A Sense of Fun

GEORGE F. WILL

November 15, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- When word reached the University of Chicago that a magazine published by Harvard students had ranked 300 universities in terms of the fun to be found there and had ranked Chicago 300th, a Chicago undergraduate, probably bundled up against the razor-like wind off the lake, jauntily said: ''Fun isn't linear.''

His riposte had the wittiness, and the obliqueness, you expect from the school that expresses its intellectual brio in a song: ''Anything you can do, we can do meta.''

If Chicago had not gone, almost ostentatiously, from being a football power -- long ago, under coach Alonzo Stagg -- to seeming to fancy itself too damned serious for such stuff, perhaps it would not have had to suffer so many suggestions that only the slightly weird would choose to enroll there. ''The largest collection of neurotic youths since the Children's Crusades,'' and so on.

The university was founded by a no-nonsense Baptist who did well in the oil business, John D. Rockefeller. His wizened visage -- he, not the sainted Calvin Coolidge, looked as though he had been weaned on a pickle -- suggested a soul lacking a spacious conception of fun. Nowadays freshmen assemble in September for their first lecture, on the aims of education, in the chapel named for him.

For many years the chapel was open 24 hours a day, a policy changed by President Robert Maynard Hutchins because, he said, ''Unfortunately, more souls have been conceived at Rockefeller Chapel than have been saved there.'' See? The libido is frisky at Chicago as well as at Florida State.

In the most recent such address to the freshmen, Professor Richard Shweder of the Department of Psychology offered his listeners some commandments conducive to fun.

First, ''Don't stand up when your professor enters the room.''

Not that there is any danger of an American undergraduate doing that, but in some cultures students do. It is wrong to do it, Mr. Shweder told the freshmen, because we should detach our evaluation of ideas from the social identity of the person voicing them.

It has taken humanity eons to rise -- that portion that has risen -- above the fallacy that all knowledge is parochial and is the property of particular groups. Today we must be vigilant against people who would re-tribalize knowledge. They say there must be a black theory of this and a woman's ''perspective'' on that, and so on. Professor Shweder says, ''The authority of a voice has a lot to do with what is said and very little to do with who says it.''

Another commandment is: ''Never take a Puritan to the Monty Python show.''

A Puritan, says Professor Shweder, exaggerates a virtue until it becomes a vice, and there are as many kinds of Puritans as there are virtues, because any virtue can be overdrawn. A world that looks increasingly like ''Monty Python's Flying Circus'' offends Puritans, who want ''a world governed by some perfectly enforced virtue.'' Imagine the nightmare of such perfect enforcement.

Perfect justice would require a world of watchful accountants and severe prosecutors -- accountants of moral infractions, noting every error, indiscretion or dark desire, and prosecutors enforcing appropriate punishments.

Protecting people from harm also is a virtue, and yet, says Mr. Shweder, if carried too far, the idea that you should protect everyone from everything they might consider harmful is a recipe for ''a society of thin-skinned complainers.'' It would be a society with a constant acid rain of complaints about ''abuse'' or ''harassment'' or -- is this beginning to sound familiar? -- ''victimization.''

Professor Shweder's commandment for preserving equilibrium is: ''There are only two things you need to know to do dermatology.'' They are: ''If it's dry make it wet. If it's wet, make it dry.''

The analogue for Chicago freshmen is: ''If someone asserts it, deny it. If someone denies it, assert it.'' But, says Mr. Shweder, bear in mind that, ''the world is incomplete if seen from any one point of view and incoherent if seen from all points of view at once.''

Such is fun in a cold climate, at the University of Chicago, where, as the professor told the freshmen, ''the brain is an erogenous zone and provocation is a virtue.''

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