Enter the debunking article
Say it is so, Joe
When I worked at a museum, curatorial staff members were always
telling stories. They particularly liked to tell the one about the
“lost office.” Over the main entrance there was an office
occupied by the director, but at some point the museum decided to
brick it up. I’m pretty sure the director was allowed to leave
first, but, museum politics being what they are, you never know.
In telling this story, curators are giving the
visitor “insider knowledge” and a membership badge in
the charmed circle of museum life. We can be quite sure that the
visitor then passes the story along to other visitors, claiming
the social capital that results.
Every institution has such stories, and they
are charming even when they are wrong. They are quirky, imaginative,
and captivating. (“Really, he’s still locked in there?”)
But what they really do is to let us divide the world into insiders
and outsiders, those who know the oral culture and those who don’t,
the ones who belong and the drudges looking in. Little stories are
the stuff of membership.
So what in God’s name did the University
of Chicago Magazine think it was doing in “Myth
Information” (August/04), in which writer Joseph N. Liss
systematically reviews and debunks the stories that circulate on
As students, we loved these stories. We embraced
the idea that Fermi’s “gift” allowed us to glow
in the dark and find our way home after a tough night of study.
Glasses raised, we would toast poor Ida at Jimmy’s bar. We
liked these stories not least because they made us part of an institution
that was, truth be told, pretty hard to belong to.
Like every great university, the U of C is a
difficult place. Most of us felt we were there on sufferance. One
bad paper, a stupid remark in seminar, and they would send us packing.
Chicago gave membership stintingly, and these little stories were
a way we made our own connection. We might be an error away from
ejection, but, hey, we knew the story about Ida Noyes.
Enter Joseph Liss and his debunking article.
Most oral tradition at Chicago turns out to be false. No doubt,
it was satisfying to bring the light of reason to our Pope-ish superstition,
but, really, Mr. Liss, what have you accomplished? You have stripped
the institution of an essential resource and the very stuff of membership.
You have denied students the small points of purchase that secured
them in a vertiginous world. Well done, Mr. Liss. Perhaps the University
can make amends by walling you into an office somewhere…that
the oral tradition might once again begin to flourish.
Grant McCracken, AM’76, PhD’81
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