivalent of a golf course applause—and resumed my smiling, much to the economist’s disapproval.
The world does not end. Even when you’re living in a refugee camp half a world away from home. Even when people from the community surrounding yours is being robbed of its young men. Even when the companies you and your colleagues hope to work for and aspire to lead are deemed “small enough to fail.” Even when you write your PhD at a place with an amphibious mammal with socialist tendencies as its mascot.
The world does not end. The world forces you to adapt, evolve, improve. Hyde Park is an amplifier of this, a forge. The intellectual equivalent of a blacksmith in old Damascus, it will fold you back upon yourself and force two parts, two ideas within you that have never before touched to collide and join together in a way no one has combined them before. It will be irreversible, difficult, even painful. But the world nearly ending is what any new experience worth having feels like.
Any time, era, moment is a fantastic time to be at Chicago. Now, for example. Right now. The University of Chicago will wrap you up, a maroon-tinted chrysalis of neoclassical liberalism, the outside decorated with Becker and Coase and Posner CMS-formatted footnotes, and you’ll emerge having had wonderful and terrifying dreams while you’ve been squirming inside. It will create a transformational epoch in your life’s narrative, a piece of punctuation borrowed from a language you do not yet know, a dotted interlude on your personal timeline where some averted apocalypse became something new and confusing and strange.
Some will say the transformation I describe here happens at other institutions, that it is simply part of the college experience, that it can happen anywhere; that may be true. But I recommend South Woodlawn Avenue.
Karl T. Muth teaches Economics, Law, and Public Policy at Northwestern University