Why You Came to the Place Where Fun Goes to Die

University of Chicago is where fun goes to die.

I wonder what comes up when I google my school? Rip.

If students spend Friday nights at the Reg, finish physics p-sets over breakfast, and sleep 5 hours over 2 days, why would anyone want to come to the University of Chicago? We took a look at what sociologists Karl Marx and Max Weber had to say about the individual and collective motives behind our decision to attend a university that is known mostly for its intense academic environment with a reputation for suppressing extracurricular enjoyment.

1. We’re just a bunch of scared babies trying to cover up our fears in a job well done.

Why on earth would a student willingly go “where fun goes to die?” Weber’s analysis of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism give us a clue.

…the religious valuation of restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling, as the highest means to asceticism, and at the same time the surest and most evident proof of rebirth and genuine faith, must have been the most powerful conceivable lever for the expansion of that attitude toward life which we have here called the spirit of capitalism (Weber 116).

Unlike the doctrine of the Catholic Church, early Calvinist Protestant ideology held that an individual’s salvation or damnation was predestined by God, meaning that no amount of good works could win a damned soul a ticket past the pearly gates. Calvinists encountered a profound psychological crisis of identity as a result of the loss of agency under this new frame, as individuals realized the futility of their worldly actions. Pious Calvinists lived under the constant and complete anxiety over fate in the afterlife, and could not stomach the uncertainty inherent to the faith.

As counsel to distressed souls, Calvinist pastors began to preach the benefits of good works. The new dogma began to resolve the crisis of predestination. The doctrine of work held that if one acted as if she were damned, she was sure to be, but if she acted as though she were saved, the existential angst could be kicked down the road and resolved after death. As a result, Calvinists and other Protestants developed a manic workaholism that stressed doing one’s best in a God-ordained job in the service of God’s glory in an effort to stave off the fatalism inherent to predestination.

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“How are you?” “I’m fine.”

The earning of money within the modern economic order is, so long as it is done legally, the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling (Weber 19)

If one asked UChicago students why they’re here, most answers wouldn’t mention God. Yet the pursuit of academic excellence is closely tied to service to the glory of God, because as Weber explains, the Protestant code of ethics drives the spirit of capitalism, the dominant system of the world in which we confront ourselves with the uncertainty of our cause. UChicago students exist in a society fundamentally molded by capitalism, which is in itself molded fundamentally by the Protestant work ethic. That’s why accumulating high grades brings us pleasure and why UChicago students especially equate being a hardworking, competent worker with being a good person.

UChicago students embody Weber’s spirit of capitalism – we almost religiously value the restless, continuous, systematic work of cultivating learning. The quintessential UChicago dictum that highlights our dogged focus on ideas embodies the calling that UC students serve: “That’s all well and good in practice, but how does it work in theory?” Students at the University of Chicago specifically toil at the altar of ideas; there is no higher purpose than advancing knowledge for knowledge’s sake. UChicago is the place where fun goes to die not because of the oppressive regime of the administration (probably) but rather, it is a nod to the value of pure learning. Rather than an epithet, “where fun goes to die” becomes an ideal paradigm that UChicago students try to embrace to the fullest in order to satisfy their calling. 

But the reality of a university education isn’t just inward-facing. As much as UC students value academic excellence, we also can’t stomach the uncertainty of our employment within the global economy, the depletion of social security funds, and the ever-increasing cost of living. Though most students aren’t slaving over p-sets and papers to quiet their conscious fear of hell, they certainly are trying to quiet the fear of the disapproval of a society that values making money via workaholism. So despite the fact that capital is ever pushing innovation to happen faster and faster – and thus the job market is changing faster and faster – we tell ourselves that if we get an A in Honors Analysis, we’ll  be able to earn the inner satisfaction and societal approval of good hard work (and the money that makes).

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Behold, external validation.

2. Because if we’re going to sell out, we want to be hot commodities.

Marx conceptualizes the individual as distinguished from animals due to conscious social activity. Man exists in relationship to nature, society, and himself. As a species-being, man is a free being, and he forms his means of subsistence giving respect to the laws of beauty. Individuals rely on nature to keep their physical existence. However, in the capitalist society, these relationships of free being have been violated and he is alienated from himself and the object he is making. Man’s labor is being forced upon him by the capitalist, who is himself forced by capital.

External labour, labour in which man alienates himself, is a labour of self-sacrifice, of mortification… the worker’s activity is not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self (Marx 74).

Capitalist society inevitably alienates individuals from nature, their species-being character from their source of physical existence. Humans still need to eat and drink, still need that relationship to nature in which they harness nature for their own benefit, even if our relationships do distinguish us from animals in other ways. The capitalist society divides the world into two categories, capitalists and workers, away from nature. The only way workers can keep their existence is through being exploited by capitalists, instead of interacting freely with nature. Hence they are dominated by their own labor.

There are many reasons that will make people accept the exploitation of our labor as students here. As a student in the University of Chicago, an individual has to accept the fact he is there because capitalist society esteems high-level education. By pursuing education there, individuals make themselves more appealing commodities to offer to capitalists,  this is the only way by which they can get money to sustain their physical existence. But the capitalist will hire you to pay you what you need, working you beyond that and accumulating the surplus-value. You have to submit yourself to exploitation just to survive.

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I’m a good candidate for this job, because I’ve always been passionate about not starving.

3. We’re all just hosts for the reproduction of capital.

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All that science is for a good cause, according to Capital…

For Marx, the collective values scientific advancement due to capital’s dominion over them. Capital, in its quest for self-valorisation, invests in scientific advancements in order to make production more efficient and so surplus value more abundant. Therefore, capital’s domination of us all means it gently nudges you into a role in life that is likely to help improve its production process, which is a key priority for capital.

The capitalist society places merit on institutions such as UChicago that produce laborers who can lead scientific advances and improve manufacturing. So Marx might say you attend UChicago because of the societal benefits of doing so (higher wages in jobs, status in society, improved prospects) and these stem from capital’s need for scientific advancement in order to better create surplus-value.  

Machinery is intended to cheapen commodities, and, by shortening that portion of the working day, in which the labourer works for himself, to lengthen the other portion that he gived, without an equivalent, to the capitalist. In short, machinery is a means for producing surplus-value (Marx 403).

Marx explains that by virtue of it being an efficient and productive way of producing commodities, machines allow labourers to produce more commodities per day than without them. Therefore, after the point at which they make enough commodities to reproduce their labour, they are effectively labouring for free. This is favourable for the capitalist because it means they can extract maximum surplus-value from their labourers. It is therefore also favourable to capital because more surplus-value is created and so more valorisation takes place. Therefore, there is clearly an incentive for capital to make its hosts (capitalists, i.e. people) invest in the development of machinery to improve the production process to make more surplus-value.

The development of the means of labour into machinery is not an accidental moment of capital, but is rather the historical reshaping of the traditional, inherited means of labour into a form adequate to capital (Marx 280).

Here, Marx suggests that capital using machinery is an inevitability of the development of capitalism, and that capital is inevitably going to reshape the labour process to make the most surplus-value possible. This provides further motivation for the fact that capital is likely to want to invest in research and development in order to make better machines to fulfil its inevitable tendency to improve its rate of self-valorisation by a more efficient production process.

On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent ( relatively) of the labour time employed on it (Marx 285).

The creation of wealth being independent of labour time is dependent on the use of machines, as discussed here:

The increase of the productive force of labour and the greatest possible negation of necessary labour is the necessary tendency of capital, as we have seen. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery is the realization of this tendency (Marx 280).

And this is a key process in Capital’s strive for self-valorisation, and so the powers of science and nature are being called together to form better machines so that the productive force of labour can be increased as much as possible. This explains why capital wants the increased advancement of science because scientific advancement leads to better machines that improve the production process and produce more surplus-value. There is the “the tendency of capital to give production a scientific character” (281) leads to the investment by capital in research and development, and the emphasis placed on the training of labourers to allow them to make more scientific advancements and improve the process of production.

It is, firstly, the analysis and application of mechanical and chemical laws, arising directly out of science, which enables the machine to perform the same labour as that previously performed by the worker (Marx 283).

This type of labor – creating machines to do all the tasks workers can do – all the way up to computer programming machines that can think – is a part of the education students at UChicago can receive. Eventually, these machines will be able to think for us, and the production process will continue to become more efficient. Furthermore, as industry becomes modernised even more, the reliance on wealth creation from the advance of science increases. Therefore, as the world becomes more reliant on mechanised manufacturing processes, the reliance on science to continue improving processes also increases.

But to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and […] rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production (Marx 284).

What this means is that, in our modern world with already-mechanised processes of production, we as a community are heavily reliant on science and technology to keep improving on what they have already improved, and we see this concretely in the emphasis placed on artificial intelligence and self-driving cars (very advanced pieces of technology) to improve upon computers and cars that science already created.

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Maybe this guy should be dressed as a scientist; Marx doesn’t seem to think being a chef is what creates wealth

Therefore, increased amounts of training for students in the fields of science and technology is required, but also in other fields that help inform the progress of science and technology. This could explain why we are at UChicago – the collective finds it important that we are trained in a wide range of fields because capital with its dominion over the collective needs new minds to innovate scientifically and create more wealth by advancing the progress of technology. This include industries not directly linked to science since these have the potential to create surplus value that can then be invested in scientific industries. Despite individuals possibly not engaging in science, the collective acts to prioritises it, by ensuring it has the input of capital from other fields. Think Elon Musk – he invented PayPal, made loads of money, then used that money to fund SpaceX. SpaceX is the first privately company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft with their Dragon craft. So, y’know, even an Econ major like Musk contributes to science. Plus, there are many Econ, or political science, or philosophy, majors out there who indirectly contribute capital to the advancement of science. 

So according to Marx, you (on a collective level) are a student at UChicago because you, as part of the collective dominated by capital, are implored to improve the state of science in order to improve the mechanisation of the manufacturing process, and to therefore create more wealth – more surplus-value – which capital is constantly aiming to do. The collective therefore places a value on higher education because it benefits capital, which they are dominated by.

4. If we leave, we’re screwed.

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The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force (Weber 123).

Even if UC students decide they no longer want to buy into the “where fun goes to die” paradigm, the collective stipulation to pursue excellence in a Chicagoan manner necessitates participation within it. Weber provides the framework with his broader generalization to the spirit of capitalism as a whole. Protestant ethics were appropriated by capitalist society, and thus labor in a “calling” became a widespread life goal, therefore today we cannot escape it. Because collective society operates under this accepted framework, the passion of the individual is co-opted into the general societal trends. UChicago students can’t opt out of this system on the level of our society as a whole, because we’re all subject to a fundamentally capitalist society. But the University itself is a representation of that same subjugation to a system that individuals themselves did not create.

An individual student at the University of Chicago may decide that the “where fun goes to die” ideal is not worth pursuing, and attempt to live up to paradigmatically deviant values. But within the frame of UChicago, there is no such opt-out mechanism. For so long as one is a student at the University, no matter how she may try to rig the classes to find the easiest ones, take the minimal required courseload, spread out requirements, and fill in electives with classes that are supposed “GPA boosters,” one will ultimately find that every class is intellectually rigorous. There is no class that operates outside the fundamental archetype of “where fun goes to die.” Moreover, the workload of these classes combined with hopes for future employment keep the student continually postponing enjoyment. In this manner Weber’s comparison of the dominion of capital to an iron cage is especially apt. No matter how much a student may try to escape the pursuit of academic excellence, it always drives actions at the university. “Where fun goes to die” thus tracks with the development of capitalism. Weber elucidates,

In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport (Weber 124).

The same is true with academic excellence at the University of Chicago, the most developed manifestation of the pursuit of knowledge in the service of learning. Stripped of its individual meaning, the individual first-years entering the College associate “where fun goes to die” with a quotidian self-deprecative nod at the workload of UChicago, granting any cynic of the UC idealism social currency on campus. Yet for all the surface-level rejection of the University’s spirit, the collective student body still remains driven by it. Regardless of an individual’s actions, she fundamentally never escapes the societal framework inherited from the social fabric of the University of Chicago.

So remember next time you’re settling down for a long night in the stacks, this isn’t your fault, it isn’t your pushy parents’ fault, it isn’t even UChicago’s fault. It’s capitalism’s fault.

Thanks, Capitalism.

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14 thoughts on “Why You Came to the Place Where Fun Goes to Die

  1. I loved the comparison of the anxiety surrounding salvation in Protestant theology with the uncertainty surrounding future employment in the life of a college student. It is true that none of us are guaranteed a job right out of college, or an admissions letter to a grad program or med school. Nevertheless, we are constantly looking up the statistics on how much the average graduate from each major program makes out of college, and how many applicants to JP Morgan get an internship after graduating. We neurotically check our grades and compare ourselves to our peers, desperately trying to convince ourselves that we will be successful, knowing full well that the economy isn’t doing so well and plenty of college graduates are out of work. Furthermore, if our classmates think that we are smart and successful an good at school, surely future employers will too. So we put on a show of working late in the Reg and pulling all nighters during finals week in an attempt to be the most over-worked, the most studious and the most intelligent. We want our peers to validate how hard we are working and how well we will be prepared for the future. I think this was a fantastic example of the Protestant ethic. It really helped me understand a lot of culture and social structures that came out of the Protestant ethic.

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  2. First of all, this is the most depressing analysis of why people come to this school that I’ve ever seen.

    Moving on, you say that students come to UChicago to torment themselves with rigorous work not only to feel good about getting good grades, but so that in the future they’ll be able to make money off of their degree. But what about those students who heard it was rigorous and came because they genuinely love learning new things, and wanted to go to a school where they would be encouraged to do so? Do they still fit into the capitalist structure, or are they anomalies whose species-being just happened to coincide with what society encourages them to do?

    And you talk about “where fun goes to die” a lot, arguing that it exists because it’s useful for capitalism if we work hard to learn things and then use them to innovate and improve efficiency in production. However, what about our secondary unofficial motto, “That’s all well and good in practice, but how does it work in theory?” UChicago students take pride in learning highly theoretical, “useless” things instead of being more applications-based, like many other schools. Doesn’t this go contrary to the needs of capitalism, though? Capitalism doesn’t care what new philosophical theories people come up with, it just needs technological innovation. So then, how did the school culture develop a mentality that seems so detrimental to the mindset that best serves capitalism?

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    1. This is a very interesting topic that you brought up. What use is philosophical theory to capitalism? Because it has to be of some use to capitalism, since capital is said to be the driving force behind a lot of human action within our society, right? In Chapter 17, Harvey talked about once Capital develops enough, people begin to feel the need to ground themselves in something constant and bigger than themselves to offset the constant change and innovation that is happening around them. It for this reason that there was a big Religious Revival in the 1960s. So maybe our “useless” thinking and higher philosophical theories do not fulfill a need for Capitalism, but is an effect (our response) to Capitalism.

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  3. First, this was beautifully written and the gifs are superb haha. What I would say is, though our motto is, “where fun comes to die”, I would not say that that is indicative of life here at UChicago. Yes it is hard, but I know for a fact that all of my friends are happy here based on aspects of the school independent of the academics. I also don’t know If I agree with the idea that we enjoy the constant stress of extremely rigorous school activity. I know people that purposefully and intensely try to do the bare minimum. This includes taking the maximum GPA boosters and still be able to graduate, sharing homework and any other answers they can possibly get their hands on, and never being caught attending class. It for this reason that I doubt they feel any motivation by our callings. I also know a student that didn’t get ‘good grades’ until her 3rd year at this school. So affirmation in that department was a no go. Maybe I’m just picking out outliers? Or maybe we are only going to this school and toughing out the academics because of the status it gives us once we graduate and that on the contrary, we do have fun?

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  4. I actually find this explanation of the motives of a UChicago student to be quite reassuring; your analysis of Marx and Weber proves that we are not irrationally obsessed with our grades–in the capitalist system, there is purpose and method to our madness. We do not just thrive on external validation, rather, we need to achieve things that are externally validated (like a UChicago degree) because it will secure us good positions in life since society values education that requires more work and sees hard work as moral. One could argue that your third point is depressing, but although capital may be what drives our innovation, one cannot deny that a byproduct of invention is better quality of life for many people. In fact, I would actually argue that some innovation, such as the research done by aid organizations and non-profits, are actually not driven by capital, but are truly altruistic. However, these charitable projects do depend on capital for their success, which ties into your fourth point that an individual really cannot break free of the “capital as the end goal” paradigm– I guess this is because our system was set up on the grounds that hard work is the highest degree of morality, and changing our society now would require shifting the foundations of our values.

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  5. I found the points you made at the end of the second section really interesting, particularly that UChicago students accept their own exploitation because it turns them into more valuable commodities. This is contrary to the idea that some people have: “work hard in college so that you can do whatever you want after you graduate.” Rather, we work hard in college and allow ourselves to be exploited just so that we can be exploited even further in the workforce. It doesn’t matter how prestigious or lucrative our future jobs are, we will still continue to be exploited by capitalist society. Moreover, we’d rather be exploited commodities and be able to reproduce our own labor, than not be exploited (and most likely be unemployed) and therefore be unable to reproduce our own labor.

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  6. Oh my goodness, that was an excellent blog post. It kind of threw me for a loop, especially the first point, because when I was first reading Weber I thought it was kind of ridiculous that people worked so hard because they believed it was their source of salvation. I’m not a religious person, but in reading your post I realized that you’re right in saying we equate “hardworking, competent” people with “good people.” When I slack off on an assignment, I feel bad, not just because I’m going to have to work harder to bring my grade up or because my parents will be disappointed but because I feel like I’ve actively made a decision that makes me a bad person.

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  7. Nice post! The second section really got me thinking about how capitalism shapes our education and our drive for seeking an education at such a demanding university. I never really thought about exploitation in terms of education. I think it’s an interesting take and I can see it as the university accepting our money and labor-power (slaving away at essays and p-sets, etc.) in exchange for knowledge that will be used (exploited) by more capitalists after we graduate. Would professors be part of the exploiting force at work or would that just be members of the administration? Because I assume that since professors work for the university, they act as the managing bodies that Marx mentions that have more power than the other laborers (students) because they watch over them and make sure they’re laboring properly (I guess turning in assignments so that students can be rewarded by grades for their hard work). In this way, the administrators are the capitalists that indirectly interact with the students and their ability to learn. I think it’s interesting to consider Student Government as a union because they’re a group of representative students that voice concerns to the university in the hopes that conditions for learning (/laboring) will improve so that students can get a better reward for their labor.

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  8. I definitely found this article very relatable and it made me think more about my existence as a student here. When I think about things that often make students at Uchicago feel superior to students at other schools, some of the points you bring up in relation to Weber definitely seem to relate. For example, we are “learning for the sake of learning” rather than learning for a job, even though according to Weber that is still the spirit of capitalism, as it it like “working for the sake of working.” We do it maybe because it makes us feel like what we are doing is somehow morally better than “giving in to the system?” We are learning because we value knowledge rather than money, even though we still hope for financial security? Likewise, the spirit of capitalism is working because of the value of work, and money just happens to be a measure of it. This was very interesting, intriguing, and appealing to read.

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  9. I really loved the way you unpacked the Weber in option 1:We’re just a bunch of scared babies trying to cover up our fears in a job well done. Weber’s protestant ethic seems to have so many parallels with our school, even though the population of our school is most likely is less religious than the general population. In terms of our devotion to hard work, I’m reminded of the comparisons you hear between students in the Reg every day. “I have 4 essays due, I haven’t slept in 3 days and I have a midterm in 20 minutes.” “Well I have 8 essays due, 2 midterms tomorrow, and I haven’t been in my dorm since 5th week.” While those are conversations sound silly to the outside observer, they highlight the pride UChicago students take in the amount of work they do. In fact, those comparison almost never end up with someone bragging about the grade they managed – often, students complain about their low grades to display just how much work they have to do for the class and how hard it is. I’m not sure this necessarily speaks to why we stay here so much as why we enjoy it, though. Calvinists were not all Calvinists because they enjoyed working all day, but they found it the best way to deal with their situation, a situation they preferred for other reasons. Students can be here for a multitude of reasons: maybe not salvation (like the Calvinists) but for bragging rights back home, for a good job, or maybe just to be near the city. But while we are here, we certainly find our comfort in how hard our lives supposedly are.

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  10. The titles of each of of the sections were a great way of taking these large scale societal ideas and turning them into very manageable, hilarious snippets. The second one: If we’re going to sell out, we want to be hot commodities. The section did a really cool job of placing us as students into our place in Marx. The idea that we are here because we are going to abstract our labor is very interesting because it sort of flips the script on the way we talked about poor factory workers in Pennsylvania. In that case, people experienced a good thing – technological advancement – as a very, very bad thing – 20 years of unemployment. But here, we are planning to experience something Marx would define as bad – abstraction of labor through wage laboring. But we experience it as something very good – a high salary that provides us the ability to live a life that we believe we deserve or aspire to. But one thing I feel got a bit left out was Marx’s piece about becoming a capitalist. Marx describes a situation where a worker tries to earn enough surplus value for himself that he can afford to pay others to produce, and becomes a capitalist. In my view, this seems to be the goal of many of the students at the University, especially those interested in finance. They are willing to work as wage laborers for a time, until they are able to rise up enough that they no longer work for anybody – they control the wage laborers and they are the capitalists. So while it is true that we are in many ways simply trying to add for value to our labor, many students attend here with the goal of setting themselves up to be the capitalist in the end.

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  11. This was super interesting! Of course capitalism is why we go to college, but I never really put two and two together to gather that capitalism is why UChicago is “where fun goes to die.” Something that interests me is the idea of “work hard play hard” that doesn’t really equate to what Weber is saying about hard work. Theoretically if we work hard it gets us closer to God, but by partying you can assume we get further away. I wonder what Weber would have to say about that.

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  12. I really enjoyed reading this post! I am slightly confused about how wanting to learn for the pure reason to advance knowledge and studying hard to for the purposes of external validation and to have successful careers in the future are able to exist at once. Is the drive to want to advance knowledge for the sake of doing it actually just an appearance of the underlying driving force of capital?
    -Seychelle

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  13. While I really liked the post overall (super comprehensive!), I was a little confused why students couldn’t just leave if they really did realize they didn’t want to go to school at the place “where fun goes to die.” You mentioned that individual students could leave, but students as a whole couldn’t? I was a little unsure what that was about, whether you meant it would be practically difficult to transfer to a different school or that most students choose to stay. It would be interesting, though, as an extension of this to figure out if, by these same principles, students who could afford it and who did well enough truly had a choice regarding whether they would go to a “good” (highly-ranked in US News and whatnot) college.

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